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Philly company moving its Ukraine workers city to city, house to house, as Russian invasion intensifies

“Each explosion makes us worry. … It’s hard really even to eat.”

Gunter Pfau runs the Philadelphia-based company Stuzo, which employs about 100 workers in the Ukraine. He is working to move them to safe places. This photograph was taken at his home in Fleetwood, PA on Monday, February 28, 2022.
Gunter Pfau runs the Philadelphia-based company Stuzo, which employs about 100 workers in the Ukraine. He is working to move them to safe places. This photograph was taken at his home in Fleetwood, PA on Monday, February 28, 2022.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

When two predawn blasts jolted Julia Gurelya awake at her home in Zhytomyr last week — an attack on a nearby Ukrainian airfield — she knew it was time to leave.

She grabbed a prepacked bag, gathered her husband, 17-year-old daughter, 76-year-old mother, and her cat, Kovalsky, then stepped from her apartment. She headed west to the city of Ternopil and, she hoped, out of the line of fire.

Gurelya’s fast departure last Thursday morning not only sought to protect her family but to enable her to continue coordinating a high-risk, city-to-city, house-to-house relocation of about 100 colleagues, all Ukrainian employees of a Philadelphia e-commerce firm, Stuzo.

With director of operations Gurelya in that country, and founder and CEO Gunter Pfau in this one, the firm is managing to synchronize a cascading series of moves across half of Ukraine. So far that’s prevented its workers from being injured or killed amid an intensifying Russian invasion.

“All of them are safe,” said Pfau, who knows about dictatorships, having come to the United States as a refugee from Romania. “Half have temporarily relocated with their families. We’re working on the other half.”

Some 20 people managed to get to Poland early on. Others are sharing and swapping apartments as fighting in particular areas rises or quiets. One person dropped his wife and children at the Polish border and, assured of their safety, turned around and drove back into Ukraine.

“We’re really exhausted,” Stuzo program analyst Jane Sotnykova said in a video call from Kharkiv, now internationally known as the target of Russian missile attacks. “Each explosion makes us worry. … It’s hard really even to eat.”

Sotnykova has been able to stay in her apartment building — while constantly moving within it, from her upper-floor unit, to a safer, lower-level hallway, to a basement with thick walls and plenty of candles. The roar of explosions and the scream of air-raid sirens dictate her location.

She’s still working, she said. It actually helps to work during a time of constant anxiety. She’s gained strength from seeing friends and neighbors help one another amid an expanding sense of national unity.

On the call, she started to explain her plans for staying safe — then stopped and apologized. She needed to go. Air-raid sirens had begun to wail. She waved goodbye and clicked off.

Stuzo is a small company that has big goals, with a Philadelphia headquarters on the edge of Chinatown and clients that include Chevron, Murphy USA, and Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Founded in 2005, its software and e-commerce expertise helps businesses acquire more loyal customers and encourage those customers to spend more of their retail dollars at clients’ stores.

Pfau was drawn to Ukraine by its plethora of talented software engineers and specialists, and by the lower labor costs. About two-thirds of the company staff is in Ukraine, involved in all manner of technical development and support.

In mid-February, as the Russian invasion loomed, Pfau decided the company must offer its Ukrainian workers the ability to relocate, either inside or outside of the country, whatever could be managed. The firm would pay the costs.

Some people who already moved will need to move again, as battlegrounds shift and grow. Each day, staffers connect by phone or Slack or whatever communication is working, sharing information about war deaths, buildings destroyed or left standing, or which roads are open or blocked.

Pfau is checking whether he can bring employees to the United States, though at present that’s not possible for most Ukrainians under U.S. immigration laws.

For him, the fate of Ukraine feels personal, an effort of a totalitarian state to dominate a fledgling democracy.

Thirty-five years ago, on a March evening in 1987, when dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu firmly controlled Romania, Pfau’s father and mother came to him. He was about 9.

“Tomorrow,” his mother explained, “you and your father are going to leave. I’m not coming with you.”

He didn’t understand. But the next day he and his father boarded a train to Belgrade. He wouldn’t see his mother for years.

Only later did Pfau learn the facts: His parents intended to defect, an incredibly risky undertaking. The cover story was he and his father were going on vacation. Had the family left together, or even as mother and son, the communist authorities would have become suspicious.

He and his father traveled on forged documents to Serbia, then made their way to Austria. They spent a year there as refugees. Then relatives in Philadelphia sponsored them to come to the United States.

Three years later, Pfau’s mother was able to join them.

“The notion of democracy, of freedom, is very powerful for me, very emotional,” Pfau said. “Everyone in our country and in Europe should think of this as a threat to long-term democracy.”

Months before war erupted, Nazariy Ustiannyk, a Stuzo senior manager, moved from Kyiv, the capital, to the western resort town of Truskavets, known for its mineral waters.

Conditions are changing rapidly, he said in a video call, as the war forces Ukrainians to flee west.

“More and more people keep coming,” Ustiannyk said. “There’s not enough rooms. We’re trying to help, find them a place to stay.”

Sleep has become random, and short, and nights in basement bomb shelters common.

But, Ustiannyk said, the town is as far west as he intends to go.

“I’m not going to move any further,” Ustiannyk said. “I want to live here — and get these guys out of our country.”

He’s not a soldier. But he knows how to use the internet to share the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine, he said, to send videos in multiple translations with explainer captions. And that’s what he’s doing.

“We’re incredibly proud of the strength and resilience of our team in Ukraine,” said Aaron McLean, Stuzo’s chief marketing officer in Philadelphia. “We’ve seen so many team members support one another, do anything they can do to help.”

Gurelya, the operations officer, said she might need to move farther west. She might even have to leave the country.

Her husband will stay and fight. He was heading back to Zhytomyr to join the local defense forces, and she preparing for another day of trying to locate safe places for Stuzo staff members.

“I need to coordinate my team,” Gurelya said. “Of course I’m very worried. I know all these people very well.”