Clockwise from left; Mohammed Khuder, Olena Khuder, Ahmed Khuder, 15, and Yazan Khuder, 7, photographed at home in Minneapolis. Not pictured is their daughter Violetta, 18.

Clockwise from left; Mohammed Khuder, Olena Khuder, Ahmed Khuder, 15, and Yazan Khuder, 7, photographed at home in Minneapolis. Not pictured is their daughter Violetta, 18. (Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Minneapolis resident Mohamed Khuder climbs onto an 18-wheeler every morning with a cup of coffee, ready to drive across the country hauling heavy machinery on a flatbed trailer.

It is a stark departure from his former jobs running a construction company and exporting trucks from Eastern Europe to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. But Khuder, 41, is beginning life anew just as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have done in the United States since the Russian invasion two years ago.

Starting over has become familiar to Khuder: This is yet another home for him after wars devastated first his mother country of Syria, then his adopted nation of Ukraine a decade later.

As the number of displaced people around the world has reached 110 million — the most since World War II — global unrest has stretched so far that some people have been battered by more than one armed conflict. Like many refugees, Khuder has developed a kind of fortitude and appreciation for all that remains, and an eagerness and gratefulness for the chance to make Minnesota his home.

“Sometimes I think about the two wars, what influence it [had on] me and my family,” he said. “It makes me stronger. I know life more because two or three times you have to start everything from the beginning.”

“It’s good,” he added. “I can work. I have my health, my kids. I have everything to start again. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Minnesotans have filed more than 4,900 applications to sponsor those fleeing the war in Ukraine, and the state has welcomed 1,300 Afghans after the Taliban returned to power. Another 1,500 refugees — many from Africa and Asia — resettled in Minnesota in 2023, and that figure is expected to rise this year.

Khuder grew up in Idlib, a small city in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, where his family had an olive oil factory. Khuder moved to Odesa, a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, to study information technology in 2003. He married a local woman named Olena two years later. Khuder learned Russian, and his wife learned Arabic.

The couple relocated to Dubai for a few years and were considering moving to Syria to be closer to Khuder’s family when mass anti-government protests erupted there and soon spiraled into civil war. In 2012, the Khuders received a phone call: Mohamed’s old house had been bombed. His relatives survived after escaping through a hole blasted in the home’s wall.

Olena, now 45, had been looking forward to spending more time with her husband’s family in Syria. She said she always enjoyed visiting the country — its desert sands, its peacefulness. “They have a very good culture, very interesting,” she said.

“Had,” Mohamed corrected her. “There is no country anymore.”

His family resettled in Turkey, and the Khuders returned to Ukraine. Mohamed loved his adopted city, where they lived in an elegant condo with their three children.

“I had a good business there; I had good friends there. It was a very beautiful city,” he said. “You feel [like] yourself in your home in Odesa.”

On Feb. 22, 2022, Mohamed left Odesa on a business trip to Lithuania. Two mornings later, Olena heard explosions: The city was under attack. News reports said 22 people fell victim to Russian bombs.

“I just was numb,” she said. “My life stopped.”

Mohamed’s brother, a journalist working in Istanbul, phoned about the invasion, but Mohamed did not understand what was happening. In Odesa, his wife fled in the family’s Nissan Juke, a subcompact SUV so small she had to leave some bags behind. The drive to the border with Moldova should have taken an hour, but so many cars jammed the road the journey took all night.

Mohamed thought the fighting would end in a week. But when a month passed, he said, “I understood that that will be for a long time, and I get in my mind that I will start from zero again.”

After traveling through several countries, Olena and their children joined Mohamed in Dublin, Ireland. Refugee resettlement officials moved them to an apartment 20 miles outside Cork after six months. It was too rural and remote, the couple recalled, and they could not find work.

“No job is very boring for me,” Mohamed said. “I have to do something.”

They moved to Germany for a while but struggled to learn the language and land jobs. Last year, they found a sponsor to emigrate to Minnesota through the Uniting for Ukraine program. Within 10 days of their arrival, Mohamed went to work at a factory testing electronics. His wife, an English tutor in Ukraine, was hired as an administrative assistant at the University of Minnesota. Their children Violetta, 18; Ahmed, 15; and Yazan, 7, enrolled in school.

Mohamed went on to earn his commercial driver’s license and started a trucking job last December. He’s already traveled from California to Florida, keeping up with his family by phone while working 70 hours a week. He returns home for a week after every month on the road.

In Orlando, he met a childhood friend, and Olena and their youngest child traveled south to visit Disney World. “I was impressed so much, like a small little girl,” she recalled.

The couple hopes they can start businesses and own a home here one day.

They have not been back to Syria since 2010 or to Ukraine since the war broke out two years ago. In November, news reports said Russian forces allied with the Syrian government killed 34 fighters in air strikes in Idlib and bombed a crowded market in the city on New Year’s Eve. In Odesa, Russian soldiers have repeatedly attacked cultural heritage sites and key grain export facilities.

Olena finds it difficult to talk about the war in Ukraine. Sometimes, she said, she worries about her house, her parents who have relocated to Germany and the suffering of those still in the country.

“I know I cannot change everything,” she said. “I cannot go back in the past. Just I try to live now and to think about the future, about my family, and to take a lot of opportunities that life will ... give me.”

©2024 StarTribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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