LVIV – When Russia launched its unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine, millions of citizens throughout the country fled their homes, leaving their previous lives behind. Some left careers and businesses they had spent their lives building as the Russian military destroyed buildings and infrastructure throughout the country. Despite the challenges of operating a business in a war zone, many refugees have come to Lviv, which has become a major hub for entrepreneurs.
“During the first 100 days of the war, more than 5 million people passed through Lviv, of which more than 2 million stayed in the city for a shorter or longer time. There are about 150,000 displaced people in Lviv, many of whom have nowhere to return. They are natives of Mariupol, Kharkiv’s destroyed districts, and cities currently under Russian occupation. We predict that at least 50,000 of them will stay in Lviv forever,” the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, said on July 12.
A number of those people are entrepreneurs who have been regarded as heroes because, while they have struggled to maintain their businesses, they have also been vital in providing jobs for citizens and supporting Ukraine’s economy, which has taken a massive hit as a result of the war.
“Indeed, many companies have moved their business to Lviv from other regions,” Mr. Sadovyi said during an interview with Polish media Nowa Europa Wschodnia. “Many of them have the courage to start everything here from scratch. Often their owners lost almost everything they had. We are trying to help such companies. For example, we are going to implement the idea of building two municipal industrial parks in Lviv.”
“I consider it very important that Ukraine remains economically independent. The world gives us a lot of help for which, of course, we say a big thank you. But we should not forget that any domestic production, from which taxes are paid locally and which provides jobs, is the key to growing economic stability and further strengthening of our state,” Mr. Sadovyi said.
Among the many millions who have been internally displaced in Ukraine are three friends who fled to the west when Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s northern regions. Today, Ivan Demchenko, Daryna Mazur and Serhiy Stoyan own two small cafés in Lviv’s city center.
A correspondent for The Ukrainian Weekly visited Kiit (cat) café on Ruska Street located near the central Rynok Square.
Mr. Demchenko handed over a cherry pie and cappuccino from a small window on the first floor of an ancient tenement house. Ruska Street was historically the center of Ukrainian social life in the medieval multicultural city.
Next door is the 400-year-old Uspenska Church with its bell tower, the highest construction in the city’s old town. The church now sits next to the small café established by displaced Ukrainians from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.
To get inside the café for the interview, The Weekly’s correspondent entered a neighboring souvenir shop, which serves as an entrance for the café’s staff.
Mr. Demchenko spoke as patrons stopped to buy pies, cinnamon buns and coffee.
“We all wanted to open something like this when living in Borodyanka. We had many excuses before the war – not enough time, not enough money – but when the invasion started, we had nothing left to lose. So we created this café,” said the 20-year-old.
Borodyanka, together with Bucha and Irpin, were among the towns the Russian military occupied during their unsuccessful attempt to capture the country’s capital, Kyiv.
Despite the risks, the ownership team of the cafe wasn’t afraid to lose their money.
“Ukrainians understood that personal finances don’t matter in war-time. Wherever you are in Ukraine, a missile can kill you. You can’t buy your own anti-missile system,” Mr. Demchenko said.
“When we started, our hometowns were occupied. We had nowhere to return. If the business failed and we lost all our money, it would be a relatively small loss. Even nowadays, we live with the thought that today you’re alive, and tomorrow maybe you’re not because a missile strikes here. I think all Ukrainians stopped thinking about money. It’s important, but compared to life, it’s nothing,” Mr. Demchenko said.
At first, the café’s owners thought they would return to their homes soon.
“But by mid-March, we understood that it’ll take longer for us to be able to come back. So, we started searching for a job and couldn’t find one. That’s why we decided to create something on our own,” Mr. Demchenko said as he cut a piece of a cinnamon bun for a customer, which he said was the best part of the job.
“Very different people visit us. I can chat with a nun from a nearby monastery and a trans-girl in one hour. People from the entire country are here now. Lviv became the center of Ukraine for a bit. I wanted to move here before the war, but under different circumstances. The city’s culture makes people more open-minded. It’s more common to have small talk on Lviv streets than in Kyiv. Our regions are a bit Russified, so I really like living in Lviv,” Mr. Demchenko.
His family, however, has stayed home and is currently under Russian occupation.
“All of them are ok; only my grandparents’ building was damaged,” he said.
“When we started the business, it was difficult. We didn’t have many clients at the very beginning. But then people started sharing news about our café. Many locals and displaced people came here to support us. Refugees could relate to our story. It felt like a ‘refugee club’ – people gathered around the Kiit and shared news and discussed life in their hometowns under occupation. We met a lot of people from our towns. Now, most of them returned, and we’re happy that many people have a chance to return home after their towns were liberated,” Mr. Demchenko said.
Another refugee, Kostiantyn Ponedil-chenko, owned a café in Kyiv before the war. He was lucky to be in the capital, not Mariupol when the war broke out. He managed to get to Lviv quickly, but part of his family and some friends stayed during the most dramatic battles. They waited in basements filled with people and saw huge buildings collapse from Russian bombs, but they survived.
A day before speaking with this correspondent, I talked with his grandfather who is currently in Mariupol. People there are trying to cook food on open fires in the middle of the streets because it’s challenging to find any meals in an almost completely destroyed city, his grandfather said.
Moving to Lviv, Mr. Ponedilchenko brought a part of Mariupol with him. Café 0629, which previously operated in the besieged port city, opened at the end of May. Its name comes from the city’s phone code. All nine of its employees are refugees from Mariupol, and Mr. Ponedilchenko said he opened the café in Lviv to provide jobs for displaced Ukrainians and, hopefully, bring some sense of normalcy to their lives.
“Everything you see here is made by people from Mariupol. The café created a community of refugees from our town in Lviv,” Mr. Ponedilchenko said.
“Some locals are skeptical of us. Conservative people might discriminate against Russian-speaking people here, but most people are very supportive, especially youth,” he said.
“The city is cool; I always liked Lviv. However, it is not easy to do business here. For example, I often went to the post office to deliver our products, but it was closed before the scheduled time. Most pharmacies close early, and it was difficult for me to understand. The transport system in Lviv is far from perfect. Infrastructure makes it challenging to move around, but this is not a problem compared to what happened in Mariupol. Everyone would prefer to be here than in a basement at home or frying pigeons on an open fire. So, we’re grateful that we can live and create in Lviv,” Mr. Ponedilchenko said.
“We feel huge support from people. Everyone is supporting everyone in Ukraine, even more than before,” he said.
“It’s essential to save traditions from Mariupol and memories about the city because it’s completely destroyed, and most people fled the town. The city as it was is gone. We want to save it and recreate it. Mariupol stays in our hearts and our memory. It’s the city where we grew up,” Mr. Ponedilchenko said.