Singaporean girl who designed T-shirt to help Ukraine 'shocked' when President Zelenskyy wore it
SINGAPORE: It started in April when Ava Soh, 16, joined a Zoom call with other Singaporeans and the Ukrainian ambassador to Singapore Kateryna Zelenko.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine was already in full swing then, and Ava wanted to find out what she could do to help.
"It was a discussion about what Ukraine needs right now, how can we help, and it was a community of Singaporeans getting together and thinking about how we can fundraise and things like that," she told CNA over the phone on Saturday (Jun 11).
"I just want to hear what people have to say and what I can do to help. I mean, I've always been taught that you should always offer help where help is needed."
Ava ended up creating a non-fungible token (NFT) design that was featured on a T-shirt worn by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his virtual address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday.
Recalling how her project started, Ava said she had already been dabbling in cryptocurrency and NFTs. She wanted to create one depicting a girl putting the stars on a Singapore flag, which she thought symbolises women empowerment and nation-building.
So during the Zoom call, Ava had her eureka moment. "That was the first time that I thought, 'oh my god, I can apply this NFT idea to Ukraine,'" said the Secondary 4 student at St Joseph's Institution International.
Little did she know that her mini fundraising project would end up getting endorsed by President Zelenskyy himself at Asia's premier security meeting.
"When I was preparing for this meeting, I was told about one girl. She wrote me a letter asking to support her initiative called spray paint Ukraine," Mr Zelenskyy told the audience.
"This is an initiative aimed at helping Ukraine. She created this NFT picture and presented me with a shirt for me to wear it, thus helping everyone to discover her initiative."
Ava, who was watching a livestream of the speech, could not believe her eyes.
"I only found that he would wear it when I was watching it," she said. "I didn't even think that he would wear it or talk about it. But the fact that he talked about it, I was just very shocked."
The idea picked up steam when Ava kept in touch with Ms Zelenko through her personal assistant. They talked about the NFT idea and Ava began working on it.
She decided that the graphic would be of a girl on a ladder spray-painting the Ukraine flag. She started looking up pictures of traditional Ukrainian dresses for the girl - then she hit a roadblock.
"When you search on the Internet for a dress, no one's taking a picture of the back of the dress. So it's like, 'how the hell am I supposed to find this?' That took quite a bit and then I tried to put a bit of cross-stitching in and things like that," she said.
Once she had the dress pinned down, Ava stood on an actual ladder and acted like she was spray painting her wall, so her mother could take a photo of her.
Ava used these references and a sketching software to hand-draw the final design, which would be minted as an NFT and printed on T-shirts. She said the process took about two weeks and "a lot of preparation".
Then two weeks ago, Ava was invited to a physical gathering where people raised funds for Ukraine and learnt about its history. Ms Zelenko was also there, so Ava handed her the T-shirt and a note for Mr Zelenskyy.
"I talked about my idea (in the note) and that all funds and proceeds will go directly to Ukraine. I actually asked him if he could wear it in one of the press conferences, and that will help turn this into a global movement," she said.
"I truly did not expect him to wear it, because he's the president of a country going through a war. Not only is he in charge of the whole country, but he is also in charge of his family, relatives. I'm like, 'where do you find time to think about other things?'"
Ava worked with a local partner to help mint the NFT, meaning publishing it on the blockchain to make it purchasable. She made sure to continue the fundraiser with the mindset that Mr Zelenskyy would not wear the T-shirt.
Ava launched her project on Thursday. On Friday, she found out that the Ukrainian president would speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
"We're like, 'oh my god, he's appearing.' We kind of like crossed our fingers and hoped he would wear the T-shirt," she said.
"Then he just turned up and I was super shocked. And it was also very emotional because during this project I was also doing my exams. I was managing things and I was very stressed, so it's like so many things going on."
Now that she has got a global audience, Ava stressed that all proceeds from her T-shirt and NFT sales will go to Ukraine, although some of the funds will be used to cover production costs and the cost of keeping the project running.
"I think the project will run for however long it takes for this war to end. So hopefully, even though it sounds weird, hopefully it ends as soon as possible," she said, adding that she plans to come up with new designs to help Ukraine and other countries that need it.
"So hopefully I can use the voice that I have and the platform that I've attained to speak out about things and to help people."