Divided loyalties on Brooklyn's Brighton Beach

Divided loyalties among America's Russian immigrants.

Alison Myers in the national reporter for CBC Radio based in Calgary

A steel canopy looms above Brighton Beach Ave. in Brooklyn, N.Y., casting a shadow over the busy scene on the street below.

Shops and restaurants line the sidewalk, some with tables set up to tempt passers-by with the culinary reminders of another world: Pastries, dumplings, even pop that comes from all over the Caucasus.

Cafe Georgia, in New York's Little Odessa, Brighton Beach Ave. in Brooklyn. ((Alison Myers/CBC))

Out of nowhere, a thunderous roar clamours overhead. It's the New York City subway bringing in another load of shoppers. This happens with deafening regularity and yet people here seem not to notice. They carry on talking as if they can still hear each other's words.

For some, though, it is another incursion — Russia's recent military foray into neighbouring Georgia — that is clearly weighing heavily on their minds.

Forty-six -year-old Tibua Tengiz has been leaning against the same lamppost for the past half hour. Subways come and go. Diners enter and leave his restaurant.

But his mind is focused on one thing: The next phone call to his son and daughter back in Georgia to make sure they are safe.

A community divided

"It's sad for him and for all the Georgians," Catherine Groysman yells over the roar of another train.

Groysman is from New York. But she married into this community and is now watching her family struggle to cope with the aftermath of a conflict a world away that no one really understands.

"They don't sleep because they're thinking about their families back home. He's stressed out, the cook in the back… it's hard. It's like everyone is walking around as if they're zombies or something."

Inside Café Georgia, a handful of diners are straddling the line between a late lunch and early dinner. But behind the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen, Tatia Babayeva is rummaging through the freezer and tending to frying pans with distracted intensity.

She is losing herself in her work, offering diners comfort food and a taste of home. In return, they offer her a chance to stop thinking about Georgia. Otherwise, all she would do is cry.

Drinking to Georgia

By the front window, a group of young men sits drinking to Georgia. The tasselled curtains keep what light there is from the covered street from seeping inside, a welcome atmosphere considering the near empty 26-ouncer of vodka that sits on the table before them.

The Brighton Beach boardwalk in Brooklyn, waiting on the summer crowds. ((Alison Myers/CBC))

"It don't make no sense what is going on right now," Alex Janashvili exclaims overtop of the chorus of Georgian. The vodka seems to have made his buddies talkative but he's the only one who has volunteered to translate their words into English.

One of his friends gets close to his face and gestures, as if Janashvili is the target of his vehemence.

"This is tough guy," he offers as an explanation.

"Political people can do whatever they want," he says, interpreting his friend's outburst. "But people are dying for nothing. Some president got a problem with another president and the people who have nothing to do with it are dying for nothing. That's it."

A sense of home

Back in the Caucasus, Russians and Georgians are more divided than their geographic borders ever accomplished. Here in Brooklyn, the lines are somewhat blurred.

"Over here, everything is great," Janashvili explains. "I understand what's going on over there. It's all about politicians. We're cool with everyone here. All my Russian friends, they said whatever Russia is doing right now is not the right thing."

The reason why this place has earned the nickname Little Odessa is just a block away:  The Atlantic Ocean reminds the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian ex-pats that have immigrated to the U.S. of the Black Sea, the water that laps all their home shores.

Back home, the water makes no distinction between their countries and here in Brooklyn the ex-pats try to live by the same philosophy. America, after all, is supposed to be the land where you can put your past behind and focus on the opportunity of a fresh start.

But for some in this community, the conflict overseas is drawing a new border in Little Odessa, one that has Matvey Nurgaliev eating lunch at a Russian restaurant instead of enjoying the fruits of Babayeva's labour.

The Siberian native prefers Café Georgia but can't bring himself to eat there today. He says it will likely be months before he feels comfortable walking through its doors even though he hasn't tested the mood of the café since the conflict began almost two weeks ago.

"I would love to go right now," Nurgaliev says. "It's our favourite spot. But I think it would be awkward. We're the bad guys to them. They didn't do anything bad to us. I wouldn't risk it."