Like most students in their final year of high school, Valerie was eagerly awaiting her graduation. She and her friends planned the night to perfection. They organized the decorations and choreographed dance routines for the event that was set to take place in their school.
And, of course, Valerie bought a dress.
She purchased a beautiful, billowy red gown on Feb. 22, two days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine and five days before they bombed her school.
On June 6, Valerie stood amongst the rubble that was once School #134 in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a city that is just an hour from the Russian border. Kharkiv has been heavily bombed since the beginning of the war, leaving nearly half the city destroyed, including many schools.
When I looked at the school I wanted to cry because it was the best school, there are a lot of memories left
Valerie’s mom Nadia and some of the other parents of students that are still in Kharkiv decided to bring the graduates back to their school to say goodbye, in a makeshift graduation event that was nothing like the one they had planned.
At this event, Nadia snapped a photo of her daughter in her red graduation dress standing in front of her demolished school. She shared the photo with Valerie’s aunt Anna, who lives in Toronto. Anna posted it on Facebook and since then it has been shared more than 12,000 times.
“I thought the image is so powerful because it represents all those graduating kids in Ukraine,” said Anna. “Everyone is heartbroken.”
Nadia, Anna and Valerie asked that only their first names be used in this story to protect their identities out of fear of retribution for speaking about the war.
Anna explained that the school Valerie attended had survived the Second World War. It had also educated four generations of their family.
“Valerie, her dad, grandad, and great-grandma went there,” said Anna.
When returning to her school, Valerie said she felt an “incredible pain” as the time she spent at the school was “the best years of her life.”
“I spent 11 years there,” she said in an email. “When I looked at the school I wanted to cry because it was the best school, there are a lot of memories left.”
The students who returned to the school also made a video that was posted to Facebook showing them dancing together in front of the ruins. Valerie is also shown in her dress, walking through what’s left of the halls of her former school.
Anna said she is happy the photo has gone viral, as it encourages those in other countries, especially Canada, to pay attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She hopes it will encourage people to donate.
She mentioned a number of charities that are accepting money through donations. These include the Canadian organization Help Us Help, which is raising funds for several different initiatives, U.S.-based Liberty Ukraine which is accepting donations that will go to humanitarian aid, and the Ukrainian volunteer paramedic group Hospitallers.
Despite the war, Anna said that Valerie is hoping to continue her education and go to university. In a time of uncertainty, she said she hopes her niece will not forget about her bright future.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Anna. “She brought everyone’s attention back to our country and reminded them that we are not done with the war.”
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