Ukrainian President Zelensky asks Canadian students not to tire of the war

Though he leavened his address to Canadian university students on 22 June 2022 with humour – “We know who is Voldemort in this one and who is Harry Potter, so we know how the war will end,” in answer to one question – Volodymyr Zelensky spared the students gathered at 11 universities none of the horror his nation is living through.

Ukraine’s president, the first speaker invited to talk to Canadian students who had to speak from an undisclosed location, said that over the past three years he has worked, as he promised at a meeting in Toronto, to make Ukraine’s institutions more transparent. Then he added: “Today the walls of our buildings are transparent. Literally. They are destroyed by Russian missiles and bombs.”

Some of the word pictures he sketched during the address sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy were familiar and inspiring: the farmer who used his tractor to close the road to the Russian tanks, “the ordinary woman in our village who went out and stopped the armoured vehicles with her hands”.

Save for the refugees from Ukraine in the audience, the students, from six of Canada’s 10 provinces, could not have helped but ask themselves what it would be like for them to have their professors “teaching from the frontlines”.

Zelensky’s trope is “Three years ago/later”. Three years ago, in Toronto, he pledged full-fledged reform of infrastructure. “Three years later, Russia started their so-called ‘special operation’. We’ve created badges, schools, hospitals, stadia. Russia has been building bombs and missiles in order to destroy all that.”

Referring to 22 June, he says: “This is a sad day of commemorating the victims of war. … On the same day in 1941, the Nazis started bombing Kyiv at four o’clock in the morning.

“Those were different times, in a different occupation in a different war. But our spirits, our longing for freedom and our fight have not changed. On 24 February, at four o’clock, at that same time, Russian missiles flew into Ukraine.”

Among the five students who asked questions was Kateryna Luchka, an exchange student from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, who fled the capital in the early days of the war and told the Globe and Mail that she filled out her application for refugee status in Canada as air raid sirens wailed around her.

She asked what the Ukrainian government could do to ensure that students like her return after the war to help rebuild Ukraine, an issue, incidentally, that was the subject of a recent seminar hosted by NAFSA: Association of International Educators at which leading Ukrainian educators spoke.

The president began by thanking Canadian universities for taking in refugee scholars like Luchka (one of the 100 students per term the University of Toronto is taking in). In a partnership with the university’s school of economics, this September, 30 students will receive financial support, including living expenses.

Zelensky then went on to underline the importance of Luchka and the other students both striving to better themselves and being ready to return to help rebuild Ukraine once the nation is secured. New policies and digitalisation now make it possible to register a business there in seven to 10 minutes.

After expressing his gratitude to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland (whose family immigrated to Canada from Ukraine and who has been sanctioned by Russia) for their support, he turned and implored the students not to tire.

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