As the war drags on, Ukrainian tech workers keep plugging away
Anna* was looking forward to a trip to the US. But this isn’t what she had in mind.
Early this year, Anna was living in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she spent years building a life and career in the tech industry. When her boyfriend moved to the Los Angeles area last fall, she chose to stay behind — she, like millions of others, had plans for her future in her home country. Still, they video chatted every day and made plans to visit each other. Anna was set to fly to the US in March 2022 for her next visit.
But by the end of February, the world had changed completely. The trip to Los Angeles did happen — but not anywhere near as planned. After spending the night in a bomb shelter in the city center, Anna grabbed a backpack and her cat, escaping to Hungary and eventually Portugal. From there, she flew to the US.
Her job faded into the past. Each move to a more stable landing spot had put miles between her and her family. Even the few comforts Anna had managed to save would fall away — she had to leave her cat behind in Lisbon. (Anna requested a pseudonym so as to not jeopardize her immigration case.)
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, over a hundred thousand people are estimated to have died on both sides, and millions more have fled. Refugees from Ukraine in the US are living in an uneasy middle ground, where the war is both immediate and distant — unable to witness firsthand and impossible to ignore.
Without an end in sight, their jobs have come to be both a welcomed distraction and, at times, a forceful reminder of the precariousness of Ukraine’s future. For better or worse, they’ve been a constant; as war continues, so does work. For those who’ve had their lives upturned — and with it, the ability to make a living — survival is all the more difficult as they’re left anxious and waiting for signs of normalcy returning.
Ukraine was home to nearly 300,000 tech workers and roughly 5,000 tech companies in 2021, according to IT Ukraine, many of which provide offshoring services for US companies in e-commerce, healthcare, banking, and other industries. The tech sector (broadly called IT in Ukraine) was responsible for more than 4 percent of Ukraine’s GDP in 2021. Still, even before the war, some Ukrainians left the country’s fast-growing tech industry for the US in search of better jobs, higher pay, or opportunities to grow their burgeoning startups in industry hubs like Silicon Valley.
Daniel Tonkopi had moved to the US from Kyiv in September 2021, nearly half a year before Russia invaded. He hoped to grow his e-bike startup, Delfast, in the heart of California’s electric vehicle market. Tonkopi found a Los Angeles-area rental with Delfast’s chief revenue officer, sales team lead, and an engineer, envisioning a startup house like they’d seen on the show Silicon Valley. The workplace and home would become one. The main living space would be for meetings, the garage used to assemble e-bikes.
But they weren’t destined to live a typical startup lifestyle. Anna — Tonkopi’s girlfriend — arrived in March. She wasn’t the only one. Soon, the house would be filled with other Delfast employees and their families, all of whom had fled Ukraine. At one point housing eight people, including a child, the startup home became a landing place for Ukrainian refugees. Tonkopi soon found himself both building a company and supporting employees through a war.
In one respect, Anna has the opposite problem: she’s not legally allowed to work at all. She wasn’t eligible for Uniting for Ukraine, a USCIS-run immigration program introduced by the Biden administration, because she was already in the US. Temporary Protected Status, which offers foreign nationals from designated countries the ability to apply for temporary immigration status due to reasons like unsafe conditions at home, could take even longer to go through, she was advised, and receiving work authorization could take up to six months. The boredom from not having a job is suffocating, especially when she could use a distraction from her surroundings and from the war.
In Ukraine, she had worked in the tech industry as a project coordinator and manager; as a certified Scrum master, she taught others how to effectively guide teams and projects through their work. She also published a book of poetry in 2021.
“I lost a huge part of my life, and here, I lost also the opportunity to work,” she says. “The only thing making me me is my poetry, and that’s it. And that is not enough for me.”
Since the influx of people in the startup house, Tonkopi has moved work from the garage to a separate 4,000-square-foot workshop, where the Delfast team assembles e-bikes and ships them out to clients and customers. Tonkopi is determined that the company will grow and Ukraine will win the war — hope in spite of chaos and violence.
“Previously, we had such a working atmosphere. Now we have families, wives, children, but I believe everyone understands what is the main goal,” Tonkopi says. The startup house as initially imagined is no more, but in Tonkopi’s head, perhaps out of sheer necessity, the fight for Ukraine and the work needed to make the company successful have become intertwined.
Tonkopi says there is a long road ahead for Ukraine even after the war is won.
“Our work will be done when Ukraine will win. Then, we’ll have a next phase; we will have to rebuild our country,” he says. Growing Delfast and having the business succeed, Tonkopi says, will be part of the Ukrainian success story.
“So we have a lot of work to do for the next several years.”
Not all Ukrainians in the US have been able to switch gears as easily. In the first few months, Tim Tkachenko found himself unable to openly discuss the war with friends and colleagues. Tkachenko is a Russian citizen living in the Bay Area and has family and friends from both Ukraine and Russia. As he watched the invasion from afar, he couldn’t help but feel implicated.
“You cannot fully separate yourself from the country which does such things,” Tkachenko says. “Somehow, you feel ashamed of things your country can do, and you cannot understand that yourself.”
His discomfort and guilt spilled over into the workplace, too. At Qure.Finance, an investing app co-founded by Tkachenko, productivity came to a grinding halt in the early days of the war, and Tkachenko paused his regular check-ins with employees. The company lost contact with a recently hired team member in Ukraine, who was in constant danger living in a city occupied by Russian troops. After 10 days of attempts at contacting him, Tkachenko finally heard back: the employee had no electricity, and he could only charge his phone once every few days.
With employees in Russia, Belarus, and elsewhere in Europe, the effects of the war were felt by everyone.
“Everybody’s performance dropped a lot,” said Tkachenko. He says his work as a manager suffered as well. A functional workplace depends on open communication, but Tkachenko was worried for his colleagues and friends, and he couldn’t talk about the one thing that was affecting them the most: the Russian invasion.
By April, things had gotten to the point that Tkachenko realized the situation was untenable. He began to express solidarity with Ukraine in some much-needed personal conversations with his friends. Shortly after, Tkachenko resumed his practice of scheduling frequent one-on-one meetings with every employee, realizing that Qure.Finance’s future depended on it.
“I kind of understood that if we keep going this way, then we can just shut down the company, and we will have to fire everybody,” he says. “A startup should grow. We cannot just sit and do nothing.”
At a weekly running club for tech workers founded by Tkachenko, Russians, Ukrainians, and others in the Bay Area gather to run, but also to talk. When the topic of the war comes up, it is matter-of-fact, Tkachenko says. It is just part of life now.
Nataliia Zarichna left her grueling part-time gig translating movies, cartoons, and documentaries around 2010 for a job in quality assurance. The tech scene in her hometown of Ternopil was beginning to pick up. The industry culture was supportive and collaborative, Zarichna says, with outsourcing companies hosting free workshops with food and drinks, hoping to entice workers. And the money was “top dollar” — Zarichna made around $2,000 a month working in Kyiv in 2014, far more than the $250 her parents brought in a month in her hometown. Outsourcing companies threw in benefits like gym memberships, and had offices in luxury skyscrapers.
“They did everything possible to attract talent and to be the top-top, number one, in the tech scene,” Zarichna says. But compared to her American counterparts doing quality assurance work, Zarichna’s pay was paltry — she estimates someone with the same experience in San Francisco would likely have made between $6,000 to $8,000 monthly.
Zarichna and her husband moved to California in 2015 after he received a job offer; she landed a role at TrueCar almost immediately. In the US, Zarichna worked her way up at her job, where she is now a senior software engineering manager. She observed the culture of the tech industry in the US, how it was different from what she experienced in Ukraine. Her family grew when she and her husband had a child.
When Zarichna learned of Russia’s invasion, she called friends and family back home, trying to wrap her head around what was happening. Feeling unable to work, she took a few days off, glued to Twitter and news reports about the invasion. Zarichna was touched when her TrueCar colleagues raised money in support of Ukraine.
San Francisco’s Ukrainian community also mobilized quickly, Zarichna says, and began donating money and buying supplies — food and diapers for civilians, and drones and binoculars for the military. The bigger problem was how to get donations into the country: with airspace closed, the only way in was through ground transportation.
“People were just calling each other asking, ‘How can I help?’ Nobody knew how, but people wanted to do something,” she says.
It’s only gotten harder for her to keep in touch with people in Ukraine. A fuller work schedule since a recent promotion has made it almost impossible to call family in the mornings. Rolling blackouts caused by missile strikes can cut power, so that when she does have time to phone Ukraine, the calls don’t always go through. The possibility of losing touch with family at any moment threatens her peace of mind.
“All the time, I have this feeling I’m not doing enough,” Zarichna says. Between work and raising a young child, Zarichna and her husband have their hands full. Donating money seems like the best way to help support those still in Ukraine. They hope for the best from a distance as the conflict nears the one-year mark.
“Every person can only do [so much]. I feel like it’s better to do at least something than nothing.”
Without the ability to help on the ground, Ukrainian tech workers in the US have found different ways to feel useful. Shortly after beginning her job as an account manager at Expedia last year, Kate Covalenco joined an internal network of volunteer mental health ambassadors. She serves as a resource for colleagues who are struggling with work or personal life — essentially an internal mental health hotline. Covalenco was born in Crimea, a Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia since 2014, and then moved to Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway territory within Moldova. Covalenco arrived in the US about a decade ago.
When the invasion began, there was a “sense of panic” among the other mental health ambassadors, Covalenco says. Her co-workers expected — and wanted to be prepared for — Ukrainian colleagues to reach out to ambassadors for support, but few did. Covalenco attributes this to the “stigma in Eastern Europe about mental health,” as well as the “extreme level” of survival mode many Ukrainians were experiencing. Enduring conflict is a familiar experience for many in the region, Covalenco says. Members of her own family fled Transnistria for Ukraine in the 1990s.
Covalenco, along with other colleagues from the region, educated peers about Eastern European cultural differences. The mental health team eventually became close, setting ground rules and expectations around how to talk about the war.
But even with support at work, Covalenco must negotiate her own fear for friends and family with the reality that she’s halfway across the world. Her frantic texts would sometimes go unanswered. Some family members lived in a state of denial during the first few months, she says, refusing to see the invasion as an escalation of war.
As the war has progressed, Covalenco has taught herself how to detach just enough — one foot in, one foot out. She has pulled herself away from refreshing her Instagram feed and Telegram channels nonstop. Learning to live without guilt is something she’s still working on.
She tries to limit her anxiety by allowing herself only 20 minutes of reading the news a day. “I allow myself to sit in this emotion, be completely in a panic mode, full-on anxiety, freaking out for 20 minutes. And then after that, we have to figure out how to live our lives,” she says.
Covalenco moves between frustration, hope, and fear. Last fall, when peace talks between Russia and Ukraine began to look more and more unlikely, Covalenco felt angry, but she’d learned to separate herself from things out of her control. The best way forward for her, she says, is to take one day at a time. She doesn’t know or try to predict when the war will end.
“I just don’t like to have expectations,” Covalenco says. “One way or another, they will ruin you.”
The last eight months of Serhii’s life have been marked by intermittent attacks on his city of Kharkiv. At some points, attacks happened daily, the sound of rockets keeping him up at night. Food was scarce for a while. He was cautious about leaving the house, afraid of the possibility of being drafted into the military, right there at the store or on the street corner. But mostly, the war has been lonely.
Many of Serhii’s friends have left the city, along with his girlfriend, who went to Israel. (The Verge is withholding Serhii’s last name for his safety.) His closest companion is a black cat named Puma, who’s become a priority in his life. Besides an occasional walk outside, Serhii’s days are mostly spent working.
From 9AM to 7PM, Serhii logs on remotely to work at a healthcare tech company. When the war began, his employer offered time off for affected workers and also provided a bonus, Serhii says. He took one week off — what amounts to a short vacation — before clocking back in.
“I decided to work as soon as possible because I went crazy,” Serhii explains. “It is really hard, when you don’t know when you are going to bed if you will be able to get up. I decided that I’d rather kill these thoughts and just do my work.”
Attacks have decreased since their peak in Kharkiv, Serhii says, and he no longer lives in fear of imminent death or his windows shattering. Now, the problem is outages of internet, heating, electricity, and water as the Russian military targets critical infrastructure in Ukraine. Serhii has stockpiled food, water, and a power bank in case he goes dark. His colleagues know to expect it.
For all of the anxiety Serhii experiences, some friends who’ve left their homes in Ukraine are also struggling, he says. Acquaintances who’ve gone elsewhere in Europe are faced with a higher cost of living, struggling to afford rent and food. Serhii sends up to two-thirds of his salary to his girlfriend in Israel each month.
“I am at home; I know what I can do, what I have,” Serhii says. Friends, meanwhile, are longing to return home, whenever that is. “It’s easier for me.”
For Anna, this past summer was spent waiting. She has tried to build a routine for herself, biding her time working on another book of poetry, taking online classes on LinkedIn Learning, and preparing for English classes at a local college. She and Tonkopi eventually got married — a reprieve of joy and celebration amid a terrible year.
Anna, who is awaiting work authorization, is among those Ukrainians who learned the hard way about the labyrinthine US immigration system. Some people were able to enter through Mexico, where asylum seekers arrived by the thousands; others went through Uniting for Ukraine, which had received more than 120,000 sponsorship applications as of September, according to CBS News.
The arduous road for asylum seekers in the US is well-documented, and advocates and scholars have noted the relatively warm reception Ukrainians have received compared to other asylum seekers. Russian dissidents and antiwar activists, too, have been detained at the border, held in harsh conditions at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.
After months of waiting to hear news on her case, Anna has started looking for jobs in Europe, mulling over whether it would be best for her to leave the US to work for a period of time. Now, with the oncoming recession and slow season, Tonkopi’s e-bike company has been struggling, resulting in layoffs and pay cuts in the company.
“I worked so hard to get everything I lost in Ukraine, and I haven’t started to gain something here yet,” Anna says, adding that she’s thankful for the support Ukraine has received in the US, including billions in military aid from the US government. She decided to stay in the US to be with Tonkopi, preferring to wait for work authorization instead of possibly working, but being alone, elsewhere.
Ukrainians have amassed support from average Americans sympathetic to their plight, too, with blue-and-yellow flags peppering social media bios, usernames, and yards. But as the months drag on, appetite for news about the war has seemed to dwindle, even as Ukraine has defended itself against Russia and recaptured territory. The TikTok algorithm is back to serving up celebrity gossip and Shein hauls. Google searches for the war have plunged from their peak. In calls to investors, the war has become a “geopolitical event” causing “headwinds,” if it is referenced at all.
As the war becomes less of a focal point in the American media, Ukrainians are holding on tightly to the ties that bind them to the conflict. They relay war updates from family and friends in Ukraine, boost fundraisers and charities, and show support for troops online. The aspects of life that otherwise stood on their own — jobs, friendships, community — have also been engulfed by the war. Eventually, everything is consumed by a feeling of life or death.
The people far from the frontlines have internalized the importance of “doing their part,” which often amounts to showing up at their job, staying productive, and gritting through the precariousness, fear, and longing that swirl in their minds. It means pushing away the human instinct to worry about your existence and instead focusing on the task at hand. As a bitter winter sets in, the life many knew in Ukraine fades further away, and an unfamiliar, distant future looms amid the hope and anguish. There is no timeline, countdown, or promise for a new day. But if and when it comes, it is certain that work will be waiting.