Ukraine refugee, 21, leaves Stamford ‘second home’ to set up arts cafe in Kyiv and help war effort
A young Ukrainian woman who sought refuge in Stamford has returned home and set up a business to keep her nation’s culture alive during the conflict.
Mari Hrechok spent almost a year in Stamford, but in April this year she made the difficult decision to leave her ‘second home’ and set up a coffee shop and events venue in Kyiv.
Litera, or ‘Letter’, donates its profits to the Ukraine Army and animal welfare charities, and aims to promote her homeland’s culture and arts - in defiance of their would-be occupiers.
It also offers a priceless temporary escapism from what can be a grim present.
“One night it was loud and scary - we could have died,” she said.
“Then the next you are here singing, laughing, and just enjoying life, collecting money and supporting each other.
“It feels like a happy spot in an ocean of terrible things.”
Customers and the community leave donations and tips to try and keep the place open, while 21-year-old Mari takes no wage.
Yet a fundraising page has been set up by friends back in Stamford to raise £1,500 and help Litera pay its way until it becomes established. Click here if you would like to donate.
“We need financial support for just a couple of months,” she said.
“There probably wasn’t enough money to start the project, but it was the perfect time.
“If I had the chance to go back and change something I wouldn’t. I would do it again. It’s absolutely worth it.”
Mari fled Ukraine with two friends a few weeks after Russia invaded.
Her hometown was vulnerable to attack, not only for its proximity to Kyiv, but also its military base.
“My family couldn’t leave because it was too hard for them,” she recalled.
“It wasn’t the easiest decision of my life, but I didn't have too much time to think.
“We had spent about two weeks in a shelter so when we found out there would be a moment for me to leave the country we decided that I needed to do it.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Mari and two friends arrived here in May last year and were welcomed in by Stamford couple Helen and Ian Leech.
With tastes in retro and vintage, she fell in love with Stamford’s period charms, particularly Burghley House.
“Helen and Ian are the loveliest people,” she said.
“They did everything to make sure it felt like our second home - and in time it really came to be just that.
“When I first came I didn’t know whether I would have a chance to come home again and if anyone would survive or not. I missed my family so much.
“But Stamford, for me, it felt like a dream place.
“It is not home, but for a moment I had a chance to feel peaceful, full of love, and just to live a normal life which is what I needed at that time.”
Yet as her nation fought for its very survival, Mari knew the day would come to go back.
“It was so hard to leave because it felt like my heart had two homes,” she said.
“I knew I was making the right decision, but part of me didn’t want to leave Stamford and these people.
Mari added: “I realised my life was not going to be as it was before.
“Before I wanted to do things mostly for myself, but after it happened, I realised I wanted to do more for my country and for others.”
In April she returned home to her parents armed with a plan for a not-for-profit venture.
“I started to think about creating a place where the creative people could stick together and find each other at any time.
“I also felt this incredible spirit of Ukraine and our identity, history, our culture.
“It was not about myself, it was about a big goal and that was the moment I realised I had to go back.”
Voluntarily leaving a safe and comfortable haven to face the dangers of Russian air raids and drone strikes inevitably prompted second thoughts, however temporary.
“It was quieter than it had been when I got back in April, and for two weeks it was fun, but then it became crazy again,” Mari recalled.
“May and June were really loud in Kyiv region - it was really hard.
“At those times, I thought, ‘have I made the right decision?’, but I’m happy I did.
“When the noise of war is stuck in your head you can’t really think properly - you just feel scared and that’s it.
“But when it finishes, you take a deep breath and start thinking more deeply about your goals and you’re not scared anymore because you know it’s worth it.”
Mari has a lifelong interest in culture and had been part of the arts scene before she left while building a large social media following.
She worked as a dance teacher and also in coffee shops to boost her income, and while in Stamford took a job as barista at the Cornish Bakery.
Combining the two aspects, she came up with Litera.
As well as a morale boost for the present, Mari also wants it to provide hope for the future by igniting Ukrainian culture.
Ironically, Russian attempts to smother Ukraine’s identity and culture had the opposite effect.
Litera’s arts events, including music, poetry evenings and book club, has tapped into this awakening.
“We lived so many years under the eyes of Russia and it was still in the minds of our parents who lived in the Soviet Union,” Mari explained.
“Now people are becoming more conscious about Ukraine culture - people think more about their roots.
“We take some of our traditions and we recreate them in our own way.
“This place is not just a coffee shop and a space for events - we know we can provide somewhere for inspiration.”
Funded by a Ukraine government keen to encourage entrepreneurs, Mari took a business course, found an affordable place in the suburbs of Kyiv and opened the doors in late August.
“I cried at the opening because I could not believe we did it,” she said.
“We are a small team and we did everything.”
The cafe is a not-for-profit venture with money made going to help the war effort and also the large numbers of pets left homeless by the destruction.
Like most in Ukraine, Mari has friends away fighting, as well as an uncle.
“It comes from our friends who are soldiers or who have some connection with the Army, so we know exactly where to send the money.”
The world’s focus on the war may have become less intense as the conflict rumbles relentlessly on towards a second winter.
But everyday life for most in Ukraine remains just as precarious and uncertain as day one.
“The situation changes here from day to day,” she said.
“Last night was quiet and I had enough sleep and rest, but sometimes there can be air raids every single night.
“About a week ago there was a really bad situation. Again they ruined everything.
“It’s sad to say, but we are already used to these noises, to this shaking of your house and your windows.
“But it still scares us. You don’t want to die.”
Yet despite the lives lost and the constant, gruelling upheaval on everyday civilian life, Mari is adamant her country’s spirit ‘will never die’.
“We will fight to the end - until our enemy is done,” she said.
“It’s been a long time and we’ve lost so much. Now we have no other way - only win.
“Everyone is tired, but we are only tired.
“It feels like you are absolutely exhausted but also full of energy at the same time.”
And within this spirit of pride and defiance, of past and future, lies Mari’s fledgling project.
“I’m sure that the nation couldn’t exist without a culture, history and identity.
“This is why I feel what we are doing is so important because people need it.
“You see an unstoppable passion here for them to bring Ukrainian culture into the world and make a new level of it.
“Our spirit will be alive as long as we remember who we are.”