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Ukrainians adjust to living in Wadena, working in Perham

Here to work: Saving up before settling down

Every day, at least one person asks Valentyna Savchenko, "How are you?"

That may seem like a small thing, but it's new to her, and she appreciates it.

"I like the people here," she says. "Everybody's friendly, everybody smiles. Especially when we first came here, everybody met us with such love. It's not usually like that in my country."

Valentyna, or Val, as she's more commonly known, is from Ukraine.

While her hometown of Uman, a city of 100,000 in the central part of the country, looks and feels similar to the Perham area — fields, rolling hills and trees, and long, cold winters — Val said the people aren't as polite there as they are here. They don't normally hold the door for you, or say "excuse me," or ask how you are.

"I love my home country," she said, "but it's friendlier people here."

That's just one of many observations Val has made since coming to central Minnesota. The 29-year-old arrived in July to work as one of Barrel O' Fun's temporary seasonal foreign workers.

About 60 such workers, from several different countries, are currently employed in entry-level positions at the company through a program called Global Workforce. Barrel O' Fun decided to take part in the program after struggling with a long-time worker shortage.

Val and the others will be staying through the end of December, when their temporary seasonal work visas will expire and they will return to their home countries. While here, they're being housed at a Wadena motel and bused to and from Perham for work. They work evening and night shifts at the snack food company, most of them working the lines, packaging chips and candies.

Similar to college dorm life, they share common housing, meals and transportation. On days off, they sometimes spend time together at scheduled social activities, such as boating parties planned by Global Workforce or trips to places like Valleyfair.

"That was my first time on a roller coaster," Val said of her experience at the Minnesota amusement park. "My hands were shaking the whole time, but I went on five of them!"

Sitting across a table from her during an interview in September, Val's easygoing, happy personality was easy to pick up on. She talked about her life in Ukraine, and her experiences in the U.S., with a bubbly energy and a smile almost constantly on her face. She especially perked up when talking about animals, which she has a soft spot for. Back home, she has a cat, two birds and a fish, and she often rescues strays or buys food for them, because she can't stand to see them suffering in the streets.

It wasn't until she starting talking about her home country's troubles with Russia that her smile faded. Tensions between the two countries have been high for the past several months, with Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian insurgents openly fighting in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,200 people have been killed by the insurgency since the start of the ongoing conflict.

Val said her family is about 300 miles from the worst of the danger, but she still fears for their safety.

"I'm scared and worried for my brother (who could be called into the military at any time), and worried for my town and country," she said. "I don't want somebody to get killed, and a lot of people are getting killed."

The situation has caused her and her boyfriend of four years, Max, to delay settling down and starting a family. Instead, they came to Barrel O' Fun together to make and save some extra money. They earn significantly more here in the U.S. than they can back home, Val said, despite being well educated and having good jobs. In Ukraine, Val teaches English language and literature.

Wanting to save up as much as possible, the couple makes the most of their time here by offering to work longer shifts and extra shifts on Saturdays. Most weeks, Val said, they work 12-hour days, six days a week. On Sundays, they either find something fun to do or stay in and rest.

"They do a good job," said Steve Anderson, a trainer at Barrel O' Fun, of the temporary seasonal foreign workers. "It didn't take them long to catch on, and they keep up with the rest of us."

Many of the local employees are making friends with those in the Global Workforce program, learning things about foreign languages, religions, school systems, eating habits and family lives in other countries. These new relationships, they said, have opened their eyes to how much is taken for granted in the U.S.

"It's really fun to just talk with them, because it changes your perspective," said Becky Westhoff, assistant supervisor at Barrel O' Fun. "We don't know how good we've got it."

"I think I've had a bad day if I get a flat tire," added line worker Toni Bunting, "then I think about what some of these people are going through...missing their families, worrying, and working through it...and I realize I don't have it so bad."

Though the current war-like conditions, and poverty, are plaguing Ukraine, Val said she still misses her hometown, and her family.

"I like Uman. There are a lot of younger people there, a lot of students, because there are lots of universities," she said. "They have a beautiful old park, and lots of nice people. I miss everybody — my family, my friends. It's a nice city, with lots of trees and parks and grass."

This is not her first time away from home. Seven years ago, Val lived in Florida to attend school, and also worked at a flower shop. And she and Max have traveled to Finland together in the past, for temporary work. If Barrel O' Fun offers another temporary seasonal work opportunity again next year, Val said, she and Max will both come back.

"We love our country, but there are a lot of problems there," she said. "So after next year, we'll see what we'll do next. We also like it here, and kind of want to raise kids here, but it's hard."

'Everywhere is beautiful': Worker enjoys life in MN

For Volodymyr Dredun, the first two weeks were the hardest.

Five thousand miles from his home in Ukraine, he arrived in Perham in July with a lot to learn.

He had to transition into his new temporary life in Minnesota, including a new job at Barrel O' Fun. He had to brush up on his English. And he was missing his friends, his family, his wife, and everything that was familiar to him.

But, as he said in a recent interview, it's gotten easier with time.

Thanks to Skype and a smart phone, he keeps in almost daily contact with his loved ones back home. And work, along with some new friends and lots of learning opportunities here, are keeping him well occupied.

Volodymyr (pronounced Vladimir) said he and many others in the group of about 60 temporary seasonal foreign workers currently employed at Barrel O' Fun Snack Foods have been to the United States before through similar, but agriculturally-based, work programs. Last year, he spent 10 months working as a truck driver for a cooperative in Iowa. Five other men he worked with in Iowa are also a part of the current program in Perham, so he wasn't entirely without friends when he moved here.

Not that Volodymyr has trouble making friends, anyway. He's a sociable 30-something guy who loves getting to know new people. Talking with his fellow Global Workforce friends and American friends and coworkers is his favorite thing about being here.

"I liked the idea of travel and money," he said of why he joined the program. "Most of us want to earn money, but the travel and conversation opens something new for us; it's more interesting than just the job."

When he's not working, Volodymyr spends time with his friends, shops and goes fishing on local lakes. He bought an inexpensive car to drive while he's here, so on his days off, he's free to roam the area and explore. That's another one of his favorite things to do here.

"You can get pleasure just from driving around," he said. "Everywhere is beautiful. There's cut grass everywhere. There's a very nice picture around you, always."

That's different than what he's used to seeing in Ukraine, he said, where there's more poverty and things aren't always kept up as nicely.

Volodymyr is from central Ukraine, about 90 miles from the country's capital, Kiev. He and his wife of seven years share a duplex-style home there with her parents. They've thankfully been affected very little by the current political turmoil in the country, he said, as they're in "a quieter part" of Ukraine. Still, he watches the news and keeps tabs on his family to make sure they stay out of harm's way.

Volodymyr went to school for engineering and mechanics, and his wife is a teacher and accountant. They're well educated, yet finding good-paying jobs in Ukraine is difficult. Before joining the Global Workforce program, Volodymyr was working as a packager in Ukraine. If he returns to the U.S. again next year for more temporary work, his wife may join him.

Ukraine is different from America, he said, in that it's "easier to make money here." Yet the U.S. doesn't get everything right.

"In Ukraine, most people cook at home," Volodymyr said. "People here eat a lot of fast food. They should cook more, if they care about family... It's better to eat meals at home and have a conversation — it ties the family together."

He also believes Americans think too much about their jobs and too little about their families.

"It's not bad to make more money, more money, more money," he said, "but that's not the main goal of life."

That's why he's not just here for the money, though the money he's making through the program is definitely part of it. He's also here for the experience.

"When you're young, you need action," he said. "You need to do something before settling down."

According to a few permanent employees recently interviewed, the Global Workforce group has fit right in at the factory, catching on fast and helping to pick up extra shifts.

"I think it's been a great success," said Steve Anderson, a trainer at Barrel O' Fun. "They've taken a big load off of all of us, and they're making big money to take home."

Editor's note: These profiles are the first two installments of the Perham Focus's weekly series on the temporary seasonal foreign workers at Barrel O' Fun.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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