Coastal workers give a taste of melting pot

From storefronts to front lawns, displays of Southern Delaware’s patriotism rocket toward ubiquity in anticipation of the Fourth of July. Some summer visitors, however, find American spirit in the smile of a stranger rather than in a wave of stars and stripes.
Coastal Point • JOSH MILLER: Kate Muslina takes a second to talk at the Shore Foods grocery store in Bethany Beach.Coastal Point • JOSH MILLER:
Kate Muslina takes a second to talk at the Shore Foods grocery store in Bethany Beach.

Behind the counters of many Bethany Beach businesses, the first language is a Slavic tongue and English is spoken with an Eastern European accent. From universities in Belgrade and Bratislava, Krakow and Kiev, Moscow and Minsk, the foreign workers arrive in Delmarva every June as reliably as seedless watermelons.

And like multimillion-dollar housing developments, their numbers seem to swell annually.

Kate Muslina, 21, an economics major from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, is living at the Delaware shore for the third consecutive summer. She works 35 hours each week as a cashier at Shore Foods grocery store in Bethany Beach, where shoppers regard her with respect and inquisitiveness.

“Everybody is very friendly,” she said. “They all want to know where I’m from.”

Curiosity, coincidentally, initially induced Muslina to cross the Atlantic in 2003. She always had wanted to see the Grand Canyon, which Muslina called “the greatest place on earth.”

After settling in Bethany Beach, Muslina rented a car with some friends and drove cross-country to Arizona, subsequently crossing an item off of her things-to-do-in-life list. Later road trips have steered Muslina to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.

“I’m different from other students,” she said. “I didn’t just come here to make money. I came here to have fun, too.”

Christina Popescu, on the other hand, makes no bones about coming for the cash. Back for a third season, the native of Suceava, Romania, holds down two jobs — at Bootsie’s Bar-B-Q in Ocean View and at Al Casapulla’s deli in Millville. Popescu estimates that she works nearly 90 hours per week between her two employers.

“I just need the money, and it’s easier to make money here,” she said. “Nobody is making me do it. I want to work.”

Last year, Popescu pocketed about $6,000 and expects to exceed those earnings this time around. She will use the proceeds to pay her tuition at the American University in Bulgaria.

Marina Sergei, a newcomer to the Fudge Factory in Bethany Beach, plans to spend her profits on a car or an apartment after returning to Belarus.

“We have a lot of hours, which is good for us. The more hours we have here, the more money we have to take home,” she said, speaking for herself and coworker/compatriot Nastja Palazkova. “And it’s no secret that your money (American dollars) is the world’s money.”

Across Garfield Parkway, Chris Dudine, manager of Five Guys restaurant, expressed great admiration and appreciation for the international students’ work ethic. Russians, he said, regularly constitute 80 percent of the establishment’s staff.

Though the language barrier often bars them from manning the registers — a job that requires English fluency — the foreign laborers facilitate customer satisfaction by other, multifaceted means.

“The U.S. kids argue a lot because they have had it easy. And some Americans don’t like the nature of the job. They have hang-ups about flipping burgers,” Dudine said. “These guys don’t let that affect them. They’ll do anything and they don’t complain.”

In Millville, Al Casapulla said customers at his deli occasionally complain that American jobs should go to Americans. And ideally, the shop would hire locals only, he said. Continued development, however, has spread the region’s labor pool thin and rendered it unable to support the summer business spike.

Europe, consequently, supplies a steady stream of qualified applicants.

The U.S. embassy in Belarus, according to Sergei, approved fewer than 50 percent of the students applying for summer work visas. Others offered similar — if not more selective — figures for visas in their countries of origin, and said preference was granted to those with high grade-point averages.

Scholars in the fields of medicine, law, political science, economics and engineers come to the U.S. to bag groceries, wash dishes and slice salami. Shopkeepers not only welcome the help from overseas but depend upon it.

“I guarantee if we didn’t get them, a lot of the businesses here wouldn’t make it in the summer. It takes more than a body to run your business,” he said. “They’ve been a blessing, and the day the government comes in and says, ‘You can’t do this,’ will be the day you see a ‘For Sale’ sign in my window.”

Four summers ago, Casapulla took on five guest workers, and he has championed the cause of their successors’ ever since.

“The first year we did this, I was totally clueless to how the whole thing works,” he said. “I didn’t really have housing that was decent, so we ended up with five Lithuanian girls living in our house.”

Casapulla said he and his wife, Theresa, quickly became attached to their “adopted daughters.” They took collective journeys to Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

By the time the summer ended, Casapulla said, he and Theresa were dismayed to see the girls go. Today, they continue to correspond through e-mails and Christmas cards.

This summer, Casapulla built a house and bought bicycles for the 11 overseas students working at his deli.

“He’s a very nice guy. That’s why I came back,” Popescu said. “If I need anything, I can always ask him.”

But Casapulla cares for more than his own flock.

He organized a campaign last year to prepare welcome baskets — outfitted with basic items such as soap and shampoo — for all of the international workers in the area. Furthermore, for two hours on Tuesday nights during the summer of 2004, he invited the visa-toting visitors to his restaurant for pizza, sodas and music.

“It gave people a chance to relax and make some new friends,” he said. “Sometimes you could ride by the store and see 40 or 50 bikes outside.”

Casapulla wrapped up the summer last year by busing 70 to 100 kids to Washington, D.C. He intends to resume his hospitable practices in 2005.

“I don’t want them to go back to their countries and say anything bad about Americans,” he said.

Monte and Cheryl Wisbrock, owners of Bethany Beach and Resort Rentals, also strive to assure their coastal town lives up to the legacy of Lady Liberty. Cheryl Wisbrock said she and her husband have been part of the push for open-armed welcomes since Europeans first began appearing in Bethany Beach en masse around 1999. (Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, Md., experienced the trend starting a few years earlier.)

“We provide them with small starting-out groceries,” she said. “We’ve been vocal in the past about some situations which we’ve heard about that cast a bad light on businesses around here and on America in general.”

Wisbrock has received mostly positive feedback from foreigners, but she has also heard a few horror stories.

Some students, for example, have arrived to find their prearranged jobs have been filled. They are left without a source of income and, in some instances, without a place to sleep. Such perversions, Wisbrock conjectured, may be product of miscommunication more than of malice or a deliberate overextension of job offers.

To help prevent such difficulties, many students arrange their travel, employment and housing months in advance through the Internet or through agencies such as Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), InterExchange or Intrax.

Even the best transition assistants, however, cannot always overcome the whims of business owners who are overstaffed or simply pitiless.

Without an organized safety net, internationals have often turned to their peers or their peers’ sympathetic employers for guidance. And in the absence of such organization, positive outcomes rely largely on the commitment of such caring individuals.

“You do that because there’s someone there who is tired and lost. If my kid were going to take a job overseas, I would want someone to meet them and take them to their homes the first night,” Wisbrock said.

“This is an opportunity for us to reinvent or remarket our country and I think we do a good job of it. Every summer we have students who tell us what their perceptions had been and how they’ve changed. And they add a lot to the depth and quality to our community,” she added.

So, while many Delawareans can’t imagine Independence Day without charbroiled hot dogs and hamburgers, some folks in the area find the flavor of America not on this country’s barbecues but in its melting pot.