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From Ukraine with hope: A tale of tech migrants

It wasn't safe to stay in the strife-ridden country. Here's how one Silicon Valley startup found a new home for its employees.

This story is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Just over a year ago, Ekaterina Rzhechitskaya and her husband began seriously considering an offer they hadn't expected their company to make: a relocation from their home in Ukraine's capital to a tiny province in Canada.

Rzhechitskaya, pregnant with her first child, was anxious to escape her country's deepening troubles. A deadly Russian separatist movement had been pulling Ukraine apart for months. RevJet, the digital marketing company she'd worked at for two years, had offices near the parliament in Kiev, where bloody protests were occurring.

The couple didn't feel safe.

Accepting RevJet's proposal, however, would take her family half a world from the people she loves. She wasn't sure she was ready to be so far away.

"The hardest part about leaving was knowing we would be separated," says Rzhechitskaya from RevJet's new offices in St. John, New Brunswick. "It was a tough choice."

Ekaterina Rzhechitskaya and her husband, Evgeniy, pose with son Ian at RevJet's new offices in New Brunswick.

RevJet

Technology companies often move staff around the world when their skills or experience are needed somewhere else. But it's rare for companies to relocate employees like Rzhechitskaya, a quality assurance engineer, and her husband, Evgeniy, solely because of safety concerns in their home country. With systems and software engineers now spread around the world, that may change.

Over the summer, CNET News has explored how technology has helped -- if at all -- refugees fleeing conflict around the world. Many of those people want to come to the US, which resettles more people than any other country. But the US has capped the number of refugees it will admit to roughly 85,000 this year (up from 70,000) and 100,000 in 2017. It also limits the number of work visas for displaced foreign professionals, like Rzhechitskaya.

That's why RevJet began working on contingency plans for its Ukrainian employees in spring 2014, to ponder new destinations. Canada was high on the list, in part because it has taken in nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015.

In July 2015, RevJet began moving nearly two dozen employees and their families -- 48 people in total -- to St. John. The move of slightly more than 50 percent of its entire Ukrainian workforce marked the company's first Canadian office and re-established its research-and-development operations, which had previously been split between Kiev and Odessa, in the picturesque province.

By comparison, RevJet has 24 employees in the US. Another 18 remain in Ukraine, mostly in Odessa. About a dozen employees work in Russia and in the United Kingdom.

Jon Layman, an attorney who works with startups at Silicon Valley's Hogan Lovells, says he hadn't heard of a technology company moving its staff because of political conflict until the RevJet case. He expects RevJet will benefit by keeping its team together.

"It's probably cheaper and less disruptive to move your workers to a climate more accepting than trying to hire a whole new workforce," Layman says. "Also, maybe it's altruistic and the company wants to be loyal."

Ukraine's troubles started in late 2013, when then-president Viktor Yanukovych suspended an agreement that would have brought the country closer to the European Union. The chaos created an opportunity for neighboring Russia, which annexed part of the country. Two eastern regions of Ukraine dissolved into civil war.

As the country's crisis deepened, RevJet began drawing up plans to get its workers out. Some of the ideas included ferrying staff across the Black Sea to neighboring Turkey, a haven for refugees.

"It isn't your stereotypical 'war' with two sides fighting one another, but rather a bunch of armed young men roaming the streets with machine guns," says RevJet CEO Mitchell Weisman, explaining why the company felt compelled to relocate its team. "They'll leave you alone or they'll take your car. There is no way to predict what will happen."

Nearly 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine since the country's conflict began. Their flight comes as millions more stream into Europe from Syria, which has dissolved into civil war, and from Iraq, where ISIS terrorists control chunks of the country.

Who's a refugee, and who's not?

RevJet hoped to bring its employees to the US. But the 2-year-old company quickly found the process was involved, arduous and complicated by the fact its Ukrainian employees didn't meet the US definition of refugees. In fact, they're most likely considered migrants.

To qualify as a refugee in the US, a person must be referred by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a US embassy or a recognized non-governmental organization, according to the US State Department. Refugees undergo extensive security checks. They're required to take medical exams, submit to criminal background checks, provide biometric information and detail their travel history before they can even arrive in the US. The process can take up to two years.

A White House timeline of refugee screening says refugees undergo a "recurrent vetting" process throughout, including continuous checks in terrorist databases.

At the suggestion of longtime Silicon Valley investor John Swan, RevJet co-founder Serge Ioffee began researching Swan's home, New Brunswick, which sits along the US border with Maine. The tiny province, whose population is about a quarter of Kiev's 2.8 million, is eager to boost its falling numbers.

Kristina Ernais-Eskorsa, a RevJet HR manager and her husband, Eugene, say they've made a smooth transition from Ukraine to Canada.

RevJet

It's doing so by attracting tech companies. The province has already landed an IBM cybersecurity center, a Xerox facility and Radian6, a social media monitoring company owned by Salesforce.

Stephen Lund, the CEO of government-run Opportunities New Brunswick, says the province attracts tech companies because the cost of living is half that of the Bay Area and because it's close to East Coast hubs, like Boston and New York.

Mostly, companies like the cozy, small-town feel.

"Canada is seen in today's climate as a great place to live, and we're an example of that," Lund says. "This is an extremely safe environment to raise a family."

ONB officials first met with RevJet in San Francisco in September 2014. Six months later, they agreed on a deal.

As part of the agreement, the agency helped RevJet negotiate a total of $400,000 in payroll tax rebates over three years to move to New Brunswick. Lund says RevJet's presence will boost the province's economy by nearly $3 million a year.

ONB worked with Canada's federal government to help RevJet with visas, a process that took three months.

The agency also provided RevJet employees with a settlement officer fluent in both English and Ukrainian to help the transplants find places to live, along with health care and banking services. It also helped them find tutors to improve their English.

RevJet, which declined to say how much the relocation cost, opened its New Brunswick office in St. John's City Hall in May.

'A chance to start over'

Kristina Ernais-Eskorsa, a Ukrainian RevJet human resources manager, says it took her "all of 10 seconds" to decide to move when Mitchell proposed the relocation.

"In the Ukraine, you feel it's unstable to be there," says Ernais-Eskorsa, who moved last fall with her husband, Eugene, also a RevJet employee. "Not everybody has a chance to start over."

Ernais-Eskorsa said it's been tough mentally being away from her mother and other family members, though they stay in touch via Skype. Still, she and her husband are making friends in the community and have visited Halifax, Quebec, New York and Boston already this year, with plans to see Toronto and Montreal, too.

A bit homesick, the couple also spent this summer in Ukraine to see loved ones, but were eager to return to Canada.

For Rzhechitskaya, who was in the last trimester of her pregnancy when she moved, the biggest challenge was finding a doctor. Often, her name was misspelled on medical paperwork.

In November, she gave birth to a boy, named Ian. Because he was born in New Brunswick, Ian is a Canadian citizen.

After a six-month maternity leave, Rzhechitskaya is back at work. Her day typically starts at 5:30 a.m. and she works from home in the morning. Then she takes her son to daycare and heads to the office.

Meanwhile, her husband, who is also part of RevJet's quality assurance department, works 11-hour days so he can bridge the time difference between Canada and Ukraine. Needless to say, their weekends, which involve either going to the beach or the forest, are precious.

"This is really starting to feel like home," she says.