CLEVELAND, Ohio – As Cleveland chef Natasha Pogrebinsky works, as she prepares food, frustration rises about what is happening to the people in her native country of Ukraine.
And from that frustration comes a plea: People need to educate themselves about refugees.
“Refugees are a real thing and happen every day,” she said while taking a break from running the kitchen at The South Side in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. “Don’t just put a cause on your Instagram because it’s popular right now. Refugees are not going to go away after this. They were here before this.”
Ukrainian culture, she said, has been relegated to “the back burner for many, many years.” Unfortunately, it’s taking a bloody invasion to raise awareness about the country of almost 44 million people.
“Please go out and read and get educated,” she said. “Don’t wait until a catastrophe happens, until the war happens. Ukrainian-Americans, Russian-Americans, Palestinian-Americans all live next door to you, every day. Take the time to find out who your fellow Americans are. Ukrainians have been coming here for years, Russians have been coming here. Refugees come here for a reason. And it didn’t start two weeks ago.”
It’s something that hits close to home for Pogrebinsky, who was born in Kyiv and came to this country when she was 10.
“One thing that I can speak to directly is being a Ukrainian refugee,” she said. “You don’t really get those stories, and that hits home. For me, that’s super important. I want to take this opportunity to kind of reach out to Clevelanders, because those people are going to need our attention.”
Immigrants who come to America have their challenges, though they might have some family here. Refugees often have to suddenly leave their home and everything they have. After Pogrebinsky came here, she experienced bullying from fourth grade until she got to college.
“Kids grow up hearing terrible things in the home,” she said, “and sometimes they don’t grow out of it.”
She heard ignorant comments like ‘You’re a communist,’ she said.
“What does culture and language have to do about going to war?” she said.
Classmates might not have understood why she could speak Ukrainian and Russian. But she doesn’t complain, saying teachers and friends were supportive. It’s a big reason why she implores the importance of education and acceptance.
“I want people to understand: Whatever you think, wherever you think that people are coming from, or what their background is, they’re coming here. They left that behind. So no matter how much you hate the Taliban or the commies, those people left that place. So leave that hate wherever it needs to be.”
Her parents took on refugee status and became immigrants “because we stayed,” she said.
“I count America as my country,” said Pogrebinsky, who will turn 41 this week. “My heritage is Ukrainian, I was born in Ukraine, but America is my country. Being an immigrant and a refugee, I know what that feels like, and how horrible that could be when you’re coming in looking for a safe place. You don’t want to be faced with more stupidity, more intolerance, more hate.”
She added: “Russians are leaving, too. They don’t want to be there, either. Many Ukrainians speak both languages, like I do. It’s not a political choice. A lot of us grew up speaking both languages. … I also value Russian culture. So being refugees 30 years ago, and being persecuted for having a culture, (knowing) a different language, is what I hate to see happen to these new refugees right now.”
According to estimates, about 3 million people have left Ukraine within the past two weeks.
One of the ways Pogrebinsky can help educate is through food. Food and culture form a clear lens to see the world – maybe not fully understand it, but to help realize shared traits we have as a society.
She said she is one of the very few authentically Ukrainian chefs cooking in a mainstream restaurant in Cleveland. Pogrebinsky previously cooked at Sterle’s Country House and Goldhorn Brewery in Cleveland.
“You’re interested in learning what Ukrainian flavors are all about? Come here. I’ll come and talk to you at the table.”
She cooks with traditional Ukrainian ingredients like sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, and “dill is everywhere.” She is partial to slow cooking and roasting, employing Eastern European flavor profiles.
“Even the way I prepare the beef for the tacos,” she said. “The seasoning and the preparation and the roasting of it is more Eastern European preparation than Mexican.”
At an upcoming benefit on Dyngus Day – Monday, April 18 – Pogrebinsky is going to prepare tefteli, an Eastern European meatball. Boiled rice is used instead of breadcrumbs, she said, along with eggs.
“People love it,” Pogrebinsky said. “It sounds heavy, but it’s a meatball cloud, fluffy and light. That’s going to be your flavor of Ukraine.”
She’s also preparing the classic borsch, the beet-based soup she notes without a ‘t’ at the end.
“I don’t want to use this opportunity to draw attention to myself,” she said, “but if people want to … have a taste of real Ukrainian food, get it from a real Ukrainian chef.”
Pogrebinsky recognizes food can draw people together. When it comes to Ukraine and Russia, she sees many common traits – a shared region, language, history – even families.
“The war is terrible, the politics of this are terrible,” she said. “What we as citizens here can do is focus on helping refugees and educating ourselves about the history and culture. This has been going on for years. It didn’t start two weeks ago; there’s been conflict. So, you know, be smart. Go out and get a background on what’s going on.”
If you go
The South Side is at 2207 W. 11th St., Cleveland. Faces of Belmez will perform at the refugee-relief benefit show 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, April 18. The event will include Ukrainian and Polish food, polka music and bingo.
Population: 43.7 million.
Capital: Kyiv, which has a little less than 3 million people. If you have heard multiple pronunciations of the city’s name, here’s why: In Ukrainian, it is KEE-ef. In Russian, it is kee-EV.
Land: The country covers about 375,000 square miles, somewhat comparable to Texas. More than 1,000 miles stretch between its farthest west-to-east points.
Borders: Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea.
President: Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
History: The nation dates back centuries but achieved independence in 1992 when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved.
Religions: Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish.
Ethnicities: Ukrainian 77.8%, Russian 17.3%, other 4.9%.
Languages: Ukrainian (official) 67.5%, Russian (regional) 29.6%, other 2.9%.
Exports: Corn, sunflower-seed oils, iron/iron products, wheat, insulated wiring, rapeseed.
Did you know?
• Its flag is a pair of equal, simple horizontal bands – azure over golden yellow. It is said they represent a blue sky atop grain fields.
• One of the greatest pole vaulters of all time, Sergey Bubka, is Ukrainian.
• Former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko is mayor of Kyiv.
Source: CIA Factbook, Cleveland.com research
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
Get a jumpstart on the weekend and sign up for Cleveland.com’s weekly “In the CLE” email newsletter, your essential guide to the top things to do in Greater Cleveland. It will arrive in your inbox on Friday mornings – an exclusive to-do list, focusing on the best of the weekend fun. Restaurants, music, movies, performing arts, family fun and more. Just click here to subscribe. All cleveland.com newsletters are free.