12 May, 2023

Anton's Story: From Kyiv to Georgia (USA)

Eclipse Gaming’s Anton Yakovenko speaks to Gambling Insider Editor Tim Poole, telling the heart-warming story of how he was able to leave war-torn Ukraine with his wife Kristina and dog Muha. We also hear what it was like for the supplier during the ordeal from Steve McDonald, Senior Director of HR.

Thank you so much for joining us Anton. Can you, in your own words, walk us through your story of how you got from A to B, leaving Ukraine and ending up in Georgia working in the Eclipse Gaming office?

Anton Yakovenko: One morning in Kyiv, we woke up to explosions. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of experience; I literally could not control my body. I woke up screaming and I couldn’t understand why – but I couldn’t stop screaming. My body was out of my control. Then, when I calmed down a bit, we heard another series of explosions – and we understood. We understood that, yes, the war has started. There were lot of rumours for the previous two months, but we still did not believe a full-scale war would happen. Our first thoughts were to at least get some information about what’s happening, because we didn’t know if there were already Russian forces in Kyiv. Was it even safe to go out, or was it safer to stay inside?

Checking social media and different news outlets, we found some information. Then President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also sent his recorded video message and we realised that, yes, while there were no Russian forces in Kyiv yet, it was clear Kyiv would be their main target and we decided to leave. Me and my wife Kristina had two cars and grabbed our most important things, like documents and medication, because I have diabetes. And, of course, our dog – that’s one of the most important parts of our life. We picked up Kristina’s mother and a couple of friends, and set off to my native town, where my mother and grandfather live. It’s far from Russian borders so it was much safer there. Leaving the same day, it took us about 10 hours to get there, when usually it is at most a four-hour drive.

Of course, we still have in our mind that, while we are in a safe place, there is still a brutal war in Ukraine where I have friends who are fighting

Anton Yakovenko

What were your next steps?

AY: From there, we wanted to move forward and leave Ukraine. The problem here was that Ukraine would not allow men from the age of 18 to 60 to leave the country if they could  serve in the army. Because of my diabetes, this normally wouldn’t have been a problem. But when we were at the border with Poland, they said my existing papers were not relevant anymore and that I would have to go through the same process again to determine my ineligibility to serve. This entire process took about eight months, because I had to go to a hospital, go through a bunch of different doctors, who would all come to their own conclusions.

After a lot of paperwork, eventually we did it. We also won the H1-B lottery, which would allow me and my wife to come to the US. This was actually something we had planned for a couple of years already. But when the war started, we had to move this plan forward. We couldn’t get an actual Visa interview in Ukraine because the US Embassy was closed, so we had to go to a different country to have that interview, leaving Ukraine on 1 October. On 1 December, we received an interview and got Visas. And on 14 December, we actually came to the US. I have to say it was a great relief, although the flight itself was pretty difficult. It was long and we had our dog with us. It was our first experience of travelling with the dog and it had some nuances. After everything, however, we are very happy that we did it. It was a great relief to finally reach safety and to reach this goal we were following for such a long time.

Of course, we still have in our mind that, while we are in a safe place, there is still a brutal war in Ukraine where I have friends who are fighting. It’s something that is always in the back of my mind. It’s great that my story has been highlighted – it’s very good to have some positivity. Yet I think it’s very important to remember that the war is still ongoing. Even though there are now fewer stories about major events in Ukraine, it is still happening. And the fact there is not any major news is only caused by the strong resistance Russian forces are getting in Ukraine. So I’m really grateful for all the support I’ve received.

A question for Steve: from the company’s perspective, what was going through your minds and was there constantly work being done from your side?

Steve McDonald: Yes is the short answer to your question! We’ve worked with Anton for more than a couple of years here at Eclipse. Anton was effectively a contractor for us in the Ukraine and we have definitely leaned on Anton’s skillset over the past four or five years. Anton’s been great all round and that’s one of the reasons we wanted him in the US. The Visa process isn’t just as simple as saying ‘hey, we want to get somebody here’ and magically it happens. There’s a lot of work that goes into it on the company’s end.

We needed to get documents filed, make sure we post a position here in the US, and make sure the customs and immigration services are aligned on what we’re doing. Once we got an in with the H1-B lottery, it was fantastic because I think one in four people generally are successful with that. We were delighted when we received the news that Anton was successful, because he’s a good guy, good employee, we like him and we want him here. But then, unfortunately, it coincided with the news of the war in Ukraine. Winning the H1-B lottery was the tough part but there was still a lot of work to do after that. We had to make sure Anton could get to somewhere he could have an interview and secure his Visa. We had to carry out logistical arrangements, finding Anton, his wife and his dog somewhere to live.

I’m an expat myself, so I’ve been through the green card and citizenship process. Anton can certainly go a long way, both with Eclipse and wherever he chooses in future years

Steve McDonald

And then, you know, in the time we were waiting for Anton to arrive, we were regularly in touch. Every week, we were going backwards and forwards asking if there was any news or if anything had changed. So there was a lot of contact between myself, Anton and our Executive Leadership team. Anton and his family’s welfare were very much at the forefront of our minds when we were talking with him and going through this process. When Anton and his family arrived in December, it was an overwhelming sense of relief to have them here and safe in the US, to build a new life.

Anton, were there any moments of doubt where you thought ‘ah, this might not happen,’ or were you confident you would end up in the US throughout?

AY: I wasn’t confident it would happen. Honestly, my main cause of concern was all the conditions and requirements for us to bring our dog here; because we were determined not to leave her behind. We had to send different certificates and test results to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). They said  it could have taken 22 months but, in fact, it took three days, so that was great for us. But when I actually started looking at how to fly her to the US, that’s when I started finding all the requirements. Some airlines would not take a dog at all. Some airlines would take dogs, but only in the cabin. So there were lots of things that had to happen at the same time for us to do it. We actually found the only airline that would let us do it and, when I found that ticket, called customer support to make sure and it was all booked, that’s when I realised ‘okay, now it’s all good.’ Now it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen when we expected it to happen.

Was it the case that you wouldn’t have left Ukraine without Muha – and that you would have stayed until you could arrange for your dog to come with you?

AY: We would keep looking for ways to bring her because, really, she’s a very important part of our life. I always wanted to have a dog since I was a child but, for various reasons, we couldn’t. We finally got Muha from a shelter around two years ago and, when the war started, we were thrown out of our normal life. For us, life changed but it’s always easier for animals. They don’t understand what’s happening or what the explosions are. They just live their life. And having her with us all the time was that little part of our previous peaceful life that really comforted us. So we just knew we wouldn’t abandon her, even though technically we could leave her with our friends or family in Ukraine… for us, that would still feel like abandoning her. We knew we would find a solution. And that’s what we did.

So what are your next steps from here, Steve and Anton? How long is Anton’s Visa valid for and what is the long-term outlook?

SM: We’re delighted Anton and his family are here and we want to keep him here – both from a personal perspective and a company perspective. Anton is a great employee and does great work, so we see a very bright future for Anton. We will pursue a green card for Anton, so that will give him permanent resident status in the US. I’m sure after he has his green card for a period he may or may not want to seek US citizenship. But, personally, I would like to see a long-term future here for Anton at Eclipse. Here in the US, it’s a great opportunity. I’m an expat myself, so I’ve been through the green card and citizenship process. Anton can certainly go a long way, both with Eclipse and wherever he chooses in future years.

AY: My Visa is valid for three years, and then it can be extended for another three years. It’s enough time to take care of a green card and all future planning. I also want to add that my wife has dreamed about just visiting the US for a very long time. It’s difficult to even get a travel Visa for Ukrainians. So when she came here, she literally felt like she was in in some kind of movie. Things like school buses were something we had only seen in the movies! So I’m very glad my wife’s dream came true and we are really grateful for this, to Eclipse, to Steve and to everybody who helped us with this.