Steaming milk with a borrowed coffee maker, 19-year-old Ukrainian barista Ivan Demchenko rushed to make enough Americanos and lavender lattes for a growing line of customers. Six days after he and two friends started selling coffee from a ground-floor window in the western city of Lviv, word of mouth had spread and their chicken and pineapple pie slices were fast running out. A few customers had posted on social media that young entrepreneurs from the ravaged Kyiv outskirts had opened the business, and many wanted to help.

Between two orders, Demchenko recounted how he and his friend Serhii Stoian, 31, fled the capital in the early hours of Russia’s invasion on February 24. After weeks of volunteering in Lviv to help others like them, he and Stoian ran out of money and decided to find work. “I found only one job,” said Demchenko, a second-year political science student. It paid the equivalent of $15 for a 12-hour shift. Stoian, an online entrepreneur and YouTuber, had a better idea.

Ivan Denchenko, 19, makes a drink at the Kiit cafe.

Nothing to lose

Before the war, they had both worked for a coffee shop in Bucha, the first brewing coffee and the second supplying it with fresh pastries. Stoian had long dreamt of selling his baked goods in his own cafe in his hometown of Irpin, but had no funds and feared making losses. “But now we don’t have anything to lose,” he said. With no money to pay rent, and barely enough cash to purchase ingredients, they opened the Kiit cafe, naming it after the cat Stoian was forced to leave behind. “The people of Lviv are very helpful. They gave us almost everything you can see here,” he said, gesturing to a loaned microwave and donated cartons of oat milk. Their friend Daryna Mazur, 21, a fourth-year student in applied mathematics, travelled back from temporary exile in Poland to help. “I was going to be a programmer, but now I’m baking pies,” she said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has displaced more than 10 million people inside the country and abroad, the United Nations says. Many have left with little more than a backpack or two, abandoning homes, belongings, pets and jobs. The conflict has killed thousands and wrecked entire towns, including those where Stoian and Demchenko once lived. Demchenko said he was lucky he had escaped the Russian occupation of his hometown of Borodyanka. His parents and 12-year-old sister barely escaped alive a week after he left.

Their apartment had been destroyed, he said. As for the family house, who knew what remained inside after looting. Stoian said he had returned home to Irpin to find his flat windowless, and clear traces of people having rummaged around inside. Kiit, his beloved cat, was nowhere to be found. Instead, he bumped dumbfounded into a neighbor clearly wearing one of his hoodies. It was unclear how they had found it.

Iryna sells second-hand books in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

‘Support the economy’

But in the bustling centre of Lviv, clients trickled up to the coffee shop counter, examining a menu above a bunch of daffodils. Olga Milkhasieva had come to make an order with her husband Rostislav and her five-month-old son Maksym. “We just wanted to support these guys because we know what’s happening,” said the young mother, also an evacuee from Kyiv.

Elina, a 31-year-old bank employee from Lviv who did not give her second name, said it was her first time out in the city centre since the war had started. “It’s very hard to drink coffee as if nothing matters,” she said, fingers clasped around a steaming cup of caffeine. She said she cried every day reading the news on social media. “But we understand that life continues, and we must support businesses and the economy,” she said.—AFP