Polish property developer Władysław Grochowski is an unconventional CEO. The 71-year-old takes business calls on a retro flip phone and refuses to use email, preferring to correspond using pen and paper. He takes time out from the office to manage his own herd of fallow deer, which he tracks through the Polish countryside on a bicycle.
Little surprise, then, that when he and his artist wife Lena established the Lena Grochowska Foundation in 2014 to lead their humanitarian work, it also evolved into something out of the ordinary.
The foundation started out assisting the repatriated descendants of Poles exiled to Central Asia under Communism, before expanding to help others including people with disabilities, homeless people and former prisoners. Backed by the Grochowski’s property business, a key area of support was providing accommodation in buildings owned by Arche Group, Poland’s largest private hotel operator and one of its biggest real-estate developers.
Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than 1.5 million refugees sought safety in neighbouring Poland. Over the following year, the foundation provided refugees with more than 500,000 nights of free lodging, while in 2022 alone it invested $4.5 million in longer-term housing for Ukrainian families, including opening accommodation centres in six different Polish cities.
“It’s really hard to imagine how people feel when they have to run away from their homes,” said Lena. “It is an incredible tragedy. We help as much as we can.” But the couple understood that while it was vital to meet refugees’ basic needs, such as food and shelter, this would not be enough on its own.
“There is a need for everyone to be received with dignity,” explained Władysław. “Dignity happens through work. That’s why in our refugee homes, we don’t just leave people and give them ready-made [assistance]. People are active and looking for work. To be independent is a strength.”
Inspired by Lena’s artistic passions, the foundation established professional workshops employing dozens of refugees and Poles working side-by-side to produce ornate ceramics, artworks and other craft products that are sold online and in Arche’s hotels. They also opened a chain of cafes in Siedlce, Warsaw and Gdańsk staffed by people with disabilities, selling traditional bread and pastries made in the foundation’s bakery. At each of the facilities, the sense of teamwork and community is evident.
“The activities of the foundation revolve around art in the broadest sense; culture and tradition,” explained Lena. “Art and business are intertwined, and it is very interesting. I think art provides a lot. It changes the world; it changes people.”
In recognition of their support for refugees and others in Poland, Lena Grochowska and Władysław Grochowski have been named 2023 regional winners for Europe of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.
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“This award is for everyone at the foundation,” said Lena. “Without people … we could not achieve anything. But working together as a group, we can really do a lot. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ludmila, 38, is among those who have thrived thanks to the support of the Grochowskis and their foundation. She arrived in Siedlce in March 2022 with her two children, having fled her home near Kyiv after spending three weeks sheltering from the fighting in a basement under their apartment building.
The family stayed with friends before renting a shared apartment, but with Ludmila – a hairdresser by trade – only able to find odd jobs such as cleaning and mushroom picking while she set about learning Polish, she was running out of money and options. It was then that a friend told her about the foundation, which was hiring a receptionist to work at the refugee hostel being opened in the city.
Not only did she get the job, but she and her children also secured their own small apartment in the new hostel. “When we started living alone in our own little peaceful place, only then did we start feeling that we were safe,” said Ludmila. “If you don’t have work, you can never be sure about tomorrow.”
Thanks to the stability she gained living and working at the hostel, Ludmila felt ready to take a risk when a Ukrainian friend, Oksana, moved away and offered her the chance to buy her hair salon in downtown Siedlce. She has renamed the business “Oxygen” – a reference to her friend’s first name and the help she received from the foundation.
“It is doing a really big thing for Ukrainians,” she explained. “The foundation gave us that possibility – like a breath of air – to function and somehow get back on our feet in a foreign country.”
Through their example, the Grochowskis have inspired other businesses to follow suit. Fellow Siedlce property developer Konstanty Strus has known the couple since the early 1980s and is married to Władysław’s sister. After the full-scale war in Ukraine began, he offered the couple a workers’ hotel he owned that was set to be demolished to make way for a new development to instead house refugees from Ukraine.
“Władysław and Lena’s work is invaluable, they are role models for other businesses in Poland,” said Strus. “Władysław is a very humble person … who inspires others to act without forcing or asking them. Lena brings her warmth to the foundation and embraces all the people who work with her.”
The Grochowskis continue to look for new ways to empower the people their foundation helps. In one of the fields that surround their home in the countryside 30 minutes outside Siedlce, they are constructing a large circular wooden building at the heart of a new eco-farm that will provide supported accommodation and work for people with disabilities.
“I think the refugee problem will grow, and we can’t close ourselves off or put up more walls,” he said. “They can contribute a lot, and by excluding such people we unfortunately lose a lot.”
“They are good people who just found themselves in a difficult situation, whether due to wars or climate change … The more of us who stand in solidarity, the more beautiful a world and a future we can build.”