LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – In 2016, Oleksandra Kozyriatska came from Ukraine to work at Fort William Henry Hotel in the village of Lake George. She worked in the candy apple shop operated inside the hotel, as well as at the Lake George Steamboat Company, and spent the summer improving her English and making lasting connections with people far from home.
Now, Kozyriatska is back in Ukraine. As of Thursday, she was in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, where she and her neighbors watch as the city prepares for a full blockade as the invasion of the country by Russia continues. It’s a very different type of thing to see in ones’ daily life rather than blue water and the Adirondack mountains.
“They’re doing a lot of barricades, so we are prepared. The army is here,” Kozyriatska described on a Tuesday morning Zoom call.
Kozyriatska is one of countless people all over the world who have come and visited Lake George for a summer as part of a J-1 visa student worker program. International student workers make up an enormous portion of the region’s seasonal workforce, from the mammoth Six Flags Great Escape down to local restaurants and marinas. At Fort William Henry, Kozyriatska was one of around 80 to 90 international workers employed in 2016, the normal given for a season.
Lake George wasn’t Kozyriatska’s first time traveling abroad – she had lived with an aunt in Germany for a few months in 2014 – but Lake George was unique in a few ways. She was a student in linguistics, hoping at the time to end up as a translator. Working in the village certainly helped that skill, but it also expanded her view of American culture.
“Those people that I met there in America, those were like my family,” Kozyriatska said. “I had thought American people were hollow, and that they didn’t understand what was happening in another country. Maybe the second one is true, because they are in another country, but the first one is very different. They are very similar to Ukrainians.”
Kozyriatska found those similarities, and some lifelong friends along with them, speaking highly of her manager, Michelle, who she says watched out for her. Connections with the rest of the world have been an extra lifeline in the last couple of weeks. Kozyriatska was in Kyiv until February 22 and came to Zaporizhzhia to take her driver’s test. Needless to say, she stayed where she was once the attacks began, but her boyfriend remained in Kyiv for the first day, and then traveled with his parents to central Ukraine for their safety.
Meanwhile, in the village of Lake George, those connections are just as important for those who have them. Anthony Merrill, Project Manager at Fort William Henry, knows Kozyriatska and many other Ukrainians who have worked at the hotel over the years.
“I think it was around 2015, -16, -17, we had a lot of Ukrainian students,” recalled Merrill, who worked in the hotel coffee shop with some Ukrainian students. “It’s so great, that program, because of the information exchange. They improve their English, work on their studies, make money and send it home to their families.”
While workers were in town for the summer, Merrill would make an effort to take them around to places in the Lake George and Saratoga Springs areas. That led to lasting friendships being formed, most notably one with a man named Pavlo, who Merrill kept up with, and visited in Ukraine in the winter of 2016.
Merrill visited Pavlo’s hometown on the southeast coast of Ukraine – an area now occupied by Russia – and met family who made him feel as much at home as he had tried to make every visiting student in Lake George.
“They were so kind and welcoming and warm, and really just wanted to make sure that somebody visiting their home had a nice time and a little bit of that local flavor,” Merrill said. “When we went to his grandmother’s, it was close to orthodox New Year’s, so she had this big spread of dish after dish after dish. Every time I thought we were done, there was another dish.”
Fast forward, and Pavlo’s story over the last two weeks has become another one of separation. He and his wife, who married just 9 months ago, lived in Kyiv, and fled to stay with family when the invasion started. Now, his wife, Dasha, has fled with other women and children, while Pavlo and other men in similar situations have stayed behind. Pavlo is with his sister and parents in Berdyansk, which has since been occupied by Russian troops.
The majority of Ukrainians Merrill has kept in touch with lived in or around Kyiv, and all of the ones he’s heard from were staying alert when the occupation began, keeping gas tanks filled and bags packed. Some stay with family, others with friends, and all have done what they can to support the effort to get Russia out of the country. Many are volunteering for the military; Pavlo is working to fight disinformation and propaganda campaigns online.
Despite the shock and turmoil of the last week, there’s hope in the air for Ukrainians who have managed to stay safe. Kozyriatska laughs when COVID-19 comes up, saying that she feels the pandemic has essentially left the public consciousness. Her landlord’s husband just tested positive, but there’s a sense of “bigger things to worry about.” It’s part of the reason she doesn’t intend to try and leave Ukraine unless things get significantly worse.
“I think it’s important to stay, because I’ve never seen Ukraine and its people like this,” she said. “We are truly connected by the spirit that we will win, and things will be normal again, and Putin will leave the country, and we will be free from the occupation. I’ve never seen Ukrainians like that.”
Kozyriatska has joined the effort by keeping soldiers fed, and buying food supplies for those fighting. It’s not what she expected to be doing in her off-time from working remotely in the IT business.
Back in Lake George, the COVID-19 pandemic shut most would-be J-1 visa workers out in 2020. Fort William Henry only got a handful from Jamaica. That made filling housekeeping and other roles nearly impossible, with a local worker base that simply was not there in large enough numbers to fill over 80 spots. Things got better in 2021, and Merrill hopes that trend will continue this year.
On March 1, the U.S. Mission to Ukraine announced that no visa services could be offered to Ukrainian citizens at this time. Every summer, Lake George’s student workers come in and take a place, not as visitors, but as part of the core community – even if only for a few summer months. Their absence will be a hole that the village hates to see unfilled when the weather gets warm.
“It shrinks here in the winter,” said Merrill. “A lot of smaller businesses close, and it really shrinks down to just a core group of hotels and restaurants.”
Many like Kozyriatska and Pavlo have had to flee their homes during the crisis in Ukraine. Merrill recommends finding relief funds that help citizens to find shelter as the occupation develops.