Marking one year since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, exchange students from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy attending the University of Toronto created the Unissued Diplomas exhibition in memory of the Ukrainian students who will never graduate.

Sofia Kekukh, 19, describes the project as the “exhibition that should’ve never existed,” documenting the dreams and goals of 36 students from Ukraine, before explaining how they were killed in the war.

“All those people are really our peers,” 20-year-old Daryna-Mariia Zavhorodnia, project manager of Unissued Diplomas, said.

The idea came from a similar exhibition in Kyiv, Ukraine last summer. Zavhorodnia reached out to the organizers and decided together it needed to be seen internationally.

The exchange students in Toronto created their own design for the display, taking the shape of a Ukrainian diploma. Each student's story is told in Ukrainian and English. Where the university president's signature often is on the diploma has been replaced with the word “bravery” written in cursive.

“Every person who is here,” Zavhorodnia began before choking up. “It’s a diploma of bravery,” Kekukh finished.

Parents of the students were asked permission to be included, and also provided information about their child. Students featured in the exhibit range in age from 17 to 22.

Zavhorodnia said reaching out to parents was difficult because often they weren’t ready to talk about it.

Calling the process of obtaining the information long and complicated, the project team reached out to memorial platforms and their own acquaintances — the most recent death marked happened in the past few weeks.

Sofia Kekukh, 19, describes the Unissued Diplomas project as the “exhibition that should’ve never existed,” documenting the dreams and goals of 36 students from Ukraine, before explaining how they were killed in the war.
This diploma documents Sofia Kekukh’s friend, who died last month. Kekukh recalled texting him two days before his death. “I was always impressed by him. He was the most optimistic person. He always believed in our victory. When I found out about his death, it was a big loss for me. I was crying but I told myself that he wouldn’t be happy seeing me crying,” she said. Photo by Nairah Ahmed / Canada’s National Observer

In regards to her team, Zavhorodnia said they were all motivated to work on the project by the idea of commemorating their friends. “Those are not abstract people, they are a friend-of-a-friend or acquaintances. We feel like it’s our responsibility while being here to do this.”

Zavhorodnia wants people’s biggest takeaway from the exhibit to be that the brutal invasion is not over.

“We are reminding everyone here that the war is still not over and we need to remember these people,” Kekukh said.

The project started in January and will be held in more than 45 universities worldwide, starting on Feb. 24 — the anniversary of the day Ukraine woke up to explosions — and running to March 11.

Calling it their contribution to Ukrainian victory, Kekukh said one of their goals is to raise money to help students and those on the front lines and for medical supplies and reconnaissance.

“Every Ukrainian is fighting on his or her own front line, this is our frontline. This is what we can do and what we are doing,” Zavhorodnia said.

Nairah Ahmed / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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I've long wanted to some day visit the lands of my ancestors, and to meet some of my relatives who still live there, distant relatives, admittedly, but relatives nonetheless. Two of my grandparents were from Ukraine. A very young soldier from the village where one of my grandmothers was born died in the very early days of battle.
I am very grateful to have access to the Yale lecture series by Timothy Snyder on YouTube, along with numerous other lectures on Ukraine and its history, not to mention his clarification of the difference between history and law. They certainly put paid to all the arguments against history-as-destiny, and the knee-jerk reactions of an unfortunately vocal contingent of North Americans who believe (I won't say think) that the West should limit its support to Ukraine in military materiel and relief efforts. I'd like to be able to say "they just don't understand," but some of them actually do: they have other axes to grind and find it not inconvenient to include what's happening in Ukraine in their disinformation and misinformation campaigns.
I wish that the people here who seem to believe that freedom means a right to behave however they want, whenever they want, even with no good reason.
Thank you to the young women who have undertaken this project.
I would hope that having seen the examples of what not being free is, and what those who have been "unfree" will do, as a matter of personal responsibility, to regain freedom for their people, we who have always been free will set as a new standard of behaviour for themselves and their elected officials.
For those of us who have never been in the position of losing their actual (as opposed to fantasy) freedom, it is well worth investigating the history of Ukrainians and other peoples, including our own First Nations, who have been victims of human rights abuses, since long before human rights were defined. Hopefully it can lead us to reject Canadian and other governments and business initiatives that perpetrate such abuses here and abroad.
Any sacrifices we might encounter in doing so are tiny, compared to what Ukrainians face and have been facing not only in the past year, but for the better part of a century or more.
I wish the exhibit these young ladies have put together much success as a fundraiser.