Displacement and disability
Compounding challenges for children fleeing conflict
Liubov fled Ukraine with her daughter Veronika in March 2022 in search of safety and peace, after heavy bombardment amid the escalation of the war.
"It was difficult. Veronica is nine years old now, so she can understand things. She understood what was happening. She is not two or three anymore to believe we were going on holidays. She was aware that the war had started and she saw a lot of things that children should not," says Liubov.
Veronica has only 10 per cent of her hearing, compounding the challenges faced by the family as they fled their home and sought refuge in the Czech Republic.
"Veronica was seven years old when we left for the Czech Republic. The trains were overcrowded, with people trampling all over each other. And if you have a deaf child, it's twice as hard. You look away for just one second and the child gets lost. You can't call out to her, and if someone finds her, they don’t know how to help.
"When we left, I put little notes in all her pockets. They contained her name, who her parents were, and how to get in touch with us. I held her the entire time, but had to make sure I didn't throw the notes out until we were safely in the Czech Republic. When we arrived, Veronika was not in a good shape, always crying, withdrawing herself. It is difficult for adults and for children, it is even worse,” remembers Liubov.
"Veronica was seven years old when we left for the Czech Republic. The trains were overcrowded, with people trampling all over each other. And if you have a deaf child, it's twice as hard."
At first, they lived with a Czech family in Kutná Hora, but Liubov could not find a school with an appropriate support for Veronica.
"We lived in Kutná Hora, but we could only find a school to support children who are deaf and hearing-impaired in Prague. We moved there, and Veronica enrolled last September while continuing her long distance education in Ukraine. She needs to have teachers who specialize in working with deaf children and teach sign language and how to express themselves in other ways,” says Liubov.
Liubov has to take care of Veronica at all times, learn with her and at the same time cover the additional costs.
"My husband is the one working. I have to stay at home with Veronica. When we found out about her diagnosis, the doctor told me to forget about work, someone always has to be with her. Since last year, Veronica wears a hearing aid that we bought for her in Ukraine. They are expensive and we saved up for it for a long time. One costs over 50,000 hryvnia (*about 30,000 CZK) and once every three to five years they need to be replaced. So as soon as we buy them, we start saving for the next ones, plus there is a lot of extra equipment, fillers, batteries," says Liubov.
Children who cannot hear require special support to learn how to read and write. Veronica's hearing aid make learning slightly easier. She is able to say some letters and recognise sounds. In the past year, Liubov says Veronika has made great progress.
While the Czech Republic has included Ukrainian refugee children in the health insurance system, refugees do not have access to the Czech disability benefits system. To help cover the costs of school, tutoring and hearing aids, Liubov and Veronica receive support from UNICEF implemented in cooperation with the Czech Red Cross and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The programme mirrors the national programme for Czech children with disabilities providing financial support to refugee children with disabilities from Ukraine. The scheme also includes individual work with families, connecting them to social services provided in the Czech Republic.
To communicate, Veronica uses sign language. She can now communicate in Ukrainian and Czech. Liubov also teaches her to lipread. "We study together every day. I help her with school. We write dictations based on pictures. The sign language is different in the Czech Republic, the gestures are completely different than in Ukraine. Veronica learned to communicate in Ukrainian and now she has to do it all over again. To make it more challenging Czechs use both hands to sign and in Ukraine, we only use one. It's an entirely different language."
Since April 2023, UNICEF and the Czech Red Cross has provided support to nearly 1,000 children with disabilities and their families through monthly financial assistance. This helps families cover basic needs and contributes to children’s participation in activities with their peers.
Veronica loves gymnastics. She practiced in Ukraine since early childhood and now continues to practice in the Czech Republic. "Gymnastics is her dream. She goes to trainings with children that can hear and communicates with them. It is good for her, she learns a lot. Veronica manages to find her way to all children, Czech, Ukrainian, hearing, non-hearing. She does it better than us adults," says Liubov.
Liubov tries to provide Veronica with opportunities to spend time with children who can hear. They spend time outside, go to playgrounds and activities.
"My goal is to provide the best I can for Veronica. We talk about what's next and I try to make sure she can live her life like other children. I try to teach her to be as independent as possible. Because I won't be here forever, I have to prepare her for that," says Liubov. "Parents often worry that they will be judged if their children make a random sound they can't hear and others will react badly. I was nervous about what someone would say or think at first. But I'm trying to do what's best for my child, which is live within the community without restrictions."