Child of Chernobyl inspires idea to give Ukraine’s children 20,000 hand-knitted teddies

Yuri is a bear. He is a cute, hand-knitted teddy from Australia.

Yuri is also a 40-something member of Ukraine’s security forces, playing his part in that nation’s war against one of the world’s most powerful armies.

Now a project is underway to send 20,000 Yuri bears from Australia to Ukraine to comfort thousands of children displaced by the Russian invasion.

The bears are inspired by Yuri who, 29 years ago, was a sponsored foster child who came to Australia as an 11-year-old boy. His parents had been first responders to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and sent him to the other side of the world to be safe.

Now a husband and father, Yuri has evacuated his own family from Ukraine while staying behind to defend his country.

Debra Richardson took in Yuri as a foster child for several months in 1993, but then lost contact with him for three decades. They later reconnected thanks to the internet and persistence.

Two boys smiling.
Yuri (right) in Australia with Debra’s son Brody.(supplied)

“I sent a million emails out to anyone I could find who was named Yuri. That was in about 2018 and I didn’t hear anything for a year,” Debra said.

“Then I got a message out of the blue one day saying, ‘Hello my Australian mummy’.

“It said, ‘It is me, it is Yuri, I’m at work but I’ll message you when I get home’.

“We’ve had many conversations and then, back on February 23 this year, we got those reports Russia was going to invade Ukraine,” Debra said.

“Through the course of the next few weeks he needed to evacuate his family from Kiev.

“He is in Kiev but has been to the front line and seen things no-one should ever have to see.”

A desire to help

The Yuri bear project started as a need to do something – anything – to help. What started as a small gesture has grown into something greater.

“For weeks I was asking what I could do to help Yuri. I was feeling very helpless sitting on the other side of the world and not knowing what we could do to support Yuri,” Debra said.

Hand-knitted teddy bears.
The Yuri bear project intends to send 20,000 handmade teddies to Ukraine.(supplied)

“Eventually in one of our calls I said: ‘Yuri, I knit. Can I help by sending kids some teddy bears?””

“He said, ‘That would be amazing because the children have nothing. Many had to pack up and leave at the drop of a hat’.

“I initially thought I could knit 100 and maybe get the local community behind me and make a thousand.”

In honor of Yuri

Debra enlisted the support of her employer Ryman Healthcare, which runs retirement aged care homes across Australia and New Zealand.

“We now have the support of a whole heap of cuddle people who are helping to knit these teddy bears,” Debra said.

“So Project Yuri Bear, named in honor of my foster son was born, and we set a target of 20,000.”

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