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Jobs mean community for Ukrainian refugees

Iryna Hrebenyk stopped the forklift and stood up. She didn’t like the way he squirmed. She wondered if she would ever learn how to maneuver the machine to haul several tons from the 20-foot-tall shelves of this Home Depot warehouse in Rosemount.

The forklift scared him.

Her supervisor, Scott Becker, assured her she would learn: one of her fellow Ukrainian refugees in the warehouse – a psychologist in his home country – had just mastered it.

“I’m not that brave,” Hrebenyk said.

“You are. You are on it.”

Hrebenyk grimaced. She shook her head.

“Can you imagine you were driving this two months ago?” Becker asked.

“No never.”

“And here you are.”

There she was, a world away from her life as a hairdresser in Ukraine, working alongside 13 other Ukrainians who had come to the Twin Cities for refuge from the Russian invasion of their homeland. Three mornings a week, they leave two homes in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Dinkytown to drive 20 miles to the Home Depot warehouse and start their 6 a.m. shift. Last week, eight more new arrivals from Ukraine began training at the warehouse – along with four more in stores – and more are expected.

This center for Ukrainians is enjoying early success after many refugees got off to a rocky start last year, waiting months for work permits and struggling to find jobs. The federal government approved immediate work authorization for most incoming Ukrainians in November, and the nonprofit that helped bring Hrebenyk and his colleagues to Minnesota — American Service in Ukraine — was given more time to discuss with employers the hiring of newcomers. The Home Depot warehouse serves as a starting point for this group, allowing them to quickly establish themselves and send money home.

“We are excited to hire as many refugees as we can help,” said Silas Mayberry, human resources manager for Home Depot’s Northern Plains region.

He spent time in Eastern Europe in high school and college and is still in touch with Polish friends. After hearing about American service in Ukraine, Mayberry reached out to talk about hiring newcomers. He knew Home Depot had plenty of jobs to fill as the new warehouse opened and the company prepared for its busy spring season. Warehouse associate jobs start at $20 per hour.

Hrebenyk is one of the few English speakers in the cohort who can interpret for his colleagues if necessary. Home Depot executives gave training presentations using a program that transcribed their speeches live in Ukrainian on the screen. Becker also taught new employees how to give common directions in Ukrainian – left, right, up, down, back, stop.

The first Ukrainian employee was Taras Zhmurko, who had traveled through 25 European countries in his last job as a semi-trailer truck driver. His girlfriend, Sofia Rudenko, worked from Lviv for the US service in Ukraine and opened an office in Poland to connect refugees to the program. They moved here in January so that Rudenko could continue guiding new refugees to Minnesota.

The Home Depot Ukrainians come from a variety of backgrounds: a judo wrestler; a mother juggling childcare whose last job was scanning inventory; a former factory worker who aspires to become a guitarist. They threw a party at work on Super Bowl Sunday, throwing the ball into the trash from various distances. Zhmurko was excited to try nachos.

A truck arrived from southern Iowa one morning this month, a tray loaded with drywall. Zhmurko’s task is to unload the delivery trucks.

“It might be a bit difficult for me to do something different, but I’m happy to be here and have new experiences, new job, new friends,” Zhmurko said. He turned on the forklift and took his first load of Sheetrock from behind.

At first, 51-year-old Hrebenyk sought refuge in Poland after the war started. But she recalled the resentment of Poles who accused Ukrainians of taking their jobs and receiving handouts. She worked in a restaurant kitchen for a pittance.

Hrebenyk came to Minnesota earlier this year. Here she came to see the Ukrainians who live and work with her as a family.

On some days off, the Minnesota group visits other Ukrainians. They walk around the city. One day, Hrebenyk went to a salon near her home and her hairdresser told her how she had come as a refugee from Vietnam. They both started crying. The Vietnamese woman, Hrebenyk recalls, told him not to worry: she would be safe here.

As Zhmurko worked on the forklift at the warehouse, Hrebenyk and a few other Ukrainians purchased health insurance at the warehouse office.

“It’s very confusing… I still don’t know what I chose, but I hope it’s okay,” Hrebenyk told a human resources manager with a laugh.

She told another Ukrainian employee how to register for health care through a Home Depot online portal as a third worker answered a call from his wife and child in Ukraine, chatting in the background.

“Finish registration,” Hrebenyk urged, and the worker clicked the tab.

“Okay,” she directed, and the employee clicked the tab.

Then came the message: Your registration is complete!

“OK, I’ll drive,” Hrebenyk said, jumping off the desk.

She had used the forklift for the first time the previous week and was nervous about trying again. Wearing the company’s bright orange vest over her hoodie, Hrebenyk walked to the warehouse floor and turned on the machine, directing it along a road of traffic cones.

Hrebenyk operated the steering wheel to move the machine and the control arm to steer the forks, zooming up to a stack of wooden pallets. She picked them up and put them down, again and again, and began to move the machine away. She bumped into a cone. Becker told him to do wider turns and jumped in to show him what to do.

Hrebenyk tried again, screaming and laughing as the forklift skidded a little too fast.

“Turn the wheel, the other way, more, and it will get you where you need to go. Don’t worry,” Becker said.

Hrebenyk was tense. She wasn’t sure how she was doing.

“That’s not how you cut hair,” she joked.

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