Photos by Olivia Tsotsos
It’s dawn in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood and Taras Girnyy is preparing for the long work day ahead. He’ll leave the apartment he shares with his new bride at 7 a.m. and work a two-hour shift as a driver for Lyft, the ride-sharing service.
When he returns home, he’ll rest up before heading back out around 3 p.m. for his shift at the Thomas Club where he works as a server. He’ll be home around 11 p.m. before repeating the routine again the following day.
Girnyy, 24, commits to this schedule six days a week; if he doesn’t have an evening shift at the Thomas Club, he’ll drive from 4-9 p.m.
The money is good and the two jobs coalesce, but the grind is exhausting — an element Girnyy suppresses because a driver and server must be present and focused at all times.
“It’s hard, but it’s supposed to be hard,” Girnyy said. “There is no easy life.”
In 2012, Girnyy was having a difficult time finding himself. He was attending National Forestry University of Ukraine in L’viv, but his coursework didn’t resonate with him and he yearned for something more.
He had recently returned to his home country after spending three years in Italy where He lived in a small town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea with his mother and older brother. He attended school there, played on the soccer team and ran with a large group of friends — It had been the best time of his life.
The country he came home to wasn’t the same; everything once familiar was now foreign.
Everyday interactions were strained, and there was an air of negativity making life complex and isolating. Girnyy struggled to connect with anything tangible.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t belong there (in Ukraine) anymore,” he said. “I wanted to experience something different.”
Divine inspiration hit when Girnyy recalled all the amazing things a cousin told him about a trip to the United States. Enchanted by the opportunities available in the United States, his destiny soon became clear — he had to make it to America.
His quest began by locating an agency that connects students with employers in the U.S. through a work exchange program. He was enticed by a job offer in Arlington, Texas, which would allow him to work as a photographer at Six Flags.
He submitted an application, interviewed over Skype two weeks later and was hired shortly thereafter. Next he needed to secure a student visa through the U.S. Embassy.
When the day of his appointment arrived Girnyy was full of nervous energy. With a job already secured in the States, he just needed to nail the interview.
Despite watching several students in line ahead of him be denied their visas, Girnyy remained ardent.
“I was ready and pumped to be interviewed by the U.S. ambassador,” he said. “I knew what I came for and I was determined to get it.”
A few weeks later his passport was shipped back to him with his visa inside. He purchased plane tickets and set his sights to the West where he could find the freedom and independence eluding him in Ukraine. In six swift months Girnyy had successfully executed his escape plan.
His first few weeks in Texas were exciting, but the conditions were ill suiting. It was hot, the pay was low and living expenses were high.
After two months, Girnyy and his friend Ivan Kostenko moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee where they found a community of Ukrainian students and more suitable living conditions.
Girnyy and Kostenko had only lived there for a month when opportunity came knocking — another student was moving to Chicago and invited them to join. It was exactly the type of move Girnyy had been waiting for since arriving in America and he seized the moment.
He arrived in Chicago in July 2013 and the city fulfilled all the hopes and expectations he carried with him from Ukraine. Impressed with the size and vibe of the city, he spent his first several days and nights out on the town.
“It felt like a fit,” Girnyy said. “Everything was positive, and different than any big city in Europe.”
Girnyy immediately responded to the ambition and spirit of Chicagoans. Unlike Ukrainian culture, where people tend to be withdrawn and passive, Girnyy related to Chicagoans’ positive approach to life and was turned on by the friendly, outgoing nature of strangers.
After taking a few weeks to get acquainted with their new city and crashing at the home of a friend’s relative, Girnyy and Kostenko settled into an apartment in Roscoe Village. It didn’t take Girnyy long to understand it was going to take energy and determination to make it in Chicag. He quickly landed a job as a server.
Girnyy had been in Chicago for about one year when he determined it was time to take a chance and see what the city could offer him in terms of a relationship. He took a leap of faith to test the waters of online dating.
His decision paid off when he connected with native Chicagoan Olga Alvarez. They had casual exchanges for a week before planning to meet for drinks at Wild Goose on March 29, 2014.
“I didn’t really know what to say, or how to conduct a date like that, but it was fun,” Girnyy said. “It didn’t take me long to realize she was a very genuine and open person.”
The feeling was mutual on the other side of the table.
“I thought Taras had very kind eyes, which I repeatedly told him during our date,” Alvarez said. “I loved his sense of humor because he was just as sarcastic as me.”
In the weeks and months that followed, they allowed the city to guide their love affair with trips downtown and walks along the lakefront. Alvarez showed Girnyy sites he had yet to visit, such as Navy Pier and the Willis Tower.
Alvarez was struck by how well spoken Girnyy was, considering he had only been in the U.S. for a year.
As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Alvarez is familiar with the process of assimilating to American culture. Her father came to Chicago as a teenager in 1982 and her mother immigrated in 1991 at age 21.
As a child, Alvarez got her own taste of the immigrant experience.
When she was 10 years old her parents divorced and her father moved back to Mexico. At the time, her mother was a stay-at-home-mom and needed to reposition her life in order to provide for her children. So Alvarez and her two younger siblings moved to Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán, Mexico, to live with their father for two years.
It was an emotional time for Alvarez. She missed her mother desperately, her father was frequently away on business trips and the aunt caring for Alvarez and her siblings was unkind.
Alvarez sought refuge in Mexican culture. She traveled throughout the country and immersed herself in the language — learning how to speak, read and write fluent Spanish. She attended elementary school and graduated first in her sixth grade class.
Today, Alvarez, 24, is in her final year of undergraduate studies at Loyola University Chicago and works as a hostess at The Dawson. She is studying molecular biology, with plans to attend medical school and has relied on Girnyy for support over the past two years.
“I have always been very cynical of myself when thinking about my future,” Alvarez said. “But Taras always talks about the big plans he has for our future with such optimism, he has made me believe in myself.”
The two decided to move in together in the summer of 2015. It was at that time when Girnyy realized he wanted to marry Alvarez.
He had been reflecting on their relationship and as he looked to the future, he couldn’t picture anything beyond life with Alvarez. Girnyy proposed the following December; they were married on April 30, 2016.
Alvarez and Girnyy have become a unit, dedicated to fulfilling one another’s dreams.
“Olga’s plan to finish her degree, get into medical school and become a doctor is not only her goal, but mine as well,” Girnyy said.
With aspirations of owning his own business one day, Alvarez is as equally devoted to making Girnyy’s hopes a reality.
“He wants the big American Dream, and that’s what I see in our future,” Alvarez said. “We are two odd pieces that fit together.”
Today, Girnyy has adapted to the speed of big city living and is reflective about his personal development and evolution.
“I grew up here in three years more than I would have in 20 years in Ukraine,” Girnyy said. “I went from being a student, careless kid to an adult with all these responsibilities.”
He is focused on living in the moment, keeping up with his two jobs and doing what is required to stay on pace with the fast track. Eventually he plans to be his own boss, reach financial freedom and slow down. But for now he is committed to the daily rigors of being a workhorse.
Since leaving Ukraine, Girnyy has consistently capitalized on the biggest moments, and in so doing, found where he belongs.
He has adopted Chicago as a second home and possesses an energy and drive that matches the vibrancy of the city.
“If I was back in Ukraine, I wouldn’t be dreaming about the future as much,” he said. “Chicago definitely plays a big role in that (dreaming big); it takes a lot of hope and a lot of energy, but the hope is always there.”