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Interview with Olenka Pavlenko about the exhibition “Unissued Diplomas”

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Olenka is a young energetic woman with a lot of projects, ideas, and plans. Back in Ukraine she even hosted her own podcast. But now her mission is to share the stories of Ukrainian students in her age that were killed during the war since 24th of February 2022.

Olenka is part of a team of ten people that organized the exhibition “unissued diplomas” around the world. The exhibition tells very personal stories of 36 Ukrainian students who never will graduate, who never will be able to fulfill their dreams – like living in an ecovillage one day, travelling the world, taking care of homeless animals or marrying the beloved girlfriend.

Olenka, what is the “Unissued Diploma” exhibition about and what is your mission?

Our mission is to tell the story of the war through personalized stories, through small details. Me and my friends organized that exhibition in 52 cities around the world, 20 countries for spreading awareness, sharing their stories, showing that the war is ongoing and that it takes the life of young people.

To accomplish this mission, it must have been difficult to search for these stories. Where did you read about these 36 students and how did you choose these students?

It was teamwork. But mostly, these were people we knew, and we heard about that this person went missing or any other unfortunate event. We got to these stories through relatives, friends and people we know. Of course, there are many more people who died. We took these stories because people responded to us the fastest and told the stories. The idea emerged in January. We were doing brainstorming, organizing sponsorship and everything like that, so we really needed a fast communication. The reason why these 36 stories were chosen is basically because of the fast communication.

You were connected to some of them, two of them were your friends. You knew a lot of them…

Yes, and I’m obliged to tell their stories. I’m sad, that they’re not here to tell their stories on their own. That is a tough pill to swallow. Its not just about my friends or me doing that for two people. Its more about acknowledging that the war takes the life of young people like me. Some of them will never be able neither to finish university nor to travel the world. It’s about acknowledging their goals.

How do you feel about your country?

I’m proud to be Ukrainian. I have a lot of hope. But I guess that’s the part of being young - you always have a lot of hope when you’re young. Here I’m thankful for all the support and I’m trying my best to remember my people and to help my friends from here by collecting donations.

How can people help?

You can come, learn, feel, and see this exhibition. It’s not a pleasant or funny thing to do, it’s not a “date activity”. But I think, it’s interesting and important to learn what my reality in the 21st century is. Also, we’re collecting donations. We collect money on an official Canadian account for medical equipment for Ukrainians.

What are your plans regarding that exhibition?

We’re thinking about expanding it in other cities because maybe some other universities would like to cooperate with us because we got a lot of attention. For example, the Prime Minister of Norway visited our exhibition in Norway, wrote a post about it and more people came to visit.

And do you have other projects planned in the nearer future?

Yes, we’re planning a new exhibition in big cities like New York or Berlin supported by ambassies, ministries and governments. The plan is a virtual reality exhibition that takes you to ruined Ukrainian cities.

Thank you, Olenka, for taking the time to tell us more about “Unissued Diplomas”.

The exhibition opened worldwide on 24th February and can be seen at Art Center Caravel until 10th of March. The entry is free of charge, but donations will be used for medical equipment in Ukraine.

Photo and interview by Julia Kussl

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