Ukrainian children with disabilities feel the strain far from home
In the southern city of Kherson, Yulia had hoped to make life better for local children with disabilities, but the war has brought new suffering.
Three years ago, Yulia Vaganova decided to create an association for children living with disabilities in her hometown of Kherson, Ukraine. For many, it became a lifeline.
"We wanted children with disabilities, as well as their parents, to feel comfortable in Kherson,” says Yulia, a mother of two seven-year-old twin girls, one of whom lives with cerebral palsy. “We were working with psychologists and art therapists, and took families on vacation. We also wanted parents to feel strong, too. When mother and father feel healthy and positive, their children are happy.”
But the dream they had worked so hard to build risked falling apart with the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022.
"I woke up and saw many missed calls on my phone. I went outside and saw a lot of helicopters in the sky and clouds of smoke from the side of our bridge. The first emotion I felt was panic. It's almost impossible to remain an example for my children when everyone around is loading their cars with things and urgently going somewhere. I couldn't quickly make a decision when one of my daughters doesn't walk on her own and needs special care. I didn't know where I could go with them."
On March 1, Kherson became a hotspot with massive ground fighting taking place in the city. Yulia and her two daughters were forced to hide in a basement for almost four days.
"There is a shelter in our house. Together with neighbors, we went there whenever we heard sirens or explosions. But it's one thing when you're forced to grab your child in the middle of the night and go to a basement. And it's totally different when you have to bring a kid or a teenager who doesn't walk on their own.”
At other times, she and the girls were forced to live in the corridor, where it was quieter, because her daughter reacts to loud noises and anxiety. Despite this, her mental health deteriorated sharply and Yulia’s, too, has suffered.
Every single day was a worry. Medical institutions stopped working normally, and pharmacies and grocery stores emptied extremely quickly.
"Of course, all children need quality food, but children with disabilities are in a separate category. They often can't eat ordinary foods – some of them need ground or blended food. And some take only special mixtures for feeding.”
As a result of the war, many children with disabilities in Kherson were not only left without food, but also vital medication.
"Our children are dependent on medicines,” adds Yulia. “Literally, they need it every day to survive."
In despair, Yulia made a difficult decision.
"I felt a daily intense fear for my child's health and life,” she says. “That is why, a couple of days ago, I made a difficult decision to flee in order to save my daughters. In my car we had room not only for my daughters, but also for a woman with two children, one of whom has a severe disability, and another, a 16-year-old boy, who has a second-degree disability.”
Yulia and her daughters have now found shelter at the Piestany Rehabilitation Center in Slovakia, which provides children with disabilities with care and medication.
But she still hopes to one day return to Kherson and continue building her dream.
UNICEF and its partners are working to reach all children in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries with humanitarian assistance.
In Ukraine, UNICEF has delivered medical supplies to hospitals in 12 regions – including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and Lviv – improving access to healthcare for 600 000 mothers, newborns and children. In addition, UNICEF is increasing the number of mobile child protection teams working inside acute conflict zones and has delivered 135 trucks of lifesaving supplies to support the needs of people. In the coming weeks, UNICEF will start emergency cash transfers to the most vulnerable families and establish child-friendly spaces in key locations across the country.