Sunny Isles Beach is often called Little Moscow, but it’s also Little Kyiv and Little Odessa and Little Minsk — a haven for refugees from the old Soviet Union and for Russians who are here on tourist visas.
Many of their kids go to school at Sunny Isles K-8, and the shockwaves from the invasion of Ukraine are reverberating throughout the community.
“It’s gonna be incredibly painful and difficult for the children of our community who are gonna have a hard time grasping, as adults, we’re gonna have a hard time grasping what’s happening,” said Larisa Svechin, the former vice mayor of Sunny Isles Beach.
Svechin was born in Belarus, came to the United States as a refugee from the former Soviet Union, and now volunteers at her kids’ school. She said she’s seen Russian and Ukrainian students arguing with each other.
“They’re having lively discussions because for them I’m sure this is very scary, especially if they have grandparents there,” Svechin said.
Recognizing the situation in Ukraine can lead to high emotions here, the Sunny Isles K-8 principal, Melissa Mesa, sent an email to teachers saying in part, “Given the high population of students from both regions, it is imperative that we are all vigilant with the students in order to mitigate any potential disruptive behavior or fighting between students from each country… Please cultivate an atmosphere of peace and respect in your classroom…” Mesa wrote.
“It’s amazing to me that we have children as young as seven years old talking about foreign policy,” said Svechin.
Another parent with kids at the same school, Paulina Sheyhet is from Ukraine, also a refugee from the old USSR.
“Everybody’s suffering, war is never good for anybody,” Sheyhet said. “It’s a shame because people are suffering from politics, from poor politics, but I see Ukraine as a bargaining chip between NATO and Russia.”
Both women told us the war is already driving Sunny Isles Beach’s Russian-speaking residents apart.
“There are people here that feel that, that support Putin and agree with what he’s doing, and there are others that maybe don’t agree but are afraid to say something because the reality is, they have family there,” Svechin said.
The fear of Putin is a real phenomenon in the beachside town. It is hard to get any ethnic Russians to speak on the record about any issue involving the Russian dictator.
Svechin told us she hopes Americans understand that just because someone is speaking Russians does not mean they support Putin or his invasion. She said she’s already seeing unfortunate backlash against the Russian-speaking community on social media.