Exhibit honours the memory of Ukrainian students whose lives were lost in Russian invasion

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.

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 Reporter, Canada's National Observer