Not only have many children been traumatised by the Russian invasion. Some of their carers and teachers have too.
Maryna Mykolayivna’s eyes were hot with tears. She stabbed the air angrily with pointed fingers as she described how on February 24th, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, her employer at an orphanage in the eastern city of Lusychansk had told her to evacuate immediately five children to another institution in Lviv—more than one thousand kilometres away.
‘I didn’t want to go,’ said the assistant educator. ‘I have two daughters and three grandchildren.’ Maryna has been in the western city of Lviv, just 70 kilometres from the Polish border, for nearly eight months now. ‘I miss my home. I’m living in the orphanage 24 hours a day. I can’t rent my own place—I’m paid, but not enough. You couldn’t understand what I’m going through unless you’d gone through it yourself. I’m on the brink of leaving.’
As she spoke, the shrieking of children in the room intensified. The group of 11 children aged three to eight years at the Lviv Children’s Shelter were stressed themselves. The state had placed these children into institutional care after judging their parents unfit to care for them. They had already suffered domestic traumas; now they were living in a state of war.
Among them was another evacuated child, four-year-old Danylko (not his real name). His mother had escaped with him from Kharkiv in the north-east of the country when shells began landing near their house. But police had found her drunk on a bench in Lviv and brought Danylko to the orphanage.
‘Do you know my mama?’ he asked us in a small voice when we arrived, and began to cry. He had not seen her for three weeks. Instead of turning to Maryna, his carer, for comfort, he squeezed his arms around our Ukrainian translator’s neck. ‘I heard the shelling and firing. I was afraid,’ he mumbled, twisting together his chubby fingers—his hands not yet dexterous enough to wring properly. ‘Something fell, and there were broken windows.’
Maryna did not reach out to him. Her own distress had limited her ability to support the children. In turn, Danylko had learned not to seek solace from her.
The situation for many child-focused workers in Ukraine, children and their parents or carers alike, is gruelling. In Lviv, where an estimated 240,000 Ukrainians have fled, services for children have come under increased pressure. Meanwhile the workers trying to deliver this provision are also coping with their own fears and personal losses.
Different classroom dynamic
Ukrainian teachers began a new academic year on September 1st. About 51 per cent of schools and kindergartens across the country opened for in-person education. Schools in more dangerous territories, or those without adequate bomb shelters, deliver teaching online.
A survey of more than 300 teachers by the educator-training programme Teach for Ukraine revealed that 76 per cent were worried about the increased responsibility they had for students. If air raid sirens go off during the day, teachers must evacuate their classes safely to designated shelters. Almost a fifth of teachers said psychological stress due to their personal circumstances was making them ‘unable to engage in their work’.
‘Child-to-teacher interactions may be different and difficult now because of stress,’ said Solomiya Boikovych, Teach for Ukraine project manager and co-founder of Ptashenya Kindergarten (a private daycare provider in the Lviv region). She said classrooms had a different dynamic now, as pupils had varying experiences of the war.
‘Some may come from affected territories and others have lost relatives or parents,’ she said. Online teaching was also challenging because it was harder to teach effectively through a screen. Meanwhile, teachers were dealing with their own traumas. ‘There are so many unpredictable things that might happen,’ she said.
In Lviv, Maria Yatseyko, chair of the Lviv branch of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers Of Ukraine, said teachers were ‘not complaining’ and ‘trying to make it work’. Many were continuing to teach online after seeing their schools damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles. As of late September, 2,260 educational institutions in the country had been damaged and 291 destroyed.
Over the school holidays Lviv-region educators had worked tirelessly as volunteers to accommodate about 17,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) living in schools. They became cooks and counsellors. ‘We helped with everything, gave them advice, gave them clothing or shoes,’ Yatseyko said.
Challenging working conditions
Healthcare workers face similarly challenging working conditions. In May, the World Health Organization said it had verified 200 attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine. As a result of this threat, Zoryana Salabay, who manages a premature baby unit at Lviv’s regional hospital, relocated it to the basement: newborns needing intensive care were too fragile to be moved when air-raid sirens sounded. ‘In ten days after the war began, we put oxygen downstairs, all the equipment, water, special ventilation,’ Dr Salabay said. She added: ‘Right now, all of our babies, physicians and nurses are downstairs all the time, so that it is safer for them.’
Conditions in the basement were cramped. In the post-intensive care room, 14 plastic cots lined the walls. Their mothers, who sleep upstairs, spend the daytime standing over their babies in dressing gowns and slippers; there was only space for a few chairs. The air was stale and stuffy, despite the ventilator, and the glare of the strip lighting was intense. Hospital staff had blocked out any natural light from the room’s high windows with sandbags, in case of explosions.
Among the mothers was Anastasiya (who did not give her surname). She had fled from Kharkiv with her husband and two children after several weeks living in their cellar: ‘The shelling became unbearable.’ Anastasiya developed pregnancy complications at 30 weeks. Her daughter was born six weeks early via a traumatic caesarean section. She survived respiratory problems and an infection but was still too weak to leave the hospital.
Anastasiya struggled to describe her feelings. ‘They go quiet,’ said Salabay. ‘Our nurses listen to their stories. But it is also difficult for them to work in these inappropriate conditions, not just to help the babies, but also to support the mothers, the parents. They are traumatised.’
Her team did not have access to specific psychological support, but Salabay encouraged colleagues to share their thoughts and feelings. ‘Some of them have husbands that are currently fighting in military operations in the east,’ she said.
Supporting the traumatised
Iryna Trokhym, director of the non-governmental organisation Women’s Perspectives, said people supporting traumatised children and families were largely doing so without appropriate training. ‘Nobody has been preparing to provide services to people who are running from war,’ she said. ‘Everybody is working with trauma now, but it’s hard to have those skills.’
Efforts to support people’s psychological needs were made more challenging because Ukrainians were unused to access to psychological support. ‘A lot of women-focused NGOs from different parts of Ukraine say it is difficult to provide psychological support to women, because they don’t understand how it can help,’ she said.
The best support psychologists could offer children was art therapy: ‘It’s very rare that a mother understands that a kid needs one-to-one psychological support, or direct counselling. We mainly have to work in groups.’
Women’s Perspectives provides accommodation for IDPs. Among them is Iryna Lytvynova, a mother who fled from the city of Kramatorsk (in a part of Donetsk not occupied by Russia) with her two children after living in their basement for a month. They left by train days before a deadly Russian missile strike hit Kramatorsk station on April 8th, killing 60 civilians. Despite these shattering experiences, Lytvynova said speaking to a psychologist ‘wasn’t helpful’. ‘He’s fine,’ she said of her two-year-old son. ‘We are hoping for peace so that we can get our lives back.’
Providing ‘remarkable’ help
John Weisz, a psychology professor at Harvard University, said child-focused workers were providing ‘remarkable’ help under extreme circumstances in Ukraine. He recently visited Ukrainian refugees in Poland, as part of an international team of psychologists investigating how to support the mental health of child refugees. ‘Some adults are experiencing a lot of emotional upheaval, but they are able to work with children in a way that doesn’t reveal that,’ he said. ‘Other adults may find it very difficult to behave in a normal and helpful way because of what they’re going through.’
The impact an adult’s own trauma would have on children in their care depended on how successfully they could overcome their feelings when with children. But children also had a broad range of responses to trauma. ‘Some are incredibly resilient,’ he said. ‘Some kids develop symptoms of depression; others develop hyper-vigilance and more anxiety. One of the challenges will be significant numbers of kids who will have post-traumatic stress symptoms—flashbacks, memories that they would rather never relive—and we need interventions for those symptoms.’
Weisz backed Trokhym’s suggestion that there was little support among Ukrainian parents for psychotherapy. Digital self-help services were the best solution, particularly as Ukrainians generally had good technology skills and internet access. The sheer number of people needing psychological support also meant it was financially and practically possible to reach people in this way.
Online content could even help very young children. For example, episodes of the American kids’ TV show Sesame Street, dubbed in Ukrainian, were proving popular. ‘Mums from Ukraine want their kids to have something that’s entertaining and engaging and takes them away from thinking about the war,’ he said.
At the orphanage, we managed to distract Danylko with some Lego. He smiled at the spaceship he had built and flew it around his head. But when he saw that we were leaving, he asked again solemnly: ‘Do you know my mama?’
This article first appeared on Equal Times, supported through a fellowship from the Dart Center at Columbia Journalism School
Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning freelance journalist who specialises in policy and public affairs, particularly those affecting children and young people in the United Kingdom and developing countries.