CLEVELAND — Northeast Ohio and, more specifically, the city of Parma has the highest concentration of residents of Ukrainian descent, more than anywhere else in Ohio. Since their arrival in the latter part of the 19th Century and multiple waves scattered across the 20th Century, Ukrainian-Americans have raised families, built businesses and have had an indelible impact. Prompted by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a Cleveland business stands ready to welcome the newest wave of refugees.
Michael Dobronos jokes that he was his parents’ passport to enter the United States in the late 1940s. Although meant to elicit laughter, the statement, he said, is engrained in truth.
“[My parents] escaped the World War II. I was born on Salzburg, Austria but I’ve been [in the US] since I was 18 months old,” Dobronos said.
Although he has been in the United States the vast majority of his life, he leaves little ambiguity that he is of Ukrainian descent.
Incised into Cleveland’s industrial heartland just southeast of the junction of I-490 and I-77, the production and assembly plant of Architectural Fiberglass Inc. hums along. The high-pitched warning sounds of a nearby forklift harmonize with the distinct melody of high-velocity paint sprayers. A group of employees assemble a mold that’s three times their height; another employee prepares a fiberglass dome for shipment; a few more use magnifying glasses to ensure no detail has gone unnoticed and no blemish uncorrected.
The business is one big machine and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“We started off with three employees 30 years ago. It was myself, my wife and another guy. We now have 35 to 40 employees,” Dobronos said. “And we’re constantly looking for employees. Business is very good and we just need more people.”
Dobronos said his company, Architectural Fiberglass Inc., just acquired another fiberglass manufacturing firm out of Pennsylvania. The deal is expected to close in just a few weeks. Business, he said, is about to double.
And to think, this is all the product of happenstance and seizing a single opportunity.
“I opened my mouth at a church meeting and said, ‘why don’t you do this? Or that?’” Dobronos said. “They said, ‘great, why don’t you take charge of it?’”
That meeting more than three decades ago concerned what to do with the ornate metal domes atop St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, which is Dobronos’ home church. The domes being used at the time had begun to deteriorate, causing water to leak into the sanctuary.
Dobronos was working for a chemical company at the time and had a background in construction. His search for new domes for his church led him to a company in Nevada. The company initially was uninterested in the project, but Dobronos — ever so insistent — managed to convince them.
Although the Nevada-based company could have tapped a new and rather expansive market, the new domes for St. Vladimir would be one of their only church projects.
“They told me, ‘here is the formula. You do it on your own.’ That’s how I got started basically,” Dobronos said. “From there it kind of grew, all basically through word of mouth.”
Architectural Fiberglass has completed projects for nearly every domed church in Northeast Ohio and over the years has expanded into more ornate — and difficult — fiberglass cornices and cupolas. In some form or fashion, the company’s work is on or inside every historic building on Euclid Avenue from Public Square to Playhouse Square, including the venerable Terminal Tower.
A city built by immigrants, Cleveland has undoubtedly been made better by them, too.
“We strive to hire anybody but we do look forward to hiring immigrants,” Dobronos said. “We have been bringing people through sponsoring them. We’re constantly looking to do that.”
Although they jokingly refer to it as the “art department” at Architectural Fiberglass, perhaps there is no better moniker. Their work requires tremendous skill, developed over years of paying attention to the most minute detail.
Wearing goggles and a safety mask, Ulyana Woznak is in her element. She carefully spreads small globs of clay onto the mid-section of a baluster before sanding it smooth. The distinct whirl of the palm sander joins the other power tools being used.
There are dozens of molds of varying sizes scattered throughout the workshop. Broken cornices that they are working to repair and recreate are stacked on a table. Ulyana’s co-worker stands a few feet behind her, meticulously perfecting a mold on the bandsaw.
They exchange smiles for a fleeting second before getting buried in their work again.
“I knew for sure that we would be married but I didn’t know we would work together,” Ulyana Woznak said with a laugh.
Her co-worker and husband, Dave, has a mutual love for art.
A soviet studies major, he spent several years in Ukraine to study its folk art. One January day in 2003, he stopped by a local art museum.
“She actually kicked me out of the place when I first came in,” Dave Woznak said. “I said I wanted to see the museum and she said we’re closed and slammed the door in my face."
But he came back and they’ve been inseparable since.
“I knew we were going to be together. He’s my soul… He came over the Atlantic to find me… even though I slammed the door in his face.”
Thirteen years ago, Ulyana immigrated to the United States and married Dave. Both of the self-described perfectionists have worked elbow-to-elbow for the past two years.
“It was like coming not to another country; it was like coming to another planet. Sometimes it was very difficult,” Ulyana said.
As difficult as it may have been, Ulyana found refuge, support and assistance through the deeply-entrenched Ukrainian community in Northeast Ohio, which is how she met Michael Dobronos and his son, Michael G. Dobronos, an attorney.
“We try to get them affiliated with the butcher, the grocery store, and the pharmacy so they can feel at home,” Michael G. Dobronos said. “Then, when coming to work here, there’s somebody that they can have lunch with and go on break with that speaks their language. It gives them a warm feeling that a little bit of home is with them.”
Ever thankful for the help they’ve received over the years through the Ukrainian community, the Dobronos’ have always tried to pay it forward. There is a certain level of empathy that is only attainable through shared struggle.
“It’s like the United Nations here.”
Poland, Nepal, Russia, Ukraine and more; the workforce at Architectural Fiberglass is truly diverse. The diversity has been an asset, especially given the events of the past three weeks.
“Everybody is sympathetic toward Ukraine, especially the Polish people. They are very sympathetic,” Dobronos said.
Unprovoked invasions of sovereign nations by tyrannical demagogues has a way of creating empathy.
Chris Kwolczako, a native of Poland, has been working with native Ukrainians for most of his adult life. There is a shared respect amongst the two cultures, he said, and he enjoys what he does at Architectural Fiberglass.
“I’m happy to work for this company,” he said. “I love the job. I love Ukrainian people because when I worked in Poland, I worked for Ukrainian people [the same as I do here],” Kwolczako said. “Ukrainian people and me, we’re part of the same family.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago, that family has been needed more than ever. Although the opening salvos of the unprovoked attack on the former Soviet country largely focused on the eastern part of Ukraine, Putin’s army has intensified attacks on civilian targets, including those on the western side of the country.
Rockets, missiles and aerial strikes have reverberated across the countryside. Everything appears to be a target. Hospitals. Schools. Churches. Shopping malls.
And yet, Ukrainian forces have fought ferociously, largely holding their own against a larger, better-equipped Russian military.
“My whole family is in Ukraine. My parents, my sister, my niece, my brother-in-law, everyone,” Ulyana Woznak said. “My brother-in-law is in the army now. It’s hard. It’s very hard. But we pray and we hope for the best. We will win. We have one choice. We will win.”
The first true large-scale military conflict of the social media era has made the horrors of war inescapable.
“I was Kharkiv. I was in Poltava. I was in Lviv. I lived in those cities. And very sad for me to see places that I have been actually blown up. I know them. I’ve been there. That’s the hardest thing for me,” Dave Woznak said. “You see it on television. It’s not the same when you’re there and you see this.”
For Michael Dobronos, the anxiety is also pronounced. His plan to visit family in Ukraine later this year has been put on hold indefinitely. It would have been his first visit.
“We have relatives over there. We have well over 50 people. The women and children, most of them have evacuated to Poland but the men had to stay,” Dobronos said. “We are in contact with them. Some of them, their whole towns have been destroyed.”
In the main production room at Architectural Fiberglass, there is a flurry of activity: cordless drills, paint sprayers and belt sanders stimulate every sense. Hanging silently and calmly, however, are two large flags. Both flags hang as equals, one not displayed any more prominent than the other. The stars and stripes complement the horizontal bicolor of blue and yellow.
“We wanted the people to know that it’s a Ukrainian company; it’s owned by Ukrainians,” Dobronos said. “We’re proud Americans but we’re Americans of Ukrainian descent.”