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5K miles from home during a war: Ukraine man works in US while his family stays behind in Odesa

Yaroslav Yaroslavskyi is one of the migrant workers recruited by a woman in Muscatine. He was one of the few workers able to leave Ukraine.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Editor's note: This story is part of a two-part series on migrant workers from Ukraine. You can read/watch part one here.

A Muscatine woman founded iWorkMarket to help businesses across the U.S. recruit and hire seasonal migrant workers.

Over the years, Irina Mealy has lost count of how many workers she's helped get H-2B and H-2A visas to work for agricultural and nonagricultural businesses.

Mealy herself is from Russia. She immigrated to the U.S. in 2000.

iWorkMarket has recruiters in Poland, France, Israel, Mexico, Lithuania, Moldova, and also hires workers from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Haiti. However, the majority of its workers are from western Ukraine.

Many of her Ukraine-based workers already had their visas to come work in the U.S. for the season, but because of the Russian invasion, they are now unable to. She estimates more than 20 people can't work right now. 

"We were not ready for that," Mealy said. "None of the workers, I mean, I was asking, 'Do you think it's going to be okay?' And none of them thought this is going to happen."

She said many of them had their plane tickets and were set to leave Ukraine the day Russia invaded or in the next few days after that.

"It was a shock," Mealy said. "They could have left like a couple days earlier if we knew, but they were scheduled right exactly after that date. So many companies didn't get their workers back."

All Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 were banned from leaving the country. Mealy has had to work to recruit more people from other countries to fill their jobs.

A few of her workers were still able to leave Ukraine and come to the U.S., Mealy said, because of medical conditions or if they have more than three children.

One of her recruits able to leave is Yaroslav Yaroslavskyi. He's worked with Mealy for several years. He's worked for a seafood company in Alaska, a farm in Iowa and is currently a truck driver for a farm in North Dakota.

Yaroslavskyi was in Odesa when Russia invaded.

"We are staying in our apartments. I (lived) near airport, two kilometers from airport to my house," Yaroslavskyi said. "We (had) the first rocket attack from 4:30 a.m. until 5 a.m. We (had) three attacks in the airport. And after four hours, we have five attacks more. After six hours from the first attack, we have the tanks and some armor weapons near the street and a lot of soldiers."

He used to be in the army and wanted to volunteer for the Ukraine defense team, but was told he couldn't because of the pacemaker he uses for his heart.

"I talked with my doctor from (the) army. He said no you can't. Why, I'm still good?" Yaroslavskyi said. "That's not the problem, he said, you're like Tony Stark from Marvel. You know, like Iron Man? But you are not (a) superhero."

He was able to leave Ukraine in early April and arrived in North Dakota later that month. His wife and younger son are still in the Odesa region with his parents.

Recently, his apartment was destroyed. He's just thankful his wife and son were staying with his parents in a different part of the region at that time.

"We call every day maybe three or five times," he said. "We have the alarm in Ukraine, especially in the Odesa region, 14 or 15 times in one day. I'm so worried about my family, but somebody needed (to) make money. I don't have a choice."

"When you watch the news, you want to cry," Mealy said. "It's like every single second you see like alert in this region, alert in this region... It's hard to believe this is real that there is one monster in the world that could just start killing people like that."

Yaroslavskyi's visa is good through December. His family doesn't want to move to the U.S. and he's hoping to return to Ukraine.

"We have different (situations) every day in Ukraine. It's more important for me to stay near my family. If I have some money for change of place for (leaving), I (come) back to Ukraine," he said. "I hope we don't have (a) situation about (a) change of motherland. I hope, everybody hope, and I'm sure after this war, we have the beautiful country, more beautiful than like before."

Mealy encourages those who are able to participate in the Uniting for Ukraine program. The program helps provide a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to the U.S. and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. You can volunteer to be a sponsor and provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay. 

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