About two-thirds of Ukrainian children have been displaced since war broke out earlier this year. When they leave home, they take almost nothing with them to escape danger.
To help bring them some comfort, residents of Ryman Healthcare’s more than 45 villages in New Zealand and Australia are knitting ‘Yuri’ bears for as many children as possible.
For the woman behind the project, Melbourne Ryman Community and Sales Manager Debra Richardson, the bears are particularly meaningful.
A child she took in in Ukraine following the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986 has returned to her home country as an adult and is now fighting with her compatriots there.
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Richardson’s former adopted child, Yuri, is the namesake of the teddy bear project.
“He made the decision to stay and fight for his country and his family was evacuated to safety,” Richardson said.
“When I first shared the idea with Yuri, he said, ‘Ukraine is stronger with your help, your empathy and your love.'”
Richardson hears less and less about Yuri every day, and the bears are a kind of bond between her and him as she worries about his safety.
“It’s easy to feel totally helpless about what’s going on, but small gestures like a handmade bear for a child who has lost almost everything can make a big difference,” she said.
Possum Bourne Village in Pukekohe has knitted 306 Yuri bears, with more on the way. So far they have made the most of all the villages in Ryman working towards the 20,000 bear goal before being shipped to the Ukraine-Poland border on September 30.
About 15 to 20 knitters have been at work since about mid-July. It takes about two days on average to build a bear – one day to knit the pattern and another to sew the bear together and stuff it.
One resident, Cora Brookings, is knitting at a much higher than average pace: On August 26, she started her 21st bear since July 22.
Resident Beverly Laurent has 26 great-grandchildren and has so far knitted seven “Yuri” bears which she has sent to Ukraine.
“When you see pictures of Ukraine and some of these buildings that have been completely bombed, well the kids wouldn’t have anything left, they should have left in a hurry,” she said.
“At least they’ll have something to cuddle at night.”
Another resident, Alison Glasgow, said she was not surprised to learn that Possum Bourne knitters topped the charts for most knitted bears in New Zealand so far.
“I think most people here would be grandmothers and all of them would be mothers. You cannot imagine what the conditions would be for children in a war zone,” she said.
“They came out of their house with no toys at all, I guess. When we were asked to do this project, well, you can see how people got behind it. It’s wonderful.
There are 38 Ryman Villages in New Zealand and seven in Australia. All the teddy bears made will go to the Red Cross, which will deliver them to children in refugee camps on the border between Ukraine and Poland.
Elsewhere, Julia Wallace in Palmerston North knitted around 185, Bruce McLaren in Botany and Jane Mander in Whangarei knit around 120. But every day more and more bears are knitted.
Russia launched a war against Ukraine about six months ago. The death toll among soldiers and civilians has been difficult to tally, and official figures have proven difficult to verify.
But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than tens of thousands of civilians had died, many of them children.
Ukraine is resisting a Russian-led “special military operation” led by President Vladimir Putin, which has so far led to Russia occupying around 20% of Ukrainian territory.
Some 2.8 million Ukrainians left their country as refugees and crossed the Polish border. About half of them are under 18according to the Center for Citizenship Education Foundation, the largest educational NGO in Poland.
If you want to help knit, you can access patterns and instructions for ‘Yuri’ bears on the Ryman Healthcare website.