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Greek Restaurant Stands Strong in Support of Ukrainian People
July 22, 2022
By Stephanie Lemesianou
Natalia Dits hangs up a t-shirt in support of Ukraine at Gregory's Corner Taverna in Astoria. Photo by Stephanie Lemesianou
ASTORIA – “I put it up because I’m Ukrainian,” Natalia Dits, 48, said, explaining why a Ukrainian flag adorns the entrance of a Greek-owned restaurant.
Walking into Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna in Astoria, Queens, one is immediately greeted by Dits’ gentle “hello.” Her warm smile never fades, despite the grief that has been building up behind it in the last five months. An employee at the restaurant since 2005, Dits has always felt comfortable there, but in recent months, it has become a haven for her and other Ukrainians in the borough.
Born in the city of Odessa, Dits left home in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to study international relations, economics and politics in Poland. Eventually, she made her way in Queens, where she now lives with her Greek-American husband and two children.
When the news of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine broke out on February 24, Dits was alerted in the middle of the night by friends who were in shock. She described that first week as the worst of her life, as she was trying to convince her sister to leave Ukraine.
“After I knew that she was safe, I started to think what can we do about helping others,” she said.
At first, the idea was to collect money for an organization, but soon Dits realized that many Ukrainians she knew were in direct need of help. With some of her colleagues, they donated tips for a couple of weeks. Soon, the entire community also stepped in to help.
“Our friends from the restaurant were so generous and with tears in their eyes, they would bring this money and would say they would help with anything,” Dits said.
Bit by bit, the restaurant was filling up with blue and yellow signs of support: handmade posters, miniature toothpick flags, flowers and even candy. During her shifts, Dits wore a small Ukrainian pin on her apron, proudly letting customers know of her roots.
“The other day I had a customer who came over and he goes ‘Slava Ukraini!’ It’s like a password,” she said.
While most customers found comfort in the details that Dits carefully installed, one seemed to take great offense. Dits described an incident where someone harassed her and tried to take down the Ukrainian flag on their way out. “It was crazy,” she said. “It gave me a lot of blood pressure.”
The restaurant owner, Gregory Bletsas, was not worried about losing customers over the decorations and expressed his regret for not being present during the incident. “There was not a question about it. He was 150% for it,” Dits said.
Five months into the war and with over 5.8 million refugees recorded across Europe, Dits believes that the only way that governments will take more action is if the people continue to apply pressure.
When asked how other employers can help Ukrainian employees like her cope with their sustained devastation, Dits expressed that it all comes down to humanity.
“Listen, it’s just to be a person,” she said. “If you are a person, if you are a human being, you will know what to do.”
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