PRAGUE – A Czech leatherwork company that makes a wide variety of handmade products — travel bags, messenger totes, wallets and belts — never planned to add personal protective gear that would save lives in a war to its offerings.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed that.
After Russian troops launched their assault on Ukraine, Tlusty & Co. hired refugees from Ukraine to help the company join a manufacturing operation equipping Ukrainian volunteers with body armor to face the invading troops.
The Prague-based company agreed to a request from the Post Bellum nongovernmental organization to join a project to supply the protection gear similar to bulletproof vests to Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. Thousands of Ukrainian volunteers have joined the troops to resist the Russian invasion.
“We specialize in completely different production,” Tlusty & Co. owner Ivan Petruv said. “We were facing a situation where we had to decide. And because we consider ourselves part of a community that wants to help in this situation as we can, which is only natural when you see the news, we decided to say yes.”
To make the new production happen was a race against the clock, he said. The company needed to get new machines, new materials and above all, to hire extra employees to join the 20-25 staffers in a country whose unemployment rate of 3.4% reflects a lack of available workers in many fields.
“What would take weeks if not months under normal circumstances, we had to solve in hours and several days,” he said.
Since the war began, 300,000 refugees who fled Ukraine have arrived in the Czech Republic, mostly women with children, so Petruv said they became an obvious place to look for new hires.
“We published an advertisement at 8 a.m. and at noon we had a list of 70 people,” Petruv said.
Four days later, the 15 most qualified people started to work to complete the unusual contract. They sew ballistic plate carriers while other Ukrainians working for Post Bellum assemble the whole gear by inserting steel plates into the vests. The NGO finances it all through a crowd-funding campaign.
Natalia Bielonosova is one of the company's new workers. She came to Prague from her town of Irpin, located near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. with a friend.
“I wanted to make the protection gear for Ukraine,” Bielonosova said. “That’s a way for me to help my country.”
Her husband, a humanitarian worker, stayed at home and her son serves in the Ukrainian army.
“He has no electricity, gas, heating or warm water but has survived so far,” she said of her husband.
Of her son, she says “it’s painful to read about what’s happening. I’d like a solution to be found to end the fighting.”
With Irpin and many places badly damaged by heavy Russian shelling, Bielonosova can see her future in Prague, the Czech capital.
“They’ve destroyed cities and destroyed infrastructure. It would be a very hard life (to go back),” she said.
The work she and other Ukrainian refugees have done has impressed Petruv.
“We’d like them to stay,” he said. “We’re talking about hardworking, skillful people who deserve the job.”
The Czech company has so far made 720 of the protective vests with 400 more to deliver. What happens next is unclear.
Petruv said his company was ready to continue the project but “we would be delighted to end it as soon as possible, because this isn’t something we want to do. We do it only because of the current situation and a feeling of responsibility.”
Meanwhile, he is planning a new project for his Ukrainian workers for the time when peace is restored. It would be products designed for Czech kids and their families.
It’s called “Mothers for mothers.”
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine