Iryna Hrebenyk stopped the forklift and stood. She didn't like how it wiggled. She wondered if she'd ever learn how to maneuver the machine to carry several tons from the 20-foot-high shelves in this Home Depot warehouse in Rosemount.
The forklift scared her.
Her supervisor, Scott Becker, assured her she would learn: One of her fellow Ukrainian refugees on the warehouse floor – a psychologist in her home country — had just mastered it.
"I'm not that brave," Hrebenyk said.
"You are. You're on this."
Hrebenyk made a face. She shook her head.
"Can you imagine you'd be driving this two months ago?" Becker asked.
"And here you are."
Here she was, a world away from her life as a hairdresser in Ukraine, working alongside 13 other Ukrainians who'd come to the Twin Cities seeking refuge from the Russian invasion of their homeland. Three mornings a week, they leave a pair of houses 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 Ukrainian newcomers started training at the warehouse – along with another four in stores — and more are expected.
This hub of Ukrainians is finding early success after many refugees faced a rough start last year, waiting months for work permits and struggling to find jobs. The federal government approved an immediate work authorization for most incoming Ukrainians in November, and the nonprofit that helped bring Hrebenyk and her coworkers to Minnesota — American Service in Ukraine — has had more time to talk with employers about hiring new arrivals. The Home Depot warehouse is serving as a starting point for this group, allowing them to establish themselves quickly and send money back home.
"We're excited to hire as many refugees as we can help," said Silas Mayberry, human resources director for Home Depot's Northern Plains region.
He'd spent time in Eastern Europe in high school and college and still is in touch with friends from Poland. Upon learning about American Service in Ukraine, Mayberry reached out to talk about hiring the newcomers. He knew Home Depot had many jobs to fill as the new warehouse opened and the company prepared for its busy spring season. Warehouse associate jobs start at $20 an hour.
Hrebenyk is one of the handful of top English speakers in the cohort who can interpret for fellow workers as needed. Home Depot leaders gave training presentations using a program that transcribed their remarks live into Ukrainian on the screen. Becker also learned from the new employees how to give common directions in Ukrainian — left, right, up, down, back, stop.
The first Ukrainian employee was Taras Zhmurko, who had driven through 25 European countries in his last job as a semitrailer truck driver. His girlfriend, Sofiia Rudenko, worked from Lviv for American Service in Ukraine and set up an office in Poland to connect refugees with the program. They moved here in January so Rudenko could continue guiding new refugees in Minnesota.
The Ukrainians at Home Depot span a range of backgrounds: a judo wrestler; a mother juggling child care whose last job was scanning inventory; a former factory worker who aspires to be a guitarist. They had a party at work on Super Bowl Sunday, throwing the football into the trashcan from different distances. Zhmurko was excited to try nachos.
A truck pulled in from southern Iowa one morning this month, a flatbed loaded high with drywall. Zhmurko's task is unloading delivery trucks.
"It's maybe a little bit hard for me to do something different, but I am happy I am here and have new experiences, a new job, new friends," Zhmurko said. He turned on the forklift and took his first load of Sheetrock from the back.
At first Hrebenyk, 51, sought refuge in Poland after the war started. But she recalled resentment from Polish people who accused the Ukrainians of taking their jobs and getting handouts. She worked a job in a restaurant kitchen for a pittance.
Hrebenyk came to Minnesota early this year. Here, she has come to see the Ukrainians who live and work with her as family.
On some days off, the Minnesota group visits other Ukrainians. They take walks around the city. One day, Hrebenyk went to a salon near her house, and her hairdresser told her how she had come as a refugee from Vietnam. They both started crying. The Vietnamese woman, Hrebenyk recalled, told her not to worry: she would be safe here.
As Zhmurko worked the forklift at the warehouse, Hrebenyk and a few other Ukrainians signed up for health insurance in the warehouse office.
"It's very confusing … I'm still not sure what I picked, but I hope I'm OK," Hrebenyk said with a chuckle to a human resources officer.
She coached another Ukrainian employee on how to sign up for health care through a Home Depot online portal as a third worker fielded a call from his wife and child in Ukraine, chatting in the background.
"Complete enrollment," Hrebenyk urged, and the worker clicked on the tab.
"Agree," she directed, and the employee clicked on the tab.
Then came the message: Your enrollment is complete!
"OK, I'm going to drive," said Hrebenyk, hopping off the desk.
She had operated the forklift for the first time the week before and was nervous about trying again. Wearing the company's bright orange vest over her hoodie, Hrebenyk headed for the warehouse floor and fired up the machine, steering it along a route of traffic cones.
Hrebenyk worked the steering wheel to move the machine and the control arm to steer the forks, buzzing up to a pile of wood pallets. She lifted them and set them down, again and again and began steering the machine away. She bumped against a cone. Becker told her to make wider turns and jumped in to show her what to do.
Hrebenyk tried again, shrieking and laughing as the forklift skidded a little too quickly.
"Turn the wheel, the other way, more, and it'll take you right where you need to go. Don't worry," Becker said.
Hrebenyk was tense. She wasn't sure how she was doing.
"It's not how you cut hair," she joked.