Ukrainian Oilfield Hands in North Dakota Fear ‘What Comes Next’

Ukrainian Oilfield Hands in North Dakota Fear 'What Comes Next'

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Away from families, their nation in an existential war, for ‘humanitarian parole’ workers laboring in a lonely limbo of uncertainty, Christmas is ‘canceled.’

BERTHOLD, North Dakota—Dmytro Tupytsia has Christmas off, but he’d rather be laboring hard that day, “tearing down iron” and building “frack trees” at SandPro, where he’s worked since August.

“For me,” he said, “it is better” than dwelling on how much he misses his wife, 10-year-old daughter, and seven-year-old son eight time zones and more than 5,000 miles away in a town outside Odesa near Ukraine’s border with Moldova.

Mr. Tupytsia’s is ensnared in a lonely limbo of apprehensive uncertainty, fearing for his family, wondering what is happening at home, worried his embattled nation won’t outlast Russia’s grinding invasion for a third winter in a war of attrition Vladimir Putin is willing to wage until the ledger of lost lives dilutes Ukraine’s capacity to resist.

“Christmas celebration canceled. Nobody happy” in Ukraine, he said in halting English. “All the time, I’m thinking about my family. I want to work more. Work is good for me all the time.”

Mr. Tupytsia, 31, is among 60 Ukrainians working for 16 companies in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields as part of a North Dakota Petroleum Council’s Bakken Global Recruitment of Oilfield Workers (GROW) program coordinated with Uniting for Ukraine (U4U).

U4U was established in April 2022 by the Biden administration “to provide a pathway” for Ukrainians to stay in the United States for a two-year “humanitarian parole” if they can find a sponsor.

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More than 117,000 have found work and lodging under U4U, nearly half of the 280,000 Ukrainians who’ve taken refuge in the United States since Mr. Putin launched the February 2022 invasion.

About 160 war refugees have found sponsors and employment in North Dakota with the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) signing onto U4U last March, not only to help Ukrainians but also to address workforce needs in the Bakken basin.

NDPC Director of Communications Reva Kautz said the first U4U Ukrainians who responded to the Bakken GROW program arrived in July and August.

“The United for Ukraine program is unique and allows them to work on day one of arriving. It’s faster paperwork” than the normal process for non-citizens to work in the United States and less onerous for sponsors and employers, she said.

“This is a humanitarian program because of the war, and we were able to help them out because many of them are displaced throughout Europe,” NDPC President Ron Ness said. “They wanted to come and make some money and, so, yeah, it’s a pretty good deal—an amazing help with the workforce challenges” in the Bakken.

Most are “older people” with children who’ve completed compulsory military service. Some were either out of the country when the war started. Others left afterward to find work to support their families, Ms. Kautz said.

SandPro, a five-year-old sand management, wellhead installation, and automation start-up based in Berthold, just west of Minot, signed-on six Ukrainians on as part of the program.

SandPro Vice President Joshua Blackaby said while the six did not have oilfield experience, they have a strong work ethic and a motivation to learn, fitting in and embraced—despite language barriers—by the company’s 100 employees.

“We’ve been fortunate with the six we got,” he said. “They need us and we need them. We’re happy to have them.”

 Andrii Navrotskyi (L), from central Ukraine, and Dmytro Tupytsia, from a town near Odesa, who are working at SandPro LLC in Berthold, N.D., won't enjoy Christmas much this year, separated from families with their nation embroiled in an existential war. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Andrii Navrotskyi (L), from central Ukraine, and Dmytro Tupytsia, from a town near Odesa, who are working at SandPro LLC in Berthold, N.D., won’t enjoy Christmas much this year, separated from families with their nation embroiled in an existential war. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

Leaving Ukraine to Rebuild Ukraine

Many U4U Ukrainians had found work in the Alaska seafood industry. Mr. Tupytsia and Andrii Navrotskyi arrived together after working for months at a processing plant in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians.

Mr. Navrotskyi, 32, owns an office supply business in a small central Ukraine town. His wife and six-year-old son remain. He hopes they can join him in the coming year.

It’s “not too dangerous” where they are, although “sometimes the rockets fly over,” he said, noting he wanted to join the army to fight but was rejected for health reasons.

With his business stymied, Mr. Navrotskyi worked odd jobs but struggled to support his wife and son. They decided it would be best for him to find work overseas.

“I can do more to support Ukraine and my family than if I stay in Ukraine,” he said. “I can send money.”

Mr. Navrotskyi boarded a bus for Poland and has now been gone for more than 18 months. He met Mr. Tupytsia, who left Ukraine via Moldova and Romania last year, working in Dutch Harbor.

He said Dutch Harbor was “a closed place” where workers “stay in one place, don’t get to walk around” the small city on the small island on the big Bering Sea.

“Now, better” in North Dakota, where he and the other SandPro Ukrainians live in a company-provided apartment in Minot, Mr. Navrotskyi said.

He and Mr. Tupytsia are taking lessons in “American English, we must improve.” While both have filed paperwork for their families to join them, neither expect that to happen soon.

Oleksil Ustich, however, is hoping his family can join him “in maybe three months, maybe six months. I don’t know. I don’t want to say. You know when you say” hopeful things “it doesn’t come true.”

A native of Donetsk, “the first city to see the full war in 2022,” the 36-year-old was working for an Odesa-based fishing company operating out of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, when the invasion began.

Mr. Ustich’s wife, four-year-old son, and dog fled to Poland and are now in Gdansk, a city they are familiar with after he worked in a shipyard there several years ago.

“They are waiting for documents,” he said, noting the dog will require “two documents.”

At SandPro, “I work everywhere in production, testing, quality control. I like it,” Mr. Ustich said, noting “in USA, you have to know everything; if someone can’t go to work, you have to do it,” which is unlike places he’s worked in Ukraine, Poland, and elsewhere.

He just got his driver license, so now he can drive loaders at SandPro. While language and dealing with imperial measurements—inches, feet, miles—rather than metrics pose challenges, he wants to stay at SandPro, and North Dakota, and become a U.S. citizen “if the American government will have me.”

 Oleksii Ustich, from Donetsk, Ukraine, will be spending a second Christmas away from his wife and son in Poland, this year working in North Dakota's Bakken Basin oldfields. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Oleksii Ustich, from Donetsk, Ukraine, will be spending a second Christmas away from his wife and son in Poland, this year working in North Dakota’s Bakken Basin oldfields. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

A Christmas Prayer

Mr. Tupytsia is unsure where he and his family will end up. He likes North Dakota, where thousands of Americans of Ukrainian heritage settled in the 1880s–90s and retain a strong presence across the state, including in Minot.

He said Ukraine’s winters are brutal, and after working in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, North Dakota’s long, harsh winters don’t worry him.

“Some people say it’s too strong a winter, but I don’t know. I don’t see it yet,” Mr. Tupytsia said of what has been, for North Dakota, a mild fall.

Minot “is just a small town—bank, shops—I like it,” he said, especially with his apartment near a Scheels grocery and since he purchased a car after getting his driver license.

Buying a car was strange, Mr. Tupytsia said, recounting how he called the phone number for a car being sold and the seller, noting his accent, began asking a lot of questions.

“Guy on the phone said he saw in newspaper” that Ukrainians were working for local oilfield companies. “He said, ‘What I see in newspapers, I don’t believe as fake news,’” he said.

“I want to go back” as soon saw possible, Mr. Navrotskyi said to rebuild his office supply business and “to rebuild my country.”

He fears that may not be possible. “I listen every day to news on YouTube on the situation in Ukraine. Every day, war, war. I don’t know,” he said.

With $61 billion in Ukraine military assistance opposed by a cadre of House Republicans and stymied in the Senate until January, Mr. Navrotskyi fears the coming year.

“No more support for Ukraine, things would change,” he said. “I don’t know what happens. I don’t know what comes next.”

“What’s going to happen? I know nothing of this. We’ll see. We’ll see,”  Mr. Tupytsia said.

““I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. Big politics is not for me,” Mr. Ustich said.

Like his countrymen, he’ll spend Christmas Day speaking for hours in video calls with his wife and son in Poland and maybe enjoy a traditional Ukraine meal of beet bread and perogies in Minot.

And he’ll pray, Mr. Ustich said. He’ll pray for his wife and for his son and for his nation and all those lost. His Christmas prayer will be simple, a blessing for all mankind on a troubled planet.

“Space and safety,” he said.

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