Nestled within the historic Ambler Train Station, patrons of the upscale French restaurant La Provence enjoy not just the food but also the warm smile of 20-year-old busser Yaroslava "Yasia" Chala.
Nestled within the historic Ambler Train Station, patrons of the upscale French restaurant La Provence enjoy not just the food but also the warm, seemingly ever-present smile of 20-year-old busser Yaroslava "Yasia" Chala. She arrived in the U.S. with her mother last August, and is grateful for her job and the kindness of her coworkers and customers. However, behind her cheerful demeanor lies a deep sadness for the family and friends she left behind in her war-torn homeland of Ukraine.
Chala's journey to America began with a terrifying awakening. "I remember the first day of the war like it was yesterday," she recalled during a recent interview at the restaurant. "It was the scariest day of my life. I heard airplanes above us, and then the bombs dropped.” Four months later, another close call with a missile prompted Chala and her mother, Nataliia, to flee their 25th-floor apartment in Kiev.
The pair are among the more than 110,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the U.S. through the Biden administration's Uniting for Ukraine program. The initiative grants humanitarian status for up to two years to displaced Ukrainians with a U.S. sponsor. For Chala, that sponsor was her father, who had already settled in Ambler with the help of the same program.
Chala faced a steep learning curve as she worked to improve her English. "I did study English at home in school, but I was poor at it when I arrived here," she said. "I always talk to customers, staff, and other people as much as I can, and my English has improved." Within seven months, her language skills progressed to the point where patrons at La Provence didn't realize she wasn't a native-born American.
Despite the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country, Chala continues to pursue her studies in telecommunications and marketing through remote classes and exams at her Ukrainian university. She remains determined to graduate on time and hopes to find a job in her field after completing her degree. With the support of her father's friend, who immigrated from Ukraine 30 years ago and owns a telecommunications company in the area, Chala is optimistic about her future prospects in the United States.
Chala's family also made the difficult journey to America. Her older brother, Yurii, arrived in the U.S. before her, while her younger brother, Artiem, joined them a month later. Artiem now cooks at La Provence alongside his girlfriend, also a Ukrainian refugee. Chala's father, Andrii, drives people to and from Philadelphia International Airport for work, while her mother, Nataliia, continues to adjust to her new life in Ambler.
Chala's grandparents remain in Ukraine, and she stays in touch with them weekly. "I talk to my grandmoms every week," she said. "One is in the hospital now with heart trouble, which was made worse by the war."
The ongoing conflict weighs heavily on Chala's mind, and she keeps up with news from her homeland, hoping for an end to the hostilities that have forced millions of Ukrainians to seek refuge in other countries.
La Provence co-owner Cindy Jiménez said Chala and her brother have been a big help in the restaurant. "Their hard work, determination, and professionalism are to be admired, and we are lucky to have them as part of the La Provence family.”
As Chala adjusts to American life, she marvels at the kindness of strangers and the vast differences between her old and new homes, from the enormous portions of food to the sprawling King of Prussia Mall.
"The portions of food here are huge! I went to Sam's Club and wanted one portion of noodles. I wound up with a box of 18 packages of noodles!” she said. “Also, lots of people jog here, much more than back home. And the King of Prussia Mall is so huge. Nothing like that in Ukraine. You need a whole day to go through it."
There’s also a significant difference in the way people behave.
"In Ukraine, people do not smile much, even before the war. (A vestige, perhaps, of decades under Nazi and Soviet occupation.) Here, people smile. People in stores are helpful, patient, kind. I was surprised at that. Strangers walking their dogs smile and say 'hi,' and they don't know I'm from Ukraine."
Chala credits much of her success in her new life to the restaurant's staff and customers, who have embraced her – offering not just a job but also a sense of belonging in a foreign land.
"I started working here in October, and I love the atmosphere here. The owners, managers, and servers are all so supportive and patient with me," she said.
Still, Chala dreams of returning to Ukraine when the war ends. Despite her appreciation for the support and opportunities she has found here, she still feels a deep connection to her homeland.
"I really want to go back home when the war is over and see my old friends," she said.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org