“It’s tough to be a refugee entrepreneur, but I was privileged that I met many good people during my journey who were able to help me with everything.” 

Photo: © Yana


“It’s tough to be a refugee entrepreneur, but I was privileged that I met many good people during my journey who were able to help me with everything.” 

Photo: © Yana

Yana, a business owner, reflects on being forced to flee Ukraine, her experience navigating life in the UK and how she uses her business to support Ukrainians around the world.

My name is Yana and I’m 31 years old.

I fled Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion and was one of the first refugees who came to the UK when the country opened its borders to people from Ukraine. I had a choice between Germany, France and the UK, but I chose to move here because I can speak English and knew that living in England would allow me to express myself.

Coming here was definitely the right decision. I have a lot of friends, I feel safe, and most of all, I love English culture, history and humour. I’m also glad I’ve been able to bring my hobbies, like cooking, playing tennis and reading, to this new place.

But life in a new country doesn’t come without its challenges and assimilating to a new place can take quite some time. Figuring out where to live and getting acquainted with unfamiliar systems, like banking and healthcare, was difficult. I also realised that finding a job, which is never easy for anyone, is particularly hard for refugees.

However, perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve had to endure is this sort of double effect. I still know friends, family and other people who are close to me in Ukraine. I know others who have died in the war. I think about the safety and wellbeing of my loved ones every day, and this is something that makes a big impact on me and continues to be a big part of my life – even in the UK.

The rise of a social entrepreneur

I used to design and manufacture clothing for a few Ukrainian brands that I owned. I sold my products in my shops, as well as in 35 partner stores.  

I was proud of the sustainable, middle-sized business that I had built from scratch. Unfortunately, I lost all of that due to war. I think that’s something many people don’t realise about war; you don’t only lose your loved ones and home, but also livelihoods you’ve worked hard to build.

When I came to the UK, I started to think about what I would do with my career and found it difficult to get a job. Then I had the idea to use my background in the fashion industry to open a distribution company with a purpose. I wanted to support the Ukrainian economy by helping Ukrainian colleagues increase their presence in the international market and creating employment opportunities for Ukrainians.

I turned my vision into a reality and now have a team comprised of both locals and Ukrainians. We’re based in Leeds and have pop-up stores in Leeds, Manchester and London, with plans on opening a store within a department store in London.

But starting a business in the UK wasn’t easy. Funding every aspect of my business from my limited personal budget has put quite significant obstacles in the way of my business’s inception and growth.  

Linguistic barriers make owning a business in another country all the more challenging. I thought I spoke English well until I moved to England and realised the limitations of my language abilities, especially in a business context. It takes time to learn and to understand other people.

Finally, as a refugee, I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know how to ask for things like how taxes or accountants work here.

It’s tough to be a refugee entrepreneur, but I was privileged that I met many good people during my journey who were able to help me with everything. They helped me to understand how things work and they helped me to make my idea come to fruition.

Maintaining my Ukrainian identity

I love getting to learn about and enjoy British culture. Assimilation is no easy task, but I’m doing everything in my power to assimilate to my host country.

That being said, I also think it’s important to retain some aspects of my Ukrainian identity; like wearing a cord with a symbol of Ukraine, speaking up for the Ukrainian diaspora so people are aware of the atrocities that continue to happen, and attending Ukrainian parties in London or Manchester to get together with fellow Ukrainians and dance to Ukrainian music.

I often listen to Ukrainian music and cook Ukrainian food. In fact, I’m known amongst my friends for cooking a really delicious borscht.

I also love to continue the ritual of having cups of tea throughout the day, which is something I always enjoyed in Ukraine. If I want to be warm or if I’m feeling unwell, tea is a perfect go-to. It can also be a kind of ritual for hanging out with someone, spending time with friends and talking.

I like a fruit tea with a little bit of honey and a slice of lemon. I usually accompany my tea with sweets, but I remember from my childhood that we would have tea with sandwiches. Not the types of sandwiches you would find in the UK, but distinctly Ukrainian sandwiches, salty with meat or cheese.

People love tea in Ukraine, but the UK has a distinctly strong tea-drinking culture and people definitely drink more tea here than in Ukraine.  In fact, British tea-drinking culture is quite famous in Ukraine and I always take tea from England to my friends when I have the opportunity.

One of the funniest things about tea drinking culture in the UK is adding milk to your tea, as this is something I’ve never done. I’m living in Yorkshire now and here, if you ask for black tea then you’re really asking for black tea with milk.

I was also quite surprised to find that in England, when someone invites you for tea it means they’re also inviting you for a meal.

There are definitely big differences between how people drink tea in Ukraine and the UK, but it’s interesting for me to use tea as a way to step into British culture and make myself a home here.

To learn more about our Cuppa Hope Tea & Talks and to hear Yana’s story in-person, please visit Cuppa Hope website

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