Ukrainians move to North Dakota for oil field jobs to help families facing war back home

The program’s first group of workers arrived in July via the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian program, enabling them to work in the U.S. with sponsorship for two years

Maksym Bunchukov, Andrii Hryshchuk and Ivan Sakivskyi help themselves to perogies at a lunch hosted Monday, July 17, 2023, by the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson, North Dakota
Maksym Bunchukov, Andrii Hryshchuk and Ivan Sakivskyi help themselves to perogies at a lunch hosted Monday, July 17, 2023, by the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson, North Dakota.Jack Dura (AP)

Maksym Bunchukov remembers hearing rockets explode in Zaporizhzhia as the war in Ukraine began.

“It was terrible,” he said. He and his wife sent their adult daughter west to Lviv for safety and joined her later with their pets.

Now, about 18 months after the war broke out, Bunchukov is in North Dakota, like thousands of Ukrainians who came over a century ago.

He is one of 16 new arrivals who are part of a trade group’s pilot effort through the Uniting for Ukraine humanitarian program to recruit refugees and migrants during a workforce shortage. Twelve more Ukrainians are scheduled to arrive by Aug. 15 as part of the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s Bakken Global Recruitment of Oilfield Workers program.

Some workers want to bring their families to North Dakota while others hope to return to Ukraine.

“I will try to invite my wife, invite my daughter, invite my cat and invite my dog,” Bunchukov told The Associated Press a week after his arrival.

The Bakken program has humanitarian and workforce missions, said Project Manager Brent Sanford, a former lieutenant governor who watched the Bakken oil rush unfold during his time as mayor of boomtown Watford City from 2010 to 2016.

The oil boom initially was met by an “organic workforce” of western North Dakotans with experience in oil field jobs elsewhere, but as the economy reeled from the Great Recession, thousands of people flocked to the Bakken oil field from other states and even other countries to fill high-wage jobs, Sanford said.

Technological advances for combining horizontal drilling and fracking — injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand and chemicals into rocks — made capturing the oil locked deep underground possible.

“People came by planes, trains and automobiles, every way possible from everywhere for the opportunity for work,” Council President Ron Ness said. “They were upside down on their mortgage, their life or whatever, and they could reset in North Dakota.”

But the 2015 downturn, coronavirus pandemic and other recent shocks probably led workers back to their home states, especially if moving meant returning to warmer and bigger cities, Sanford said. Workforce issues have become “very acute” in the last 10 months, Ness said.

Ness estimated there are roughly 2,500 jobs available in an oil field producing about 1.1 million barrels per day. Employers don’t advertise for every individual job opening, but post once or twice for many open positions, he said.

An immigration law firm told Ness that Uniting for Ukraine would fit well for North Dakota given its Ukrainian heritage, similar climate and agrarian people, he said.

The program’s sponsors, including company owners, managers and employees, agree to help Ukrainians find work, health care, schools for their children and safe and affordable housing.

About 160 Ukrainians have arrived in North Dakota, the majority in Bismarck, as part of Uniting for Ukraine, according to State Refugee Coordinator Holly Triska-Dally.

Applications from prospective sponsors from around the state have “gone up considerably” in recent months, likely due to more awareness but also Ukrainians who are “working and beginning to thrive” and filing to support their family, she said.

The two dozen or so Ukrainians might not seem like many arrivals on national or statewide scales, but they will make a significant difference for cities like Minot and Dickinson. The cities haven’t traditionally been major resettlement hubs, but now “there’s a strong likelihood” the workers’ families will join them, adding to the economy and schools, Triska-Dally said.

Bunchukov, who had jobs in mechanics and furniture sales in Ukraine, works for road contractor Baranko Bros. Inc. He and other new arrivals have experience in Alaska’s seafood industry. Others have worked on cruise ships or held different seasonal jobs. Because of those jobs, many workers already hold Social Security numbers and have studied English, Sanford said.

Dmytro Haiman, who said his English skills steered him toward the Bakken program, recalled sheltering with relatives in his grandmother’s cellar as the war began and bombs fell on his hometown, Chernihiv. In the first months of the war he drove people west to safety and brought canned food, medicine and even generators to Chernihiv amid supply shortages.

He told the AP he expected to work in water transportation and hopes to earn enough money to help his family, “to help us to rebuild our country.”

The Bakken program aims to recruit 100 workers by the end of 2023, and 400 after one year. Those 400 may not all be Ukrainians. Some will drive, start in shops or build roads, pads and fences, “everything from there up to well site operations,” Ness said.

The workers will start in construction and other basic jobs starting at $20 an hour and can rise quickly. They also can leave their jobs or the state while they’re in the Uniting for Ukraine program, which grants “humanitarian parole” lasting two years with a goal of a longer path beyond, but that depends on the federal government, Sanford said.

Four translators help workers with forms, training and community acclimation, Sanford said. One employer has rented eight apartments for workers, while others are in extended-stay hotels until they can find apartments.

Glenn Baranko, president of the contractor building paths to drilling rigs and providing environmental services in the oil field, planned to assign jobs to five initial workers based on their skillsets.

The labor shortage led his company to hire a full-time recruiter, “but there’s still a need,” said Baranko, whose great-grandfather came to the area from Ukraine.

At a recent lunch for several workers hosted by the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson, the new arrivals crowded around a map to point out their hometowns. The cooks laid out dishes of rice rolls, beet bread, deviled eggs and filled dumplings called perogies.

The institute preserves the area’s Ukrainian heritage and has raised more than $10,000 for humanitarian aid since the war began in February 2022, institute Executive Director Kate Kessel said.

Mannequins wearing traditional garb, displays of decorated eggs and a Ukrainian library fill the institute’s space. A large banner bearing “Peace to Ukraine” stood over the people eating lunch at tables.

Ivan Sakivskyi, who works for Baranko, said he looks forward to opportunities for promotion, such as driving heavy equipment, and gaining new experience.

Though he doesn’t plan to live long-term in the U.S., Sakivskyi said he would like to return for work after visiting loved ones in his home country.

“My heart and my soul” are in Ukraine. “It’s my friends,” the Odesa native said. “It’s my family.”

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