For Ukrainians in Dubai, a new restaurant offers a taste of home
DUBAI — Off the coast of Dubai, on an upscale, artificial island shaped like a palm tree, Ukrainian visitors and expatriates have found a taste of home.
The smell of freshly baked bread and a crackling wood fire permeate Yoy, a new Ukrainian restaurant that's the first of its kind in the United Arab Emirates. The vibe feels at ease, helped by a design aesthetic of neutral colors. Ukrainian music, sometimes in live performance, is playing. Servers welcome guests at the door in Ukrainian. Its popular beet stew, borsch, is prepared by Ukrainian chefs and brought to tables in a heavy black pot supported by a long stick.
In line with the United Arab Emirates' Muslim dietary guidelines, the menu doesn't include pork. Sliced coconut serves as a replacement in one dish. The restaurant does serve alcohol, though, with drinks like "Kyiv nights" mixing the warm flavors of bourbon, spiced rum, apricot whiskey and roasted chestnut.
Yoy opened a few months ago, but some diners say they've already come three and four times because there's no place quite like this in Dubai.
"It just reminds me how much I love Ukraine... it's a piece of home in my heart," says Maria Sokolova, who fled years ago when fighting erupted in her home city of Donetsk in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
Sokolova says the only way to visit her mother and sister there now is to travel through Russia. That's not something she's willing to do. Her trip last year to visit other relatives in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, was pierced by the war.
She's dining at Yoy with Iryna Klevetenko, from Kyiv. Both women have been living in the United Arab Emirates for several years. They're enjoying borsch on Yoy's outdoor terrace overlooking a dancing fountain and the landmark Atlantis resort hotel.
Klevetenko says the bling and luxury of Dubai feel surreal as she grapples with horrors of news from the war in her country. The war changed her priorities.
"Before, you were, like, I want Dolce and Gabbana bag," she said. "Now it's like, who cares about Dolce and Gabbana bag. We just want war to finish, that's it."
The UAE has refused to pick sides in the conflict
Yoy, which means "Wow" in Ukrainian, sits a few doors down from a popular Russian restaurant, Chalet Berezka, that's packed for a game night promising free drinks for the winning table. There are several Russian restaurants on The Palm island, catering to the many Russians who've moved to the UAE and set up businesses since the start of the war nearly a year ago. Some came to escape the draft and others to escape the web of Western sanctions targeting Russia.
The UAE does not release detailed population figures, so it's not publicly known exactly how many Russians have moved to Dubai and other emirates in the past year. But last year, Russians were the top international buyers of real estate in Dubai, according to Better Homes real estate company. In schools, non-English-speaking Russian children flood classrooms.
The UAE does not take in refugees or asylum seekers, but is open to skilled workers whose local employers sponsor their visas. New visa schemes allow international investors setting up businesses or buying multimillion-dollar properties to secure long-term residency.
Like other Gulf countries, the UAE has refused to pick sides in the conflict. It has maintained close ties with Russia and is in talks for a free trade agreement with Ukraine. The UAE's openness to Russian investments and those escaping the impact of sanctions has become a source of concern for the United States.
The Ukrainian restaurant attracts Russian diners too
Max, a Russian IT entrepreneur, chose to dine at Yoy on a recent evening. He only gives his first name, concerned about potential repercussions for his business from speaking freely about the war.
His table offers a snapshot of the complexities of the war and the people caught in it. He's dining with his Ukrainian girlfriend and a couple from Crimea, territory annexed by Russia. They once held Ukrainian passports, but identified themselves to NPR as Russian.
Max says he's come to a Ukrainian restaurant "because this kitchen and this culture is very close to us."
"I feel them like brothers and sisters," he says, describing the war as "a big mess and big mistake."
Yoy's operations manager, Natalia Skripnik, says the restaurant welcomes everyone, no matter their nationality.
"Our doors are open for all," she says, though she acknowledges that "Ukrainians have some hard feelings."
"It's a dark time for our country," she adds.
Yoy provides a connection to home
For Ukrainians living in the UAE, Yoy offers more than just familiar dishes. It provides a connection to Ukraine, serving also as a cultural space for Ukrainian events, Skripnik says.
Artem Kulaga is dining at Yoy's long wooden table with mismatched seating that's meant to resemble the kind of dinner in Ukraine's countryside where neighbors gather and break bread together. The table is adorned with golden-colored wheat centerpieces, representing Ukraine's key export to the world.
Kulaga has lived most of his life in Europe, and he worries that visiting Ukraine now might lead to being drafted to fight.
He's in the UAE on a stopover, and is struck by the many Russian speakers in Dubai. He wondered where he could hear Ukrainian spoken. A quick search online led him to Yoy. Kulaga says the menu reminds him of his childhood in Ukraine.
"I felt like I came back home. All the people around, just feeling the language," he says.
A profound disconnect between old and new lives
The color palette inside the restaurant is muted — beige, soft whites, earthy tones of green, brown and yellow reflect the colors of Ukraine's landscape. It gives the place a distinctly different feel from the neon-lit restaurant serving other international food next door.
Some 4,000 tiles, exported from the western city of Lviv, adorn the restaurant's walls. The tableware is a traditional Kosiv ceramic, pottery that dates back to the 18th century and is distinguished by its green and yellow colors.
A large chandelier overhead was crafted to mimic a stork's nest. The bird symbolizes springtime and new life in Ukraine, Skripnik says. The servers' outfits, with splashes of traditional stitching and patterns, were made by a Ukrainian designer.
Elena Volkovtska says the vibe at Yoy gives her a feeling of being "a little bit closer to my home."
Volkovtska lives in Dubai, but hails from Mariupol. For weeks, she had no contact with her family as Russia bombarded and captured the city. Thousands reportedly died. Her parents eventually fled, but their home was destroyed.
As she prepares to dig into a bowl of borsch, she recognizes how distant the war in Ukraine is from her life here. The serenity of the moment is complicated. The war still looms large.
"When you are sitting here and everything is nice and calm," she says, "and you know what's going on in your country, you just don't know how to behave."
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