Arts project gives a voice to teens in Ukraine’s conflict zone

Children in Ukraine’s conflict-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions endure constant stress. Through games and art therapy, a new project helps children to cope with stress, become bolder and generate new ideas for the development of their communities.

UNICEF Ukraine
Young girl painting.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy
29 December 2020

“Children don’t talk a lot about the armed conflict,” says teacher Serhii Dakhno, who is leading a class for teenagers in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine. “But they think a lot about it.”

What was previously a hotel lobby has now been turned into an art studio. Under Serhii’s guidance, the creative process – drama, dancing and drawing – is in full swing. His pupils are even designing a model of a skate park. For four days, these teenagers can forget the stress of living in a 15-kilometer conflict zone to become artists, dancers and actors.

Young girls painting.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy
With support from EU humanitarian aid, UNICEF and partners conducted a series of ‘You Create’ art-therapy sessions for adolescents from conflict-affected eastern Ukraine. Young people used drama, arts and games while learning new skills, such as confidence, better communication and interaction, partnership and team building. The youngsters also learned how to design and implement social initiatives in their own communities.

The training aims to improve the psychosocial well-being of children in eastern Ukraine by using games and art therapy. It also empowers them to lead their own creative community initiatives. It is part of the YouCreate project implemented by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) along with Terre des hommes – Ukraine, with the financial support from EU Humanitarian Aid.

Creating an emotional outlet 

According to UNICEF, from April 2014 to August 2020, a total of 541 children directly suffered from the armed conflict in Ukraine, including 148 who were killed and 393 injured. 
Today, around 500,000 children live in the conflict zone, where conflict continues to threaten their physical and psychological condition. This year, the pressure on these children has only intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to protection, clean drinking water, education, healthcare and psychosocial support is more important than ever. The YouCreate project plays a vital part in strengthening children’s mental health.

Two adolescents (a girl and a boy) doing art work and smiling. The boy also has some artistic face paint.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

“Children from frontline areas suffer constant stress,” says Serhii. “And creativity is an emotional relief for them. After the masterclasses, we discuss with them the ideas for projects that they will later be able to implement in their communities.”

Following last year's pilot YouCreate trainings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 12 projects initiated by young people were implemented. This year, a new wave of projects are underway. The initiative is engaging more and more teenagers from eastern Ukraine. 

Mentors like Serhii help to train the youngsters to believe in themselves. 
“Through creativity, through art and through various hobbies, children express themselves,” says another mentor, Natalia, who teaches children to dance. “Many children from conflict-affected areas feel hesitant and insecure, although they have great talents.”

A teenage girl playing with a hoop, doing some acrobatics.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

Natalia believes that dancing and art offers children a great alternative to aggression. 
“Children want to shout loudly, shoot a video, dance, draw something, so that adults and the world around them can finally hear them.”

Making their voices heard

Fourteen-year-old Yaroslav, who lives and studies in the war-torn village of Andriivka, is hoping that his idea can help to revive communities on the contact line. 
“Earlier, we used to come under fire,” he says. “It is difficult psychologically and physically. In our village, many houses were damaged.”

Teenagers stand in a row at a workshop.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

There are no parks in Yaroslav’s village and few places for self-development. But he says the key problem is that people struggle to envision positive change. 
“Adults keep saying, ‘Don’t pretend to be smart, you’re just a child. You’ll grow up to my age, and you will start looking at everything the way I look now.” The youngster shakes his head. “It is sad to see such indifference to something new that children offer.”
During the training in Mariupol, Yaroslav and his team proposed plans for a park in Andriivka that would be accessible to everyone. 
“Such small steps can revive villages before they are completely extinct,” he says.

Young people are creating an art project together.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

Standing together against bullying 

The training has also seen teenage teams raise the issues of bullying, pollution, racism and insecurity.
“Don’t criticize, consider the opinions of the others, listen and hear – these simple rules are very important,” says schoolgirl Viktoria, who is taking part in the training for a second time. 

A teenage girl writes on a large piece of paper.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

Viktoria’s team addressed the problem of self-doubt. 

“I have a lot of classmates who are afraid to express their opinions,” she says. “I think that’s all because we have a widespread problem of bullying at school. This can be when you are condemned by both adults – even teachers – and peers.”
Her team presented a play to the other participants, which demonstrated that they should not be afraid to show their true selves. Yarsoslav was amongst those who took strength from it.

“I begin to think differently,” says Yaroslav. “Now, when I return home, I will not think about what they will say about me. I will think that these changes are necessary for my village. I have my team. UNICEF will support us. So, I think everything will work out for us.”

Colourfully decorated buttons lie on a table. The young people have placed their hands around the buttons on the table.
UNICEF/2020/Volskiy

With support from the European Union humanitarian aid, UNICEF and partners conducted a series of ‘You Create’ art-therapy sessions for adolescents from conflict-affected eastern Ukraine. Young people used drama, arts and games while learning new skills, such as confidence, better communication and interaction, partnership and team building. The youngsters also learned how to design and implement social initiatives in their own communities.