We Knitted 14,000 Teddies For Ukraine

Inspired by her foster son, Debra went into a war zone
  • When war broke out in Ukraine, Debra Richardson, 58, feared for her foster son, Yuri, who came to stay with her following the Chernobyl disaster.
  • Inspired by him and wanting to help the country’s children, she hand delivered 14,000 teddies knitted teddies to crisis centres and orphanages across the country.
  • To a child living through conflict, Yuri Bear isn’t just a teddy, but a reminder that the world cares.
  • And happily, she was able to be reunited by the young man who inspired it all.

Here Debra tells her story in her own words.

Typing the name ‘Yuri’, into Facebook, lots of profiles popped up, but not the one I needed. 

‘I’m never going to find him,’ I fretted to my hubby, Andrew, then 58.

It was 2018 and, 25 years earlier in 1993, we’d fostered a gorgeous little boy named Yuri, from Ukraine.

Australian charity Victims of Chernobyl National Relief Fund had flown Ukrainian children affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster out from contaminated regions around Chernobyl.

And Aussies across the nation opened their hearts and homes.

Picking up Yuri, then 11, he instantly became a part of our family.

Our boys Brody, then five, and Chase, one, soon embraced their new brother, bonding over Lego, video games and our backyard swing. 

Sending Yuri home to Kyiv three months later was heartbreaking.

Brody and Yuri in Australia (Credit: Supplied)

We got a lovely thank you message from Yuri’s mum afterwards, but then sadly lost contact.

Now I was determined to find him!

Messaging every Yuri on Facebook that I could find, a year later I received a wonderful message.

Hello my Australian mummy, it’s me, Yuri!

Reconnecting, we talked often, making up for lost time.

A police officer in Kyiv, Ukraine, Yuri, then 35, was married to Tanya, also 35.

I keep the family portrait we took in Australia on my bedside table, Yuri shared with me.

He never forgot about us, I beamed.

Yuri with the family portrait (Credit: Supplied)

Three years later, my heart sank as I watched the news – Russia had invaded Ukraine.

It was February 24, 2022, and Yuri’s country was under attack.

I felt so helpless.

Over the next few weeks, Yuri told me he needed to evacuate Tanya and their beautiful son, Marco, then three, to the Polish border, but he was staying to fight.

On one call, I said to my boy, ‘Yuri, I knit. Can I help by sending kids some teddy bears?’

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

Grabbing my knitting needles, and some blue and yellow yarn for the Ukrainian flag, I began.

Some of our gorgeous teddies (Credit: Supplied)

In four nights, I’d created a cute little bear with a red love heart on its chest.

I’ll call you the Yuri bear, I decided, and Project Yuri Bear was born.

That’s when I had a light-bulb moment.

I was community relations manager at Ryman Healthcare, which has more than 50 retirement homes across Oz and NZ, and many of our wonderful residents were knitting whizzes!

Within six months, lovely nannas, and even some grandpas, had made 5000 Yuri bears!

‘So many miles apart, but I feel the love,’ Yuri said.

Sharing Yuri’s story, packages of Yuri Bears began showing up on my doorstep.

We even had bears that’d been stuffed by kindy kids.

Our lovely knitters were busy (Credit: Supplied)

When we had 14,000 bears, I decided to travel to Ukraine to deliver them myself.

Best of all, I’d get to reunite with Yuri.

Understandably, Andrew, Brody, then 34, Chase, 30, and my youngest Laine, 29, were worried.

But they understood.

A freight company, Mondiale VGL, offered to ship the bears for free.

Sitting on a plane going to Warsaw, Poland, in June this year, it finally hit me.

I’m going into a war zone, I fretted.

But knowing I had thousands of bears to give to kids in need made my heart sing.

Tania, Yuri, Marko and me (Credit: Supplied)

Dropping into crisis centres and orphanages where Ukrainian kids were staying along the way to the border, my heart was bursting at the seams.

Arriving at the border four days later, tears streamed down my face as I embraced Yuri for the first time in almost three decades.

‘Don’t cry Debra. I’ve been blessed today – I am holding my Australian mum,’ he smiled.

As we drove to Kyiv, I was shocked at the steel barriers and camouflaged army tanks guarding the roads.

Devastation was at every corner.

Staying in a hotel, I was prepared for air-raid sirens – a bag packed with food, water and a blanket, just in case I had to dash to a bomb shelter.

Walking around Kyiv one night, I saw that people were drinking in bars and dancing in the streets.

Turning a corner though, and seeing what was left of a bombed city square, was heartbreaking.

Me and Yuri with his own police bear (Credit: Supplied)

After two weeks of handing out bears and spending time with Yuri – who’d taken time away from the front line – it was time to say goodbye.

‘I love you. Please be safe,’ I cried.

Back in Melbourne, I’m still desperately worried for Yuri.

But I’m pleased with what the project achieved.

To a child living through a war, Yuri Bear isn’t just a teddy.

He’s a friend when they’re alone, something to cuddle when they’re afraid and a parent when theirs can’t be there.

But most of all, it’s a reminder that the world cares.

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