Transplanting job skills

Emigres: Refugees from the former Soviet Union usually fit quickly into the work force. But some find it tough to regain their niche.

February 23, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Iosif Mogilevskiy was hunting for a job. But not just any job.

New to Baltimore after fleeing anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, Mogilevskiy wanted to resume his career. He was, after all, an expert in his field, an authority on sunflowers -- or, more precisely, the science of squeezing oil from sunflower seeds.

"Want work sunflower factory," he would say in what little English he knew.

What followed was a job search unlike any other in memory at the Pikesville offices of the Jewish Vocational Service, which has located work for many of the 8,000 Russian-speaking immigrants who have settled in the Baltimore area since 1991.

Many of the immigrants regain their professional standing, even if it means taking menial jobs until they master English. But Mogilevskiy stood out. He demanded that his narrow expertise be matched to a suitable job.

As they searched, job counselors wondered whether the burly man with the persistent manner was really an industrial engineer. Or was he exaggerating his credentials, maybe even inventing them altogether?

In time, they located a potential employer -- in a small Kansas town. But Mogilevskiy, with grown children and one grandchild in Baltimore and an ailing wife to care for, faced a choice that cut to the heart of his identity. He agonized.

"I was suffering," he said recently, speaking through a translator as he brushed away tears. "I did not sleep at night. I did not know what to do."

Iosif and Liza Mogilevskiy's home is adorned with family snapshots and Old World treasures. It's also decorated with sunflowers -- silk sunflowers on their coffee table, painted ones on their pots and pans. Sunflowers on the kitchen curtains, more on a small floor mat.

A small basket, sunflowers on its handle, contains a bottle of cognac from their hometown in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

Iosif (pronounced YO-seff), 60, holds many memories of life in Beltsy, Moldova, including the image of sunflower seed shells littering city streets. "You can see millions of people sitting out at night with the seeds, eating the seeds," he recalled.

Sunflowers also help drive the economy of Moldova, an independent state about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, tucked between Romania and Ukraine near the Black Sea.

Over the years, he worked his way from low-level jobs at a vegetable oil factory in Beltsy to become manager of a division that annually processed thousands of tons of sunflower seeds into oil.

For nearly three decades, the job was his life.

"I don't see him a lot," recalled his 54-year-old wife, Liza. "Every time, my children say, `Where is my father?' "

Almost always, the answer was: at the factory.

While he was consumed with his work, Iosif believes he ultimately was denied the opportunity to run the entire factory because he is Jewish. It didn't help that he wasn't a member of the Communist Party.

In a land populated largely by ethnic Romanians and a small but forceful Russian minority, the Jewish family faced other obstacles. Their children -- a daughter with an ear for music and a son with a gift for mathematics -- were discriminated against in school, the Mogilevskiys said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, anti-Semitism seemed to grow worse for the Mogilevskiys as Moldova entered a volatile period marked by extreme nationalism. With pain, the couple recalled how vandals repeatedly desecrated Iosif's mother's grave.

In 1993, Iosif, Liza and their adult son, Alexander, came to Baltimore, following their daughter, Izabella, and her husband. A few weeks later, Iosif showed up in the offices of Jewish Vocational Service.

Many of the refugees who came to Baltimore from the former Soviet Union find their place in the American work force with surprising ease, said Eva Schwartz, director of career services at the Pikesville organization.

Others become cabdrivers or deliver pizza while they learn enough English to help regain the type of job they held in their homelands. One man, who had worked in the Russian space program, bagged groceries in a Pikesville supermarket before becoming a rocket scientist, Schwartz said.

For Iosif, job counselors searched widely, from farms on Maryland's Eastern Shore to the National Sunflower Association in Bismarck, N.D.

Finally, after more than two dozen calls, a lead emerged: A company, then known as National Sun Industries, was producing sunflower oil at a factory in Goodland, Kan., a town of 5,700 near Kansas' border with Colorado. Job counselors in Pikesville arranged for Iosif to be interviewed by phone.

Soon, they would find out whether Iosif Mogilevskiy really knew anything about making sunflower oil.

By chance, the manager of the Kansas plant was an Israeli whose parents were from Russia. Shlomo Nadel talked to Iosif in Russian, quizzing him on the intricacies of sunflower oil production. It was clear to Nadel that Iosif was well-versed in the fundamentals of the process.

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