What impact did the war have on child-oriented workers in Ukraine?

Maryna Mykolayivna’s eyes are hot with tears. She jabs her fingers in anger as she describes how her employer at an orphanage in the eastern city of Lusychansk told her to have five children at once on February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine evacuate to another facility in Lviv – more than a thousand kilometers away.

“I didn’t want to go,” says the assistant teacher. “I have two daughters and three grandchildren.” Maryna has been in the western city of Lviv, just 70 kilometers from the Polish border, for almost eight months. “I miss my home. I live in the orphanage 24 hours a day. I can’t rent my own apartment – I get paid, but not enough. You couldn’t understand what I’m going through unless you went through it yourself. I’m about to leave.”

As she speaks, the screeching of the children in the room intensifies. The group of 11 children aged three to eight at the Lviv Children’s Shelter are themselves stressed. The state placed these children in institutional care after their parents deemed them unfit to care for them. You have already suffered domestic trauma; now they live in a state of war.

Among them is another evacuated child, four-year-old Danylko (not his real name). His mother fled with him from Kharkiv in the north-east of the country when shells fell near her home. But the police found her drunk on a bench in Lviv and took Danylko to the orphanage. “Do you know my mom?” he asked us in a low voice when we arrived and started to cry. He hasn’t seen her for three weeks. Instead of turning to Maryna, his caretaker, for comfort, he wrapped his arms around our Ukrainian translator’s neck. “I heard the shelling and the shooting. I was scared,” he murmured, twisting his fat fingers—his hands weren’t yet skilled enough for proper wrestling. “Something fell and there were broken windows.”

Maryna does not reach him. Her own hardship has limited her ability to support the children. Danylko, in turn, has learned not to seek consolation from her.

The situation for many child-oriented workers in Ukraine, children and their parents or carers alike, is grueling. In Lviv, where an estimated 240,000 Ukrainians have fled, child services have come under increasing pressure. Meanwhile, the workers trying to fulfill that destiny must also contend with their own fears and personal losses.

Teachers and healthcare workers manage stress and disruption

Ukrainian teachers started a new academic year on September 1st. About 51 percent of schools and kindergartens across the country have been opened for face-to-face teaching. Schools in more dangerous areas, or those without adequate bomb shelters, offer classes online.

A survey of more than 300 teachers by the Teach for Ukraine teacher training program seen by Same times shows that 76 percent are concerned about the increased responsibility for students. When air raid sirens go off during the day, teachers must safely evacuate their classes to designated shelters. Almost a fifth of teachers said psychological stress caused by their personal circumstances made them “unable to participate in their work”.

“The interactions between the child and the teacher can now be different and difficult due to stress,” says Solomiya Boikovych, project manager of Teach for Ukraine and co-founder of Ptashenya Kindergarten (a private daycare center in the Lviv region). She says classrooms now have a different dynamic as students have different experiences of the war.

“Some may be from affected areas and others may have lost relatives or parents,” she says. Online teaching is also a challenge because it’s harder to teach effectively from a screen, Boikovych notes. Meanwhile, teachers process their own trauma. “There are so many unpredictable things that can happen,” she says.

In Lviv, Maria Yatseyko, chairwoman of the Lviv branch of the Union of Educational and Scientific Workers of Ukraine, says teachers “don’t complain” and “try to make it work”. She points out that many continue to teach online after seeing their schools damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles. As of September 27, 2,260 educational institutions in the country were damaged and 291 were completely destroyed.

Yatseyko explains that educators from the Lviv region have been working tirelessly as volunteers during the school holidays to take in about 17,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in schools. They became chefs and consultants. “We helped with everything, gave them advice, gave them clothes or shoes,” she says.

Healthcare workers face similarly challenging working conditions. In May, the World Health Organization said it had confirmed 200 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine. As a result of this threat, Dr. Zoryana Salabay, who runs a premature baby ward in the regional hospital in Lviv, put it in the basement. Newborns requiring intensive care are too fragile to be moved when air-raid sirens are sounding. “Ten days into the war, we brought down oxygen, all equipment, water, special ventilation…[.]” She says. “Right now, all of our babies, doctors and nurses are downstairs all the time so it’s safer for them.”

The conditions in the basement are cramped. In the post-intensive care room, 14 plastic beds line the walls. Their mothers, who sleep upstairs, spend the day standing over their babies in dressing gowns and slippers; there is only room for a couple of chairs. The air is stale and stuffy, despite the fan, and the glare from the strip lights is intense. Hospital staff sandbagged all natural light through the room’s tall windows in case of explosions.

“You are traumatized”

Among the mothers is Anastasiya (who did not give her last name). She fled Kharkiv with her husband and two children after living in their basement for several weeks. “The shelling became unbearable,” she says. Anastasiya developed pregnancy complications after 30 weeks. Her daughter was born six weeks early through a traumatic caesarean section. She has recovered from respiratory problems and an infection but is still too weak to leave the hospital.

Anastasiya struggles to describe her feelings. “They fall silent,” says Salabay, looking at the mothers. “Our nurses listen to their stories,” she continues. “But it’s also difficult for them to work in these inappropriate conditions, not only to help the babies, but also to support the mothers, the parents. They are traumatized.”

Her team does not have access to specific psychological support, but Salabay encourages colleagues to share their thoughts and feelings. “Some of them have husbands who are currently fighting in military operations in the East,” she adds.

Iryna Trokhym, director of the NGO Women’s Perspectives, says people who support traumatized children and families do so largely without proper training. “No one prepared to help people fleeing the war,” she says. “Everyone is working with trauma now, but it’s hard to have those skills.”

Trokhym says efforts to support people’s psychological needs are becoming more difficult because Ukrainians are not used to accessing psychological support.

“Many women-focused NGOs from different parts of Ukraine say it’s difficult to offer psychological support to women because they don’t understand how it can help,” she says.

Trokhym says the best support psychologists can offer children is art therapy. “It’s very rare for a mother to understand that a child needs personal psychological support or direct counseling,” she says. “We have to work mainly in groups.”

Women’s Perspectives provides shelter for internally displaced people. Among them is Iryna Lytvynova, a mother who fled the town of Kramatorsk (which is in a non-Russian-occupied part of Donetsk) with her two children after living in her basement for a month. They departed by train days before a deadly Russian missile attack hit the Kramatorsk train station on April 8, killing 60 civilians. Despite these harrowing experiences, Lytvynova says talking to a psychologist “wasn’t helpful.” “He’s fine,” she says of her two-year-old son. “We hope for peace so that we can get our lives back.”

Remarkable work

John R. Weisz, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, says child-focused staff provide “remarkable” help in extreme circumstances in Ukraine. As part of an international team of psychologists investigating how to support the mental health of refugee children, he recently visited Ukrainian refugees in Poland. “Some adults go through a lot of emotional upheaval, but they can work with children in ways that don’t show it,” he says. “Other adults may find it very difficult to act normal and helpful because of what they’re going through.”

Weisz says the impact an adult’s own trauma will have on children in their care depends on how successful they are in overcoming their feelings when around children. However, he points out that children also have a wide range of responses to trauma.

“Some are incredibly resilient,” he says. “Some children develop symptoms of depression; others develop increased alertness and anxiety. One of the challenges will be a significant number of children who will have post-traumatic stress symptoms — flashbacks, memories they would rather never relive — and we need interventions for those symptoms.”

Weisz supports Trokhym’s suspicion that there is little support for psychotherapy among Ukrainian parents. He suggests that digital self-help services are the best solution, especially as Ukrainians generally have good tech skills and internet access. The sheer number of people who need psychological support also means that it is financially and practically possible to reach people in this way.

Online content can help even very young children, says Weisz. For example, he says episodes of the US children’s series Sesame Street dubbed into Ukrainian are proving popular. “Mothers from Ukraine want their children to have something fun and stimulating and to keep them from thinking about the war,” he says.

At the orphanage, we manage to distract Danylko with some Lego. He smiles at the spaceship he built and lets it fly around his head. But when he sees us leaving, he asks again solemnly, “Do you know my mom?”

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