Mother who fled Ukraine war with son, 3, starts sewing business in Bristol

This charity, set up by a Bristol University graduate, is helping Ukrainians all across the country, as well as those in our city too

A charity, founded by a Bristol University graduate, is helping Ukrainian refugee entrepreneurs in the UK, with one Ukrainian in Bristol already benefitting.

Opora was founded by MPhil History graduate Yegor Lanovenko, and has recently processed its first tranche of business grants programme to help Ukrainians with business in the UK.

Originally from Odesa in the Ukraine himself, Yegor set up the charity to facilitate Ukrainians re-starting their lives sustainably in the UK for the long term, following Russia’s invasion in February.

“Ukrainians are a very entrepreneurial nation, and the Opora team knew from the very beginning that many refugees ending up in the UK would have had successful business projects in Ukraine, which are now either destroyed or no longer viable,” explained Mr Lanovenko, who is also Chair of Opora.

“It is no surprise that these arrivals are now looking for ways to apply their knowledge, skills and entrepreneurial nature to start up anew or rebuild their businesses in the UK.”

Mr Lanovenko believes that supporting Ukrainian entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to facilitate self-sustainable, durable ways of rebuilding Ukrainian lives in the UK as well as allowing the refugees to contribute to the local economy.

In a bid to do this, the charity provides both business grants of up to £5,000 and business support, network contacts and ongoing mentoring to the entrepreneurs selected in the application process.

Among the recipients of the first tranche of the Opora business grants is Twinkle Leo

Among the recipients of the first tranche of the Opora business grants is Twinkle Leo, a brand of bespoke handmade baby bedding sets made by Tanya Ustyshch.

Ms Ustyshch came to Bristol with her three-year-old son under the Homes for Ukraine programme from Kyiv, having found a sponsor using the Opora platform.

“My journey here was really quite difficult and took a long time, and it was hard to decide to leave my family behind and move to another country just me and my son,” says Ms Ustyshch.

“But my host family are so kind and they support us very much. It’s thanks to them that they helped me to apply for the Opera grant. They found the advertising for it and knew that I had a little sewing business in Ukraine.”

Sewing started as a hobby for Ms Ustyshch when she was 15 when her grandmother taught her, but she grew Twinkle Leo into a full-time business in Ukraine after the birth of her son.

“When I was on maternity leave, I wanted to do something, so I decided to sew textiles and baby products to sell,” she says.

“I registered as self-employed in Ukraine and then started selling across Europe and America and Canada, as well. This was just before the war started, so it’s not a huge business.”

Having studied the British market, she realised that there is a niche for her custom-made home textiles for children. With the help of her sponsors, Ms Ustyshch was determined and never stopped production, using borrowed equipment and her room in the sponsor’s house to fulfil orders.

Having been awarded £2500 by the grant, Ms Ustyshch can start buying the equipment she needs

Having been awarded £2,500 by the grant, Ms Ustyshch can start buying the equipment she needs here as she’s currently using her sponsor’s very old sewing machine that doesn’t work so well.

“Opera has helped me massively and new equipment will make me be able to work faster. It has also helped me with looking at how I can advertise and promote my products in the UK,” she says.

“They help with anything and every time I’ve needed help, they’ve been there. Opera is a great support for the Ukrainian people and people like me. It’s hard to find work here so being self-employed and working for myself is a great idea.”

With people like Ms Ustyshch having such determination to make a life for herself in the UK, it’s not hard to see why the charity is doing so well.

In fact, Opora’s Ukrainian refugee entrepreneur network and community support channels in the UK have grown to over 1,000 people since May.

“The range of ideas, experience and sheer resilience and determination to keep going despite everything that has happened in this community is truly inspiring and highlights the incredible contribution refugees and immigrants can have on the local, national and international economy,” says Mr Lanovenko.

“We hope to be able to further expand this programme and help even more Ukrainian entrepreneurs as the new tranche opens soon.”