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A Dubai restaurant offers Ukrainians a taste of home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a new restaurant for Ukrainians in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Like a lot of restaurants there, it is upscale and chic. It is also proudly Ukrainian from the decor to the cuisine. NPR's international correspondent Aya Batrawy met Ukrainians there who yearn for a taste of home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: The smell of freshly baked bread at a crackling wood-fire oven permeate the Yoy restaurant. It seems everyone is here for the same thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Borscht.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The borscht.

BATRAWY: You're eating the borscht?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Of course (laughter). What else?

BATRAWY: Yoy's borscht is prepared by chefs from Ukraine and served with a long stick carrying a heavy black pot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yoy borscht.

BATRAWY: Yoy's operations manager Natalia Skripnik says she saw a customer cry after tasting the borscht here.

NATALIA SKRIPNIK: He was like, oh, my God, I couldn't try that for a long time. And it's so tasty, and it's so delicious, and it's so Ukrainian (laughter).

BATRAWY: For Ukrainians living abroad, this restaurant offers more than just familiar dishes. It provides a connection with Ukraine, a nation at war, fighting for its existence and way of life.

ELENA VOLKOVTSKA: You know, when you see the people, when you are speaking your language and they are laughing to you, they're smiling to you, and you feel this connection, it's something incredible. I cannot explain with words because it's something inside you.

BATRAWY: That's Elena Volkovtska. She lives in Dubai, but grew up in Mariupol. For weeks, she had no contact with her parents trapped there as Russia bombarded and captured the city. They fled eventually, but their homes were destroyed. Yoy resembles home with a modern twist. Its walls are lined with thousands of tiles imported from the Ukrainian city of Lviv. The tableware is a traditional Kosiv ceramic. The servers' outfits are made by a Ukrainian designer. A wooden table 42 feet long creates the kind of Ukrainian dinner vibe of neighbors in the countryside gathering to break bread. The chandelier mimics a stork's nest, a bird symbolizing springtime and new life in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A WHOLE NEW WORLD")

MENA MASSOUD: (Singing) A whole new world.

NAOMI SCOTT: (Singing) A whole new world.

MASSOUD: (Singing) That's where we'll be.

SCOTT: (Singing) That's where we'll be.

BATRAWY: The seating overlooks a fountain and a plaza where music plays Disney's "A Whole New World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A WHOLE NEW WORLD")

MENA MASSOUD AND NAOMI SCOTT: (Singing) For you and me.

BATRAWY: Fitting for a swanky place like Dubai that draws people seeking prosperity and safety. That goes for Ukrainians and Russians. In the restaurant is Max, a Russian IT entrepreneur with a business in Dubai who brought his Russian co-workers to live here.

MAX: I believe that right now happening is a big mess and big mistake in general. These two nations, Russia and Ukraine, shouldn't fight, absolutely should not fight.

BATRAWY: Max would only give his first name, concerned about repercussions against his business from speaking freely about the war. His table offers a snapshot of the complexities of this war and the people caught in it. He's actually here with his Ukrainian girlfriend and a couple from Crimea, Ukrainian territory that Russia annexed in 2014.

MAX: I was born in Moscow, in Russia, but I came to a Ukrainian restaurant because this kitchen and this culture is very close to us, honestly speaking. It's not about politics. I feel them like brothers and sisters.

BATRAWY: At a table near him, I meet a Ukrainian woman from Kyiv. Her name is Iryna Klevetenko. She says she was unnerved by the sheer number of Russians she was encountering in the UAE as her parents faced Russia's invasion back home.

IRYNA KLEVETENKO: Like you are here, but you are not here. You're flying somewhere. Like, I was like a zombie. Especially when we would, like, hear Russian-speaking people, it was like a disaster, to be honest.

BATRAWY: She says it still feels surreal, all the opulence and luxury in Dubai. The war changed her priorities.

KLEVETENKO: You know, before you were like, oh, I want Dolce & Gabbana. Now it's like, who cares about Dolce & Gabbana bag, you know? We just want war to finish. That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATRAWY: Outside by the fountain, just a few doors down from Yoy, Russians pack a restaurant for a game night of free drinks. The war in Ukraine is a world away. And for now, this is an escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATRAWY: Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.