Just days after hearing his first air raid siren and putting up a memorial wall in Lviv to honor the victims of the war in Ukraine, Hospitality student Leo Soto took three college class final exams. He's back on campus in Miami after nearly a month-long trip overseas, where he erected not one, but two memorial walls — one in Ukraine, the other in Poland.
The Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management student is the founder of the Wall of Hope Foundation, which he started less than a year ago to pay tribute to the victims of the condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida. The tragedy killed 98 people, including Soto's childhood friend. That's when he decided the victims needed to be honored. Essentially, the wall is a location, where pictures of victims of the tragedy are placed along with flowers. It's a place where families can grieve. Since Surfside in June 2021, Soto has erected at least five other walls.
"The appreciation from the people of Ukraine and the reality of war there were very profound," Soto said about the moment the war became very real to him. For most Americans, the more than two-month-long battle between Ukraine and Russia seems so far away, but Soto saw up close the realities of war.
"I had soldiers come up to me with small pictures of their brothers, friends who died in combat. I stumbled upon funerals and people carrying caskets," he said. Just as he was about to start working on the wall in Ukraine, an air raid siren went off.
Putting up the wall in a war-torn country presented Soto with several logistical challenges. The college senior bought a ticket to Warsaw, Poland, from Miami, Florida. He spent countless hours securing permission to build the wall in Warsaw, researching the names of victims, printing their pictures and buying fresh flowers. On April 17, he finally set up and finished that memorial across from the Ukrainian Embassy in Warsaw, then he set his sights on Ukraine.
Soto drove 485 miles from Warsaw to the Ukrainian border, only to find out that rental cars were not allowed into the eastern European country. So, he found a bus driver going to Ukraine's cultural capital, Lviv, loaded artificial flowers into the luggage hold and boarded the bus. He was the only one on board.
On Sunday, April 24, Soto found a spot in Lviv's Soborna Square and started adding pictures and flowers to the wall. Passersby stood and watched. Others prayed. By early evening, more than a dozen strangers joined Soto, adding pictures of their own family members or friends to the tall structure.
"This is about giving the community a place to come together and mourn loss," Soto said. "You didn’t have to speak Ukrainian to know what was happening."
Two days later, Soto was back on a plane to Miami. He slept 10 hours, woke up and went to class to take his first of three finals. Soto graduates in Fall 2022 with his bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management. He hopes to focus on nonprofit work in the future.
"Getting to Ukraine during wartime was a true journey, but what I found when I arrived in Lviv was something special. I’m honored I was able to bring some sense of comfort and hope to a community that is deeply suffering," he said. "Slava Ukraini."