The children of Ukraine are among the invisible victims of the current conflict. Their schools are closed and all classes have been provided online since last year. There are plans in some regions to open underground classrooms. And children in some areas are restricted to playing in back gardens under adult supervision.
“The mums, the dads and the local authorities are all adamant that their children are their future,” Concern’s Head of Emergency Operations Ros O’Sullivan explained. “The parents themselves are very traumatised but they are putting every ounce of energy into their children.”
The reality for any child under six in Ukraine is that the conflict has denied them the opportunity to lead a normal childhood life, with social inclusion/cohesion and forging relationships through play and interacting with other children.
Psycho-social support activities for children in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide
Weekly psycho-social support (PSS) is being provided by the Joint Emergency Response in Ukraine (JERU) – consisting of Alliance2015 members Concern Worldwide, Welthungerhilfe and Cesvi. The programme is provided through a local community organisation and is supporting 6,000 children aged between four and 15 and adults.
“Children have not gone back to school since before COVID,” Ros explained. “School buildings are empty and children are being educated online. In February they will be two years out of school as a result of the conflict Having spent the day online, some children now come to the local school building for a two-hour PSS session each week.”
Even those sessions are regularly interrupted by air raid warnings. In rural parts of Kharkiv and Sumy Oblasts in eastern Ukraine some schools do not have their own shelters, so the children must go hand-in-hand to a nearby shelter, singing the national anthem as they go.
Children wait in the school bomb shelter for the air raid to end so they can return to their psycho-social support classes. The basement still needs renovation. It’s dark and damp there. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide
The parents cannot talk about their trauma without breaking down. The greatest fear of parents in areas which were previously occupied by Russian forces is that their children could be captured, Ros noted. They are brought to the PSS sessions and the mothers/carers wait outside to collect them.
“During the occupation, parents practically did not let their children go outside. The maximum was a short walk in their own backyard under the supervision of elders. But the children didn’t even need the explanations. They realised that something was wrong and sat quietly, like mice,” said Natalia *, a 26-year psychologist who travels 60km to provide the PSS sessions.
The children look forward to spending time with Natalia. Everyone especially liked the latest homework assignment: “I asked them to hug their parents after returning home and tell them how much they love them.” Now the children do it without being reminded.
The group has an average of 20 children aged four to 15. Natalia finds an approach for each of them and develops a programme. The girls like to make handmade things like bouquets and origami. And the boys play table tennis almost continuously.
Psycho-social support activities for children in a village in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide
“These children will never forget what they have gone through,” said Serhii*, a psychologist providing PSS programme in a nearby town. He aims to provide the children with positive coping mechanisms to deal with stressful and traumatic experiences in the frontline districts.
The children lack socialisation and active communication. Even proceeding to the shelter is perceived by them as an interesting adventure. Psychologists help kids to experience anxious moments as a fun game.
Sirens sound here several times a day. They can mean either active shelling or the takeoff of a Russian warplane or helicopter near the Ukrainian border. As soon as the alarm sounds, kids, accompanied by adults, run to the school shelter as fast as they can.
With parents insistent that it is not safe for their children to return to school while the conflict continues, in Kharkiv they are developing underground schools in the city’s Metro rail stations. “These children will have gone from COVID straight into bunkers and now they will not leave those bunkers,” Ros O’Sullivan said.
Sonia* (6) the youngest lover of the psycho-social support classes comes to school to lie on the carpet and play hide and seek. The classes were at a school in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide
Winter is coming
“Nobody we spoke to has any real optimism that this conflict is going to finish any time soon. They are planning to educate their children underground. People are talking about the sheer cold they will face in the coming months and about how they will keep warm and nourished.”
The region experiences bitter winter conditions with temperatures falling to minus 20 degrees Centigrade. As the winter approaches, people talk of the need to get stoves and firewood.
In addition to the PSS programme for almost children and adults, JERU is helping up to 100,000 people through cash assistance, winter payments to help cover utility payments and other winter needs, in-kind items such as hygiene kits, cookers and firewood, and livelihood supports.
- Names have been changed for safety reasons.