Play, care and community for refugee families
Spynka kindergartens in Poland meet the unique needs of refugee children – and parents – from Ukraine through childcare, psychosocial support and community
Being a parent is the most important job in the world – and also one of the most difficult. But fleeing war and becoming a refugee make this tough job exponentially more challenging.
“Parents are exhausted. They live in uncertainty and do not know what is going to happen next. They forget how to just be parents,” says Yuliia Avramchenko, an educator from Lutsk, Ukraine, who works in the Spynka kindergarten in Lublin, Poland. “You often cannot choose where to live. Many families do not rent apartments; they live in refugee accommodations in a limited space shared with other people.”
When fleeing your country and starting anew, multiple daily concerns arise. Lack of money, issues with housing, access to healthcare and childcare are just some of the challenges that must be faced. On top of that, coping with strong emotions such as sadness, uncertainty about the future, and worries about family and friends can leave parents in emotional distress. A recent UNICEF survey with refugee mothers found that the feeling of missing home and loved ones in Ukraine was one of the biggest contributors to stress. Most also said they felt helpless and had considered seeking help from a psychologist.
‘Spynka’, run in partnership with Comenius Foundation for Child Development, is Ukrainian for a backrest or a spine. In Polish, the word can mean a hairpin or a paperclip – an object that has the power to connect. Spynkas are daycare centres designed to meet the unique needs of children displaced by the war, providing early childhood development services and psychosocial support. They are places of adaptation and integration into the local community for children, but also their caregivers by providing a sense of stability and security for families.
Yuliia is a mother herself and cares for four children, three of her own and her high-school-age brother. She was an accountant in Ukraine, but upon arrival in Poland, she signed up for UNICEF-funded training to become an educator in one of the Spynka kindergartens in Lublin. “A lot of children could not get into Polish kindergartens. They need psychological support, and so do the parents,” she says.
It takes a village
Children who have fled conflict also need support to cope with stress. They have lost their social connections, friends and everything they have ever known.
“We came to Poland and decided to send Yeva to a Polish kindergarten, but after two to three weeks she was too stressed. Then we found Spynka,” says Oleksander, father of three-year-old Yeva. “We decided to send her to Spynka because there are more Ukrainian children here. We thought it would be easier for her to adapt.” Oleksander and his wife left Kharkiv on the first day of the war because of the shelling. They went to the west of Ukraine first to stay with family but ultimately decided to settle in Lublin in the east of Poland.
“In Spynka, we have one psychologist, and my daughter has meetings with her. It was stressful for her at first but the consultations help her and the speech therapist helps her too,” adds Oleksander.
Yeva comes to Spynka every day. She plays with her friends, attends art classes, meets with a psychologist and a speech therapist. Thanks to this routine she is now calm and comfortable.
“We managed to build a group of friends. Children like one another, they like us, they give each other hugs. After the whole day at Spynka, they are excited to tell their parents about their day. This is when I think that we made it, that we are doing a good job,” says Yuliia.
Spynkas provide all-round support to children and their families, involving a range of specialists and professionally trained educators.
“The majority of the children that come to Spynkas will need long-term support from the educator, speech therapist, psychologist and their parents. Only when involving everyone, will we be able to help them,” says Olena Chshchyna, a speech therapist from Sumy, Ukraine.
Olena came to Lublin in February 2022, and is now working across several Spynkas in Lublin. She has years of experience as a speech therapist with children with learning difficulties, and now runs individual sessions with children which are filled with fun gadgets and engaging techniques. “I love these kids. Although the general capacity is to see each child once a week, I see them twice. I really want to help them,” she says.
The roof is in your hands
When children learn how to cope with stress, parents worry less. And in places like Spynka, parents find support in one another through community, socializing, and sharing resources. But more mental health awareness and support is needed. Especially those with high levels of distress who have not accessed professional psychological support.
In response to the complex needs of parents who have fled the war in Ukraine to Poland and based on an in-depth survey of refugee mothers on their mental health, UNICEF launched the ‘The Roof is in Your Hands’ campaign. The roof protecting the house is a Ukrainian metaphor for good mental health making your life safer and healthier. The Social Behaviour Change campaign aims to equip parents with coping strategies that are based on the recommendations of experts that help them calm down, deal with stress, and, finally, take 'the roof' back into their hands. It also provides links to available psychological services. Campaign materials can be found online and offline, including all over Spynkas, as well as other UNICEF-supported centres, such as Spilno and Blue Dot Support Hubs.
“People are afraid to go to professionals. But lots of people are missing home, especially from the East of Ukraine,” says Oleksander about the psychosocial support needed for the parents.
“Mental health support is essential. We need it. I myself was looking for a psychologist after I arrived in Poland, I was looking for support,” says Yuliia.
Fast forward to today and Yuliia can clearly see that her work at Spynka is supporting children and parents – including her. “When you work as an educator, you may not see the impacts of your work for many years. But here we see them already. Those friendships are beautiful. Going through this experience makes me believe that I am capable, that everything will work out well, and that it is always worth giving it a try.”