One year on

365 days of war and displacement for children of Ukraine

Maha Damaj, Representative, UNICEF Moldova
Maha Damaj, UNICEF Country Representative in Moldova
20 February 2023

As much as it is hard to imagine, it is now 365 days since the start of the war on Ukraine. Understandably, there will be many messages circulating these days which highlight the numbers and the magnitude of what has happened since then.   

Numbers that speak of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homes, of the thousands of schools, homes, and health facilities destroyed, the number of babies born in bunkers and of the more than 5 million Ukrainian children who have been robbed of their education, their birthday celebrations, their friends, and their communities.

I similarly find myself using numbers as the closest proxy to communicate the impact of the war on Ukrainians, on Moldovans, on children. I say that because numbers are but a proxy, as the real impact lies behind these numbers, which is in many ways, immeasurable.

The real impact of the war, or any conflict, is visceral; the body feels it and remembers it. Even if it does not kill or maim physically, the psychological effects on children, on parents and families is its own indelible scar.

The life course of these children will be irreversibly altered, and there is a clear before and after that will forever define them and how they perceive the world. We need to work together to make sure that their after quickly corrects course to stability, to safety, to security; to enable them to move from terror and anxiety, to dream about a better tomorrow, a better world, that addresses inequities and builds peace once again.

I say this not only from my professional capacity as a child rights advocate and a humanitarian, but I also say this from personal experience. I come from a region that has been marked with conflict for over half a century and I will admit that the most horrifying part, the one that rakes my insides, is not just seeing the cost of the war in terms of human life and destruction, but of seeing it again and again.

Shortly after the war began last year, I went to the border in Palanca to meet the Ukrainian families who were crossing into Moldova. There, amidst the huddle of buggies and prams, I came face to face with the real horror inflicted by the war; mothers clutching newborns and older children, their faces twisted in anguish and exasperation, their eyes vacant with distress and disorientation.

Right then is when it hit me, like an ugly wave of nausea and I had to grit my teeth to hold back the tears. Again, I was in the middle of another war. Like I said, the body remembers, and that scene brought back memories that were over forty years old. My experience of being displaced at the age of 5 with my mother and two older brothers was not traumatic, and has long been resolved, but the anxiety and uncertainty of leaving everything behind and heading into the unknown was permanently etched in my memory.

Today, I remember the immense love and fortitude of my parents, how they were the barometer to our sense of safety and stability, as they struggled to build themselves up from scratch in a foreign country.

While it is not within my immediate control to end all conflicts - and I will never stop calling for it to end – I have seen firsthand the value and effect of responding and supporting refugee communities so that the war does not define the rest of their days. At the same time, it is not a chapter we want to erase or to dilute because we must respect what children have lived through and experienced. Children are vulnerable but they also build resilience that carries them though the first shocks. This is where we must step in to quickly ease them into stability; into a routine and a form of normalcy, that allows them to process what they’ve been through in a healthy manner.

At UNICEF Moldova, we are doing this in partnership with education and health authorities, with municipalities and playgrounds, with civil society and other humanitarian organizations, and our sister UN agencies. Right from the onset of the war, we’ve focused on providing information, support, and services across a broad spectrum of needs for families, children, and the elderly.

Working closely with ministries and associated agencies of the Republic of Moldova, we have worked with partners to provide resources, equipment, and training to strengthen systems providing health, education, children protection and social protection services – so that the most vulnerable do not fall through the cracks and are not exposed to additional risk.

At UNICEF, we focus on children, on ensuring their safety, protection, and prevention from harm – particularly for children travelling alone or unaccompanied, and those perceived to be at risk. We are equipping schools and kindergartens and play areas with play and learning materials so that the youngest Ukrainian children make friends with their Moldovan counterparts. Our actions support social cohesion between the host and refugee communities.

We will continue to support education, and health departments with IT equipment to enhance digitization of these sectors to not only expand capacity to support refugees from Ukraine, but also to become comparable to systems in the European Union.

While children will remain our primary focus, we know that we cannot do this without ensuring the wellbeing of parents – because it is parents who provide children with the emotional security and love – which is the very foundation on which hope, and resilience is built.

Today marks 365 days since they’ve been robbed of peace, of their homes, of their communities. At UNICEF, we stand united with the children and parents of Ukraine. Until this passes, and the dark gives way to the light!

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