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To keep the trauma at bay, Ukrainian refugee children are given more time to play

A Ukrainian child smiling on a train. (Aerial Recovery Group)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The grim, concrete bunker-like building gives off a communist-era vibe and hardly seems like a place of sanctuary.

But for children and parents, mostly mothers, who fled Ukraine, where Russia’s unprovoked invasion has sparked Europe’s most bloody and destructive conflict since World War II, the university dormitory in an upscale district of the Czech capital of Prague, is just that: a sanctuary.

For months now, dozens of Ukrainian refugees have lived here in Brevnov, occupying small, spartan rooms, each floor sharing a bathroom and communal kitchen. But few complain, grateful for the free accommodation. On the ground floor, there is a recreation center for children, run by an international NGO. Their parents say it’s a godsend.

“There are all kinds of games here, some mathematical ones. There’s a lot here for them to do. So, they come when they can to relax, because otherwise it would be very difficult with everything we deal with,” said Olha Hrishanovich, 35, who fled in March from Chernihiv, some 150 kilometers north of Kyiv, with her twin 11-year-old sons, Saveliy and Kyrylo. Her boys are now juggling Czech school with trying to keep up online with lessons at their old school back home.

It’s just one of the many challenges that Ukrainian kids, already traumatized by the war and the loss and absence of close relatives, are now facing. While living in safety, refugee children have to adapt quickly: a new home, school, making new friends — all while barely speaking a word of the local language. In addition to schooling and counselling, Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic say that more play time has worked wonders in keeping their children’s trauma at bay.

Children have perhaps been hardest hit by Russia’s unprovoked invasion with many losing parents or becoming victims themselves. Since hostilities began on February 24, 408 children have been killed and 750 wounded, according to the latest data provided to RFE/RL from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UN’s children agency, UNICEF, reported in August that more than five children were killed or injured in Ukraine daily, cautioning that the actual figures were probably much higher.

“Meanwhile, beyond the horror of children being killed or physically hurt in attacks, almost every child in Ukraine has been exposed to deeply distressing events, and those fleeing violence are at significant risk of family separation, violence, abuse, sexual exploitation, and trafficking,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said at the time.

The AP news agency and others have reported that Russia has openly deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories, offering them up for adoption against their will.

For those fleeing the violence, the Czech Republic, whose government has loudly condemned Russia’s attack and provided Ukraine with support, including much military hardware, has been a welcoming destination.

‘We Were All Scared’

More than 458,000 refugees from Ukraine — mostly women and children — were recorded in the Czech Republic as of November 8, according to the latest data from the UNHCR.

Mother of twins Hrishanovich says she made the decision to leave after many nerve-racking nights spent with her special-needs boys in the basement of their nine-story apartment bloc in Chernihiv.

That city spent several weeks under Russian siege before Moscow’s initial thrust toward Kyiv was stymied and the Russian forces withdrew in April. During those days, people ran out of gas and there were frequent blackouts.

“It was horrible. Cold, damp, and dark. We were all scared,” Hrishanovich told RFE/RL in the cramped but inviting confines of the recreation center on the ground floor of the dormitory. The walls are adorned by drawings, many in sky blue and yellow, Ukraine’s national colors.

“The idea behind this room is to provide a comfortable and safe space for the kids,” said Tetyana Kashchavtseva, 51, a teacher who arrived in Prague on March 27 from the city of Kharkiv with her 27-year-old daughter and 8-year-old grandson. “The kids can feel happy, forgetting problems they may have, maybe at school, maybe with a different language. Maybe not everything is as it should be at school. Maybe fights at school. It all builds up in them, like energy, and needs to be released.”

“In this room, we tune out all the problems. The kids draw a lot…. Every day we try to make it a holiday here for the kids,” said Kashchavtseva, who left behind a husband and son-in-law, both now serving in the Ukrainian armed forces.

Kashchavtseva said their home on the outskirts of Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city that has been relentlessly targeted by Russian forces, was damaged in shelling in May.

“I’m in contact with my husband every day and it’s hard, stressful. Being here with the kids is a break for me as well,” she said, her voice rising above the din as kids yell, run, and jump up and down on a small trampoline. It’s a break also, she said, from the stream of mostly bleak news from Ukraine, not least whether her husband or other family members are still safe.

The club, one of two in Prague, is the brainchild of Early Starters International, an Israeli-based NGO that has, up to now, operated mostly in Africa. But since the Russian invasion, it has opened what it calls “spaces” here and in Moldova, which, according to the UN’s labor organization, has hosted more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other European country.

“We founded this organization when we saw that early childhood education is usually not a priority, however it is the most important time in a person’s life, and what happens when you are a young child impacts you for the rest of your life. So, we strive to provide early childhood education services where they are needed,” explained Sarah Wilner, one of its co-founders, in e-mailed remarks to RFE/RL.

“Many parents have said their children are less stressed, happier, started laughing more, are more excited and come enthusiastically to our spaces. We’ve also been told by parents (mostly mothers, as women are the ones that have mostly left Ukraine) that the space allows them to concentrate on other things, such as working or searching for employment, learning the local language, bureaucratic errands, and much-needed time for themselves, all the while knowing that their children are in a safe place being well taken care of,” Wilner said.

The Israeli NGO has also offered training to Ukrainian counselors and psychologists to deal with kids suffering from postwar trauma, among them, Yulia Beihul, 37, who left Kyiv with her seven-year-old son in May due to the “difficult situation” there.

She now works with Amiga (Agency for Migration and Adaptation), a Czech NGO providing counseling and other assistance to migrants, now mostly refugees from Ukraine, some of them at the clubs run by Early Starters.

Beihul, who has worked with kids from four to 14, many with behavioral issues and disabilities, said “increased aggression” among kids from Ukraine was prevalent. “And that aggression is often directed at their mothers, or on the streets, which earlier was not characteristic of the child,” Beihul told RFE/RL at Amiga’s Prague offices.

‘A Lot Of Anxiety’

Masha Volynsky, a U.S. citizen originally from Moscow who works as a coordinator at Amiga, nods in agreement. “There were a lot of parents coming to us with like, ‘Fix my kid. Something is happening with him. I don’t know what’s happening but something’s happening,'” Volynsky said, adding that this situation had now got better.

“[Some issues are] very often with the parents, almost more than with the children, because it’s a lot about parents’ worries getting reflected in the behavior of the kids. Or the parents’ inability to talk about their worries,” Volynsky said.

“We had situations where a child would be incredibly anxious. He or she couldn’t say why or what was happening, but there was a lot of anxiety and the parents said, ‘I try to make everything perfect. I don’t talk about the war. We don’t turn on the TV.’ But the reality was that by completely turning off reality and keeping the anxiety in herself — usually it was the mother — the child actually reflected everything back. All the anxiety that wasn’t spoken about, children experienced it as well.”

Beihul noted that one positive is that, with children now attending Czech schools, a routine and structure had been added to their lives. Just how many Ukrainian kids are attending schools in the Czech Republic is unclear. In late August ahead of the current school year, the Czech Education Ministry put the number at no more than 70,000.

On August 25, Czech Education Minister Vladimir Balas said after a two-day visit to Kyiv for, among other things, talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Serhiy Shkarlet, that “Our goal is the integration of Ukrainian children, not their assimilation. We want Ukrainian children to feel comfortable with us and, if possible, to make friends among Czech children.”

Acknowledging that in-person study and online lessons were too much, Balas and Shkarlet agreed on November 22 to cut the hours of Internet lessons, to give, in the words of Balas, Ukrainian kids “more time for socialization,” he wrote on Twitter.

Ukrainian kids are overcoming the language barrier — and mastering the Latin alphabet unlike the Cyrillic script used in Ukrainian — and starting to fit in, Beihul said. Still, she stressed, all of them are yearning to go home.

“They want their toys; they want their friends; they want their grandmothers and grandfathers who stayed behind. They may cry because they can’t remember what their room looks like. They are starting to forget what it looks like back at home. Many kids came here without their pets, cats, dogs, rabbits. And this is something they struggle with.”

Iryna Breston, a teacher from a suburb of Bakhmut, a key eastern Ukrainian city and transport hub, which has been repeatedly targeted by Russian forces, arrived in Prague on March 17 with her 16-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. Her husband stayed behind but in the relative safety of the city of Vinnytsya. Due to a physical condition, he does not serve in the military.

“We spent many nights in the basement. The kids, especially my daughter, were scared. It was dark, damp. They began to cough and get sick. [My daughter would] hear an explosion and start to cry. So, I decided we needed to get out of there,” Breston said.

‘Jeopardizing The Future For An Entire Generation’

Now Breston lives at the dormitory and helps out at the child center. Like Hrishanovich, Breston’s kids attend Czech school and then have online lessons with their old Ukrainian school and accommodating teachers.

“At three or four o’clock, after Czech school, they get online, through Zoom, and have lessons there as well. More kids are doing this, deciding they need to keep up with their Ukrainian studies so they don’t fall behind,” Breston said. However, many schools in Ukraine have been damaged or turned to rubble amid Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure.

The international aid organization, World Vision, said in a report in September that 2,300 schools had been damaged by Russian bombing and shelling, with at least 286 completely destroyed.

“The conflict is jeopardizing the future for an entire generation of Ukrainian children,” said Jennifer Neelsen, World Vision Ukraine Crisis Response Director.

Anna Perva, from Ukraine’s southeastern Dnipropetrovsk region, said her 7-year-old son Dyma is adapting as well as can be expected, progressing with the Czech language and gradually making friends. “I need to find work. I go to the Czech employment office, but I’ve found nothing. I work once a week at Zara on Na Prikope (in downtown Prague) for four hours. But that’s not much.”

An adult is entitled to 4,620 crowns (nearly $200) a month and 3,300 crowns per child. Perva appreciates the financial contributions from the Czech government and the rent-free accommodation at the dormitory, but says those meager finances are being stretched like never before.

“I have to pay 730 crowns a month for school lunches. A school trip adds in another 500 crowns. On top of that, I’m paying more for groceries, like everyone else, because of inflation. I really need to find work,” she said.

All those interviewed say that, without fluency in the Czech language, the job offers are very limited, with low-paying cleaning jobs apparently the most abundant.

The pressure to find work is compounded by questions about how long they will be able to stay at the dormitory, although Kashchavtseva said the rooms are guaranteed until March.

And despite that uncertainty and the many drawbacks of what they call “communal living,” all of the refugees RFE/RL spoke to are grateful, especially given the horrors they left behind.

“I don’t know how long we’ll be here. But as long as it isn’t completely safe in Ukraine, we’ll be here,” said mother-of-two Breston. “To see a child so afraid and trembling that they can’t be calmed. It’s horrible and something I don’t want to experience again.”