The irony of Ukraine’s Independence Day – Aug. 24 – landing six months to the day since the Russian invasion began is not lost on Cochrane’s David Falconer.
On the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, Ukrainians all over the world were still watching horrifying news footage of attacks on schools, churches, and nuclear facilities in their war-torn homeland six months later.
Here in Cochrane, Falconer has found a way to help victims of the war besides hosting displaced families and making other kinds of donations.
He has been instrumental in recruiting online teacher volunteers from around the world for the international organization Smart Osvita from his home in Sunset Ridge. He’s had so much success in that realm that he was named their International Volunteer Program Coordinator.
Smart Osvita is a public Ukrainian organization that facilitates online workshops, trains teachers, and provides online education. One of their stated goals is the “development of psychological resilience of teachers and schoolchildren resettled from war-affected areas.”
But on the 24th, the online Zoom classes fell silent. Organizers feared Russian attacks might be escalating, making any and all activity too risky, Falconer said.
He invited The Eagle to join him in his home on a Zoom call with a Ukrainian family in Kyiv earlier in the week.
Sofiia Yakmenko smiles easily and often. If it weren’t for the obviously dark background story, she might be called a normal 12-year-old.
Her mother Yuliia Lashkko is a bit more serious. She expresses her gratitude to all the online teachers around the world.
“It’s the most important thing for all these children – they can see all these people interested in different things, so they can have hope that after the war, they can have a future,” Lashko said.
“They have the possibilities of freedom. You cannot over-estimate the importance of this.”
As Lashko tells the story of one of her daughter’s online friends, Sofiia’s smile fades.
Andrew, who lives in Kherson, can still hear the bombs go off. Russian troops seized the Kherson region, north of Crimea, and part of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region early into the military conflict.
On good days, he walks a gauntlet of Russian tanks and soldiers to reach the government building that has the Wifi signal he needs to take part in the video calls.
Lashko said when Andrew misses a call, Sofiia “doesn’t know if he’ll be alive in the morning.”
There was shelling and several explosions at Zaporizhzhia on Aug. 5 that forced the shutdown of the electrical power transformer and a nuclear reactor.
Lashko said children in the online classes don’t have a physical school to go to. There are ongoing discussions over whether schools should have bomb shelters.
Back in early March, Falconer joined the online lessons by Smart Osvita and now he actively involves his colleagues from different parts of Canada and organizes virtual tours for young Ukrainians.
He said he can tell the impact the classes are having onscreen.
“I look at the faces. Some are from bomb shelters. It’s an incredible break from that reality for them,” he said.
Falconer said his organization has reached upwards of 8,000 Ukrainians from Germany, Czechia, Egypt, Spain, Canada, and other countries. He wants to get the word out that they are looking for many more volunteers, and not just teachers. The only requirement is an active interest – in pretty much anything. If an avid green thumb wanted to share their gardening experience (and show off a bit), he said that would work.
Anyone interested in volunteering or getting more information can go to [email protected]
Sofiia’s favourite remote guest host was Canadian astronaut, author, and musician Chris Hadfield.
A big hit with the kids, Hadfield made his answers to their questions directly relatable to the situation at hand, with a liberal dose of hope, inspiration and positivity.
Asked what the worst thing about space was, he told the students, “You’re away from your family for a long time – like, completely away – and you never know how long it’s going to last.
“There’s always some bad things, but there’s always good things also. I got to see 16 sunrises a day.”
Hadfield encouraged his audience to reach for the stars and take on challenges. He said learning to operate the Canadarm was like learning to ride a bike.
“It seems daunting at first, but once you know how, it’s pretty easy,” he told the class.
Sofiia makes a giggling cameo appearance in the Hadfield video when she asks him what was the funniest thing that happened on the space station.
On cue, he provided a hilarious story.
To hear that story, and the rest of a truly inspirational talk with Ukrainian students, go to: youtu.be/2fAW8fjgqRg