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War Refugee Helps Make Ukraine's Fighters Bulletproof From Abroad

Iryna Horoshayeva (left) helps hold up an anti-war banner at a demonstration in Iasi, Romania.
Iryna Horoshayeva (left) helps hold up an anti-war banner at a demonstration in Iasi, Romania.

Cluj, ROMANIA -- With her small business upended by warfare and safety concerns rising under the frequent blare of air-raid sirens in her Ukrainian hometown, Iryna Horoshayeva finally decided, in mid-April, that it was time to go.

Six weeks into Russia's full-scale invasion, she bundled up her two children and, along with her mother and the family cat, fled to neighboring Romania.

But the entrepreneurial maker of air fresheners and other car cosmetics has maintained, and even expanded, a makeshift production line 700 kilometers away in Cherkasy for bulletproof vests to help the war effort.

"Those of us who are abroad need to do something while we're here," Horoshayeva told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.

Within weeks of moving to Braila, on the shores of the Danube River, Horoshayeva had already returned to the mini-factory back home to deliver military-grade fabric for more vests. And she has continued to ensure more deliveries since then.

One of some 350 bulletproof vests made by Horoshayeva and other volunteers in Cherkasy.
One of some 350 bulletproof vests made by Horoshayeva and other volunteers in Cherkasy.

Her cross-border effort is part of a bustling volunteer network -- domestic, abroad, and sometimes both -- to supply tools and other essentials to the Ukrainian military and civilian defenders battling the largest invasion force that Europe has seen since World War II.

It's not exactly plowshares into swords.

But "at some point from car-cosmetics manufacturers, we became manufacturers of military equipment for [Ukraine's] defenders," she said.

Air Raids And Life Under Fire

Horoshayeva's business making air fresheners and other "car cosmetics" products was crippled by a lack of customers, orders, and logistics soon after the onset of war on February 24.

Now, she and her family are among more than 5.5 million Ukrainians to have escaped the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion.

But she has not been sidelined and, in addition to her constant advocacy for peace and fund-raising for Ukraine, remains a vital link in one of the citizen-sourced production chains supporting pro-Kyiv fighters.

In the first weeks of the conflict, Horoshayeva stayed in Cherkasy, a city of nearly 300,000 before the war.

It has been targeted less than some cities by the kind of continuous aerial bombardment that Russian forces have relied on so heavily throughout the conflict.

In fact, many displaced Ukrainians have sought relative safety there from cities under siege like Mariupol, Irpin, Bucha, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk.

The workshop in Cherkasy that makes bulletproof vests.
The workshop in Cherkasy that makes bulletproof vests.

As the local volunteer community that sprung up after the invasion grew in scale and sophistication, she and a friend pivoted to making items for the war effort.

Horoshayeva also evacuated her daughter and son, along with her mother, to the countryside near Cherkasy.

"That made it easier for me to hide in my own bathroom during air raids and set up a 'studio' in it," she said.

'Changing Values'

In addition to car deodorizers and other items with pro-Ukrainian themes, after getting a list of items that army friends needed, Horoshayeva and a network of other volunteers soon began assembling vests that could be fitted with armor breastplates.

"We started sewing bulletproof vests because the ones bought from abroad are very expensive and, on the other hand, those on the front [lines] need them very quickly," she said. "That's how we ended up distributing them within a few days, or sometimes even a few hours."

She has gotten personal messages of appreciation from some of the fighters who received the vests.

A pro-Kyiv fighter signs a message of thanks for Horoshayeva
A pro-Kyiv fighter signs a message of thanks for Horoshayeva

It is a crude setup, she said, based purely on voluntarism and contributions.

The vests are sewn by female volunteers -- "economists, lawyers, teachers" -- before plates of metal alloy are added.

"Values change, people come from different perspectives, but the main thing you see is the unity of the [Ukrainian] people and the great faith in victory," she said.

It is part of the rapid mobilization by many of Ukraine's 34 million prewar inhabitants that has included thousands of civil and military defense volunteers.

But the war effort has also relied on a domestic and international crowdsourcing effort for funding and to supply the country's defenders with weapons, tools, and other necessities.

Fighting 'For A Normal World'

About six weeks into the war, Horoshayeva concluded that Cherkasy was no longer safe enough for the family.

"Now it's a scary situation for everyone in the country, so we had to leave and save our children," she said.

Within a week of resettling in Braila, her children were in the care of her mother and Horoshayeva was on the road to Cherkasy with her first international delivery of fabric purchased in Romania.

In Romania, she has participated in fund-raising for Ukraine, including traveling 600 kilometers to donate the badges worn by organizers of a charity soccer match between Ukrainian champions Dynamo Kyiv and CFR Cluj.

She took part in a half-marathon in Iasi, near the Moldovan border, also to raise awareness of the war.

Horoshayeva's children at a fund-raising soccer match in Cluj.
Horoshayeva's children at a fund-raising soccer match in Cluj.

"We have to show that we're a strong, normal country, with ordinary, smart people who just want to live normally in our own country," Horoshayeva said. "Some fight in the army, others rescue, others solve business problems, others appear in the media."

Ukrainians no longer have friends, she said, "only brothers and sisters."

And it's not just Ukrainians.

"Even Romanians see us that way now. We may not have been great friends before, but [we] have become brothers and sisters," Horoshayeva said.

She expressed hope that more outsiders will do business with Ukraine once the war is over.

"Everyone has joined Ukraine," Horoshayeva said. "It's not just a Russian-Ukrainian war, it's a war for Europe, for a normal world."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Romanian Service contributor Ovidiu Cornea in Cluj and Bucharest.

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