Faces of the Boom: Oil Patch trumps the diamond market

Abhilash Soman, pictured Dec. 1, 2012, at Economart in Williston, N.D., his favorite place to eat. Soman is training to become a drill pipe inspector in Williston. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Abhilash Soman sold his wedding ring to come to Williston, where he says he’s found his fortune.

The India native had a career as a gemologist before he married an American and moved to Miami. There, he tried to work in the diamond market, but struggled to make a living.

After 10 months in Williston, he has a high-paying job and hopes to be certified next month as a drill pipe inspector.

But before getting to this point, the 32-year-old thought about giving up on staying in Williston many times.

“A lot of times I wanted to quit,” Soman said. “But when I think about the future, that is not a choice.”

Soman, who goes by Aby in North Dakota because people can’t pronounce his name, sold his ring for gas money and drove his Ford Windstar to Williston last March.

He didn’t realize until getting to North Dakota that the heater in the van didn’t work because he never needed it in Florida. And he’d never heard of a sleeping bag.

The first night in Williston, he covered himself with all of his clothes and spent the night in the van.

Starting his second night, Soman began sleeping on a cot in Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church while he looked for work.

Soman, who speaks English well but is still working to improve his skills, said he applied for more than 100 jobs before a company called him back.

After about a month of job hunting, he found a job inspecting drill pipe for cracks or damage, working 45 days straight followed by 14 days off.

“Forty-five days work like a slave. Fourteen days, live like a king,” Soman said.

The job provides him housing in a trailer with several other workers. Soman now has enough seniority to have his own bedroom.

It’s not the highest paying job in the oilfield, but it allows him to get a lot of overtime.

When he was starting out, Soman once worked as many as 124 hours in one week. Now a typical work week is about 85 hours, he said.

“If you really want to make some money, this is the only place,” Soman said. “I’m really lucky that I work here.”

He expects to be in Williston for another two years to save money for his family’s future and return to working in his field.

Soman, who is from southern India, studied gemology in Thailand and worked as a diamond broker for several countries in Africa. He met his wife, a social worker from Miami, in Tanzania while she was visiting with a volunteer group, he said.

They had a long-distance relationship for about four years and got married in India before moving to Miami. He lived in Florida for about nine months before coming to North Dakota.

“It’s not easy to work here and maintain the relationship,” Soman said.

Soman calls his wife in Miami and his family in India every day. He also frequently wires money to family.

“I take care of my mom very well,” he said.

During his vacation that started this weekend, Soman is traveling to Tanzania, where he used to work, to grade some stones a client plans to purchase.

The Rev. Jay Reinke, who kept in touch with Soman after he left Concordia, said he’s impressed by how Soman gained his footing in Williston and is still connected with his former career.

“He’s a man who’s comfortable on multiple continents,” Reinke said. “He’s just at home around the globe.”

Soman has a permanent resident card and is considering becoming a U.S. citizen. He said he’s made good friends in North Dakota and has fun at work.

“I’m really happy, proud that I’m here in Williston,” Soman said. “And very confident I can do it, too.”

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