Yulia Zmyzhova Shamas emigrated to the United States 15 years ago from Ukraine—first to California, then followed her sister to New Orleans. Early in her arrival to the Crescent City, she applied for a server position at Bacco, a former concept of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. Fast forward to present day, and Yulia is now a Manager at Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unfolded on the world stage, she agreed to share her experience, “a nightmare,” and all the emotions, unrelenting love and concern for her beloved homeland, family and people.
“My life has been on hold since February 24 when the invasion began,” Yulia explained. “At first it was shock and disbelief. I found myself less attentive to my child and work, and I was simply going through the motions in those first days.”
Yulia’s parents, particularly her father, who at 63 has vivid memories of U.S.S.R. control of his country is adamant about staying. Although her family is located on the Western side of the country near Poland, where nearly a million Ukrainians have fled thus far, she said her father “is ready to pick up a weapon and defend his country.”
Her sister, brother-in-law and three-year-old niece are also of great concern. She was able to convince her sister to leave with her child for Germany. Her brother-in-law is required to stay and fight when the time comes.
“My screen time has been upwards of 10 hours a day since this started, just reading news. Mardi Gras was particularly challenging for Yulia. “I unfortunately could not relate and enjoy the celebration while my people were simultaneously being bombed and killed,” she said. “I felt so helpless.”
What is one of your fondest memories from while in the Ukraine?
We cherish our religious freedom, especially holidays like Christmas and Easter. We celebrate by going to church, wearing our Ukrainian national costumes and making Paska bread—a tradition passed down from grandmother to mother, and mother to daughter. It’s a lot like gumbo because every family has their own recipe. We paint eggs and wear our best clothes beginning Good Friday through Easter Sunday.
What do you most celebrate about being Ukrainian?
It’s the connections we have with each other… it’s warm, welcoming and supportive. For example, I was there in January and had a minor medical issue. My father called a doctor who was a friend of his, and I was able to see him the next day, with no appointment and at no charge. This type of kindness is common among my people. Most times you don’t even have to ask.
What do you want people to know about what’s happening in your homeland?
My people are strong, and they are fighters. I don’t want Russia to take our freedom of speech or religion away, or our decision to join the European Union. Right now, Russia is destroying my country and attempting to steal the future of my parents, my sister, my niece…and our entire nation.
Can you recall an influential woman who mentored or shaped you into the strong woman and mother you are today? When I was at university, I had to write a paper explaining why I deserved one of two scholarships available to study in Germany. I was stalled and losing confidence until an instructor gave me inspiring pep talk and told me I was underestimating myself and to take some time before giving it another try. I wrote the essay and ultimately won one of the scholarships. I went to study in Western Germany and traveled to Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands, paid in full, and had the time of my life. I still recall that instructor as being someone who was fair, compassionate, recognized my successes and encouraged me.
In 2016, Yulia was nominated for the National Restaurant Association’s Faces of Diversity Award. She has also been featured in the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s magazine and as spokeswoman for women in the New Orleans hospitality industry by the city’s tourism promotion and marketing organization—New Orleans & Co.
“Even though I have American citizenship, I am first a Ukrainian,” Yulia said. “I’m so proud of my nation and grateful to the Ukrainian soldiers who are standing up for our freedom and democracy. The American government has made it easier for Ukrainian family members of U.S. citizens to get a visa and take refuge out of harm’s way. I’m grateful for that, too.”
Yulia is married to Brian Shamas and together they have a daughter named Leila.
Story originally posted on March 8, 2022.