Thousands of Ukrainian children who have found shelter in hastily converted housing facilities across central and eastern Europe are struggling to come to terms with their new reality as refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country.
According to figures released by UNICEF on Tuesday, children account for about half of the more than 3 million Ukrainians who have fled their country, mostly for Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, since the invasion began on Feb. 24.
Countries bordering Ukraine have provided sanctuary to a seemingly unending flow of refugees, and their authorities are facing the additional, monumental task of providing long-term mental care to traumatized Ukrainian children.
Over the past 20 days an average of 55 children have been fleeing Ukraine every minute and the trend is unlikely to change as Russian forces continue their advance. New arrivals are expected to overwhelm underfunded and poorly managed public schools in tiny Moldova, but also in relatively affluent Poland — the fifth-most populous member state of the European Union — where classes are held in Polish, which most Ukrainians do not speak.
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Psychologists say young Ukrainian refugees appear unable to comprehend the longer-term nature of their absence from home and separation from their fathers, who are forbidden to leave Ukraine in order to fight in the war.
Some insist they are on a short vacation or a school break, said Irina Purcari, a school psychologist working with Ukrainian children at the biggest refugee center in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau.
Upon arriving at the center, “most children are alarmed, reluctant to make contact,” Purcari said. ”But we take the first steps to win them over and lower their anxiety levels.”
Purcari said children speak of their fathers “not in the context of hostilities,” possibly as a way create a sense of calm and feel that their life is in order.
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For 34 year-old Ukrainian Tamara Bercuta, her first full night’s sleep after many weeks happened on Monday when she and her children arrived in Chisinau. She watched her 10 year-old daughter and 4 year-old son draw in a corner of the town’s biggest refugee center that has been converted into a play area. Like many other children, her son first reached for crayons in the colors of his country’s flag — blue and yellow.
“It is very bad when there is a war, a (mortar) shell hit a roadblock, many people died,” Bercuta said, recalling the horrors she and her children had witnessed during their flight from Mykolayiv, the strategic Ukrainian city that witnessed fierce battles for days.
“At home I was afraid because we were constantly (hiding) in corridors and in the basement,” her daughter, Liliya, interjected.
In Poland, which has taken in more than 1.8 million refugees from Ukraine, there are growing concerns about how to integrate those who elected to stay rather to relocate to other countries as they have friends and family there.
Before Russia’s invasion, around 1.5 million Ukrainians lived in Poland.
On Wednesday, in Przemysl — a normally sleepy Polish border town of 60,000 — trains continued releasing scores of refugees.
Among them was 41-year-old Svitlana Bibikova, from the Kyiv region, with her three pre-teen children in tow. Along the way, she said, every noise, even the sound of the train braking, made her kids tremble with fear. Her 11-year-old daughter, Dasha, recalled the first morning back home when she was woken up by the sounds of exploding Russian rockets and mortars and how her “mother said that the war began.”
“We might stay here until it is over and then we will return home,” her 10-year-old sister, Arina, rushed to add.
Nadia Chernenko, 33, from the Dnipro region in central Ukraine, said she tried protecting her children by not mentioning the war and telling them that the loud booming sounds “were just firecrackers exploding and that everything will soon go back to normal.”
Still, she added, “I am afraid that they have been scarred” for life.
In a six-story business center in central Warsaw that serves as a home for the most vulnerable refugees, Irina Panasevicz, an Ukraine-born volunteer, said her days consisted of endless calls to day care facilities and schools to find places for newly arrived children.
“Kids have big problems to adapt in classrooms because classes are conducted in Polish and most children from Ukraine do not speak Polish,” Panasevicz said.
Despite the obstacles they face, Ukrainian children of different ages mingled and played in a long hallway outside Panasevicz’s office in the building they now call home.
For them, what was a normal childhood a few weeks ago has been supplanted by the fear of Russian soldiers.
“Russia is making war with Ukraine, we want Russia not to take us,” said 7-year-old Bogdan Kolesnik, wiggling nervously on his mother’s lap.
“We want to return home, but we do not know when that will be possible,” said 14-year-old Juna Berzika, as she sat with her mother Svitlana and a group of other women recounting the horror of escaping Ukraine and the fear of what male relatives left behind will face.