Two Years of Courage

Don't Forget to Breathe: discover our mission to bring a better future to Ukrainian children from Kyiv to Montréal.

By Liubov Lavreniuk

Updated 05:24 pm EST, December 17, 2023

Published 01:05 pm EST, December 13, 2023

Photo Courtesy: Liubov Lavreniuk

One of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains legends tells the story of a unique flower called the silk braid or silk flower. This flower is also known as the alpine white or edelweiss. In this legend, only a courageous man could give this flower to his beloved. He had to either successfully bring the flower to her or risk his life in the attempt. But if a man managed to gather this special flower in the name of love, it symbolized his worthiness and dedication to protect that love. The man who presented the edelweiss deserved her love in return, as he had proven his devotion through this daring act. Could this tale inspire a simple Ukrainian teacher and bring her the missing courage?

The flower’s Latin name comes from the Greek words “leon” meaning lion and “podion” meaning paw. If you translate the word “edelweiss” from German, you get two words: “edel” meaning “noble” and “weiss” meaning “white.”

Edelweiss on a Chevron

Back to present times, I am in a semi-shaded room far from home and the people I love. In front of me is a flag that is always in my bag wherever I go. I hug the piece of blue and yellow cloth with hastily made signatures. Sadness, anger, and helplessness fulfill me immediately. “Don’t forget to breathe,” I repeat to myself again and again. There is only one thing on my mind, “Stop it, someone has to stop it!” Before me, on the flag, I can discern the numbers 128 and 2014, along with the phrase “Towards the Victory,” all shimmering through the crystal prism of tears. Consciousness scrolls memories like a movie back to 2014, the year when the war started, exactly nine years ago.

Liubov's personal Ukrainian flag mentioning the 128th Brigade and the phrase "Towards the Victory"
Liubov's personal Ukrainian flag mentioning the 128th Brigade and the phrase "Towards the Victory"

And further, to the day when my students and I sang Jingle Bells together with tired but smiling fellows in military uniform, the ones who fought for our country. These were the same ones for whom we, with the children, collected warm clothes and treats. It was impossible to believe that the incredible courage of those who held our sky hid behind those smiles. That moment marked the day when the numbers 128 and 2014 appeared on this flag.

And today, after nine years, the same numbers… Once more, they secure our sky, ensuring we have a place to call home. 

The Brigade: Ukrainian Courage

The 128th Brigade is a mountain infantry unit within the Ukrainian Ground Forces. It falls under the operational command structure known as “West.” On the chevron of the Brigade is a mountain flower, edelweiss. On November 19, in honor of the Day of Missile Troops, personnel of 128 brigades were gathered for awards in the front-line area. They were lined up. The Russians struck, resulting in the deaths of a great many Ukrainian officers and soldiers. 

Courage – what is it? The ability to resist fear, pain, and danger? The ability to stand for your beliefs, values, and principles? Perhaps the ability to fight and protect the lives of others? Or the ability to stay in a country where there is war or to go nowhere, fighting for the life and future of oneself and one’s children and facing the challenges that arise every day, every minute? The Ukrainian 128th Brigade surely has this courage.

How many of us left cozy homes and exchanged it for nowhere? Courage to stay and live on, courage to go and fight and give away your life for letting others live, or courage to leave?

Don't Forget to Breathe

In 2022, when Kyiv was under constant missile attacks, I felt the need to do something to fulfill my life with some sense. I couldn’t stop thinking of my students staying there under the permanent pressure of the war. So the decision was made. And I started calling all my friends in different countries to ask to find shelter for a group of children. I found ones in Canada, which became a total surprise for me. And we did it… It was an extremely hard way for us as it took an unbelievable effort and nearly half a year of my life. 

Of the thirty-five children who initially received the desirable visa and passport, only eleven remained. And only seven, including one adult, boarded the plane. In between, there were sleepless nights of collecting and providing all the necessary documents. Negotiations with the Canadian government and trips with documents to Poland and Austria. 

“Don’t Forget to Breathe,” I repeated to myself again and again. 

And in the end, I was happy… We did it. We had plane tickets, and the children were able to dream silently about the future that was ahead of them. How much courage these Ukrainian children had, how many of us dared to go to the other end of the world without knowing the language – the province where the children were going was French-speaking. Or even dream of it; how brave their parents must have been, deciding to let go, at many times, their only child. I saw them and thought, what’s next? 

Next, I packed up my suitcase, and it was time to set off. I wasn’t sure where I was going. But the blue and yellow piece of cloth was to remind me of who I was. “Don’t forget to breathe,” I kept repeating over and over, grounding myself in the memory of those who held the sky for us to live on. 

No matter what was going on in my life, I tried to keep an eye on what was happening with the children in Canada. And now, after a year, I look back at their stories… You never lose this presence once you are involved in somebody’s fortune.

My friend Yuliya brought the kids to Canada, as I couldn’t due to circumstances beyond my control. Of the group of kids, Renata was the only one who dared to remain in Canada. These two Ukrainians with much courage share their stories with us.

P.S.

Do you remember Mary Poppins, the character from our childhood who often arrives or departs with the changing of the wind, signifying the magical and unpredictable nature of her presence? She once said, “Anything can happen if you let it.” 

So, DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE!

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