Olena Romanova fled Ukraine for Poland when Russia invaded in February last year, leaving behind a successful facial massage salon business.
Together with three business partners, the 52-year-old is now offering the same service in Poland — one of around 30,000 businesses that have been opened by Ukrainian refugees in Poland since then.
“We realized we needed to develop to not go crazy,” said Romanova, who left the Ukrainian capital Kyiv with one of her daughters on the first day of the war and had to leave her husband behind.
Romanova is one of around a million Ukrainians currently living in Poland.
One in 10 new businesses being opened in the country is owned by a Ukrainian.
“It was very challenging when we started working here in Poland, because you don’t know the language, the laws. You don’t know the industry, the labour market, the products and services,” she said.
In the beginning, she said she and her co-owners “pulled each other up”.
“I’m not sure if I would have been able to do it if I was here alone, based on my psychological state,” she said.
‘More chaos’ in Ukraine
A fifth of the Ukrainian businesses that are sprouting up despite Poland’s sluggish economy are in construction.
A large number are in tech and the rest are in services like hairdressing.
Karina Synevych, a 36-year-old from Kyiv, works for the popular Ukrainian Chernomorka fish restaurant chain which has now opened two branches in Warsaw.
She said that starting and running a business in Poland was more organised and transparent than in Ukraine.
“In Poland, it takes longer. In Ukraine, you can open everything faster, but there is more chaos,” she said.
When the first Chernomorka opened in Warsaw in December, the first customers were all Ukrainians who left reviews about the pleasure of the home cooking and speaking their native language.
“We just cried when we read them,” she said.
Gradually, Ukrainians began to bring their Polish friends and now most of the customers are Polish.
‘A different life’
Ukraine’s biggest postal service, Nova Poshta, is also now servicing the large Ukrainian community in Poland.
It opened its first outlet in Poland in October under the name Nova Post, which allows customers to quickly send and receive parcels to and from Ukraine.
“Currently, there are seven branches in Warsaw, and we have 34 branches in the whole of Poland,” said the head of the Polish branch of the company, 34-year-old Yevgen Tafiychuk.
Maryna Ivanova, a fitness trainer who came to the post office in Warsaw to pick up a parcel, uses the service regularly.
“For example, today I ordered Ukrainian embroidered shirts. Somehow, I wanted to support a Ukrainian manufacturer,” the 30-year-old said.
“I also send a lot of things to the army through Nova Poshta. My friends receive them in Odesa and hand them over to the guys. It’s very fast and convenient.”
For many Ukrainians, even those who have opened successful businesses in Poland, any long-term planning is difficult.
“I live in the moment,” said Romanova, adding that she also finds she is buying fewer things for herself now because she just needs “my loved ones to be alive”.
Speaking about her new life, Synevych said she could not say if it was “worse or better, it’s just different, a different life”.
“I try not to plan anything at all. At most, I plan a month ahead. What will happen in six months? It’s hard to say. The main thing is that it ends.”