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Efforts to Aid Displaced Ukrainian Children

Over 6,000 people have died from the conflict and ongoing violence in Ukraine. Civil unrest is often fueled by political discontent and the perceived ramifications for the country’s future generations. Children can often provide a rallying cry for opposing sides of any conflict to galvanize and fight for their supposed best interests.

However, conflicting forces, far too often, champion the importance of their children’s future without taking into account their children’s present. This high degree of turmoil and chaos has a far-reaching effect on children. The scope of Ukraine’s destruction is, in fact, not fully understood until the plight of the children is realized. Thousands of Ukrainian children have been orphaned, displaced or forced to take refuge in shelters.

Much of the fighting in early 2015 took place in Eastern Ukraine in the Donetsk region. The town of Debaltseve, in particular, received a heavy dosage of the destruction. The violence left only one functioning kindergarten for the town, and its director, Zoya Ovcharenko, set out searching the multitude of shelters and basements for displaced children, urging them to come back to school.

While children may be too young to understand why there is fighting, they are not too young to understand the fear that comes with it. Being forced out of school and into shelters disrupts their sense of normalcy and causes severe psychological trauma. Often times, children are left to cope with their nightmares themselves.

With the help of the de facto Ministry of Emergency, Ovcharenko was able to enroll 35 children in her school, which had been in the midst of a battle zone only weeks prior.

While the school was in a deteriorated, but functional state, the children appeared to be in far worse condition. “It became clear to us that we would not be able to deal with the trauma we saw in the children, even if our staff is very experienced,” Ovcharenko recalls.

This past March, a mobile team of psychologists in collaboration with UNICEF arrived to begin working with the young children. One of the psychologists, Valentina Nikolaeva remembers her initial reaction after meeting the children. “When we first saw the children in March, they had visible signs of trauma. They did not touch others, and they did not want to be touched. They were scared when they heard loud noises.”

In an assessment, students were asked to draw their ideas of “safe places” and many of the children drew bomb shelters, fortresses or barricaded houses. These results clearly indicate the violence caused a contorted sense of safety.

The team works with the children three times per week in small groups of 4 to 6 children per psychologist. After a short while of consistent playing and nurturing, the children began to show signs of recovery. “We saw results in just a week’s time… the children adapted back to normal life, and they laughed again” states Ovcharenko.

As another means of assessment, the students are asked to choose their favorite colors for the day. The psychologists have noticed that more often, the children are choosing brighter colors. The frequency of their color choices has a direct correlation with their improving conditions. Ovcharenko’s school enrollment has now grown to almost 80 children.

In an effort to expand the psychological treatment of the displaced youth, UNICEF Ukraine has been receiving funding from the Swedish International Development Agency. To date, UNICEF has served over 11,000 displaced Ukrainian children and has trained over 100 psychologists and support teachers.

– The Borgen Project

Photo: Voice of America