Foreign Employees Perk Up Cafe Conversation

Siberian, Ukrainian Staffers Discuss Goals and Impressions of U.S. at How You Brewin'
By MARIA SCANDALE | Jun 05, 2019
Photo by: Maria Scandale

Surf City — Conversation over coffee gets interesting when the talk is with foreign workers spending the summer at a Surf City internet cafe. Start with the fact that Umida Li came all the way from Siberia. Vira Kondrtyuk is from Ukraine.

They work side-by-side at How You Brewin’ with other college students whose home is just down the road.

Li flew for more than 10 hours across Siberia to the city where she could apply for the J-1 work visa, all the time nervous that she would be denied. Instead, the enabling paperwork took 10 minutes.

“I never thought I would come to the U.S. and there would be work here; I never thought it was possible,” she said.

Kondrtyuk, 19, had been in the U.S. before, but to the quite different landscape of Montana. She was an exchange student in high school, “getting to know the culture and experiencing life here.”

“I decided to come for the simple reason to get a summer job this time,” she said. “That is quite a common practice at my university where I study communications; it’s in Lithuania. It’s a nice way to make money, travel in another country, and not stay at home. A lot of students at my university pay tuition themselves, instead of their parents, so they have to find a job for the summer.”

Despite interest in her studies, Kondrtyuk admits that she doesn’t “know what I want to be in life; that’s why I like traveling so much.”

“It helps me to experience more,” she elaborated. “In the last two years I’ve been to more than 10 countries and it changes me every time, to meet people who do similar things to what I do, and just see how they figured it out.”

They had expressed interest in How You Brewin’ from an InterExchange data base of potential employers. In turn, shop owners Dan and Lori Malay chose them in an interview process (see more about the process in an adjoining story).

Kondrtyuk said this job is helping her “in terms of building relationships.” She talked about the importance of working as a team.

“Communicating with the customers, working in a team in general, that’s a big thing. I probably won’t be working at a coffee shop in the future, but the skill of working in a team, helping each other and asking if everyone is okay and having a good day, that is an important thing.”

A pleasant greeting is the norm at the coffee shop, but customers of the foreign-born staff can’t help but perk up with interest when they hear how far the two are from home.

Siberia? “Yeah, from winter!” Li returns her answer.

Her town of Surgut is populated by 350,000. Surf City in the off-season seemed desolate to her. “When I first came here, I thought, ‘no one lives here!’ No one was outside; it was empty.”

The impact of summer soon showed itself. “Here, everyone uses a car to move.”

So many factors came together to allow the two girls to become the asset that they are at How You Brewin’.

This is another year when, Island-wide, the number of summer jobs outpaces the number of staff. The crews in a summer resort must forfeit the beach to work full-time, and also be able to secure housing in an affluent area.

Enter another fortuitous factor: rooms were offered by a veteran employee, Slobodanka Aleksic Dinis, who wanted to help someone in the way others helped her to get a foothold here after coming from postwar Bosnia. Kondrtyuk had secured a job on Long Island, N.Y., but no housing arrangement was available, so she came here.

The salary is a world apart from back home.

Even at current minimum wage levels in New Jersey, they would be making 10 times the average wage back home. Kondrtyuk would earn $150 per month at a minimum wage job in Ukraine. She had no trouble obtaining a J-1 visa, but did have to pay a portion of next year’s school tuition to show she intended to come home.

The first question Kondrtyuk finds herself explaining is that “Ukraine is not Russia; lots of people confuse it.”

The two young women discussed their situations, impressions of the U.S. and personal goals after they clocked out from the busiest Memorial weekend in recent memory. Pulling themselves up at the table to smile through tiredness, they could have used a cup of coffee like they had served since 6:30 in the morning.

“It’s good when you go to bed early and wake up early,” Li commented. “And when it’s busy, it’s good. Times goes fast.”

In America for the first time, 23-year-old Li is living a dream, with another in progress.

“Actually, I have a dream,” Li shared. “I want to be a flight attendant with Emirates Airline. When I decided to become a flight attendant my English level was not good; it just was beginner. I decided to learn English,” she continued. She also speaks Korean, along with her native languages of Russian and Uzbekistan.

The spectacle of Manhattan within reach was an attraction to finding a job in the Northeast. Said Li, “I always dreamed about, to visit one time New York City. It’s like,” she paused, “the capital of the world.”

Several things surprised her about Long Beach Island, one being the governmental structure.

“That there are six police departments in such a small place,” Li shook her head, trying to make sense of it. “The officers come in here and they have different uniforms on ...”

Indeed, the question of why Island services are not more consolidated has been asked by business people since at least 1914, when it appears in the minutes of the first chamber of commerce meetings. The pros and cons, that’s another story.

For their host, Dinis, it is rewarding to know she is giving the girls a home base.

“I’ve been through it and know what they need and how they feel.”

The Bosnian native’s experience was different in that she “didn’t speak any English whatsoever.” The owners of Drifting Sands Motel at the time were her sponsor, and 7-Eleven as a second job “gave me a chance and put me to work.” Also, she sought permanent residency. that took six years, after which she went back to Bosnia for the first time and saw her family. “After that it took another five years to get citizenship here.”

The partnership is working. Dinis’ Ukrainian guest smiled as she said, “Actually, I don’t feel far away from home; I don’t know why.” She added, “I feel in her house that I am at home.”

Said Li,” We actually cried when we had our first dinner with Slobe’s family. We just felt so blessed to have met people like Slobe, like Dan and Lori, and I feel so thankful to them.”

“First of all, living in someone’s family, you have to adjust,” Kondrtyuk pointed out.

“You have to find common ground with people and make sure that wherever you go further in life, when you meet people, you make them your family, and build strong relationships with people.”

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