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School helps children in eastern Ukraine cope with stress of armed conflict

UNICEF Image: Two girls at school.
© UNICEF/Ukraine/2016/Philippov
Today there are about 130 students studying in Toretsk secondary school. Before the conflict there were more than 200.

By UNICEF Ukraine

Armed conflict has impacted the lives of many children in eastern Ukraine. To help children better cope with the situation, one school has added mine education, how to seek shelter from shelling and psychological support to its more regular classes. 

DRUZHBA, Ukraine, 25 January 2017 – Toretsk secondary school is located in the village of Druzhba less than 10 km away from the military positions in eastern Ukraine. About 130 children study there. Around three years ago that number was more than 200, but many families fled due to the armed conflict.

During the current truce, the school has returned to its regular schedule, but life hasn’t. Teachers deliver mine education training, teach students to seek shelter from shelling and provide psychological support. Children are asked not to sit next to the windows to avoid injury if the shelling resumes.

Childhood under shelling

Seven-year-old Katia Ananieva lives in Druzhba with her family in a private house with stove heating. She passes her evenings drawing, playing with a cat or doing homework. At any moment though, Katia and her family are ready to drop this routine and hide under the kitchen table – the safest place in the house – at the first sounds of shelling.

Since the armed conflict started in 2014, the family has got used to such measures and warm blankets are always on the floor under the table ready for the next emergency.

UNICEF Image: A child and her mother.
© UNICEF/Ukraine/2016/Philippov
Seven-year-old Katia is one of the girls in the village of Druzhba who has been impacted by the conflict. She is happiest when she is at school or with her family.

“This table saved our Katia during a heavy shelling. She and her sister were hiding there when the explosion broke the [window] panes out in the kitchen. The slivers [of glass] fell on the table, but both girls were safe,” says her mother Natalia recalling the distressing event.

Katia’s father bricked up the window openings, fixed the table and cleaned up the glass, but the girl’s health did not recover as fast. “She got a nervous breakdown resulting in blood pressure and haemoglobin problems. She’s often sick and [has] developed a fear of darkness,” says Natalia.

The light is always on – even overnight – in the small but warmest room in the house where Katia and Nastia, her 16-year-old big sister, sleep.

The family had to take out a UAH 13,000 loan [about US$475 at the current rate] because they were short on funds to pay for their daughter’s treatment. Katia’s father works at a railroad where the workload and wages were cut due to the armed conflict. Her mother earns a little income in a local shop. “We have few good things in our life now. In fact, the only good thing is that we all stay together,” says Natalia with a sad smile.

The school and friends provide good stress relief for both of Natalia’s daughters. “We are lucky to have this school. The teachers work with the children a lot and engage them in interesting activities. A school psychologist is there to provide support. The idea is that the children shouldn’t have time to think about the hostilities,” says Natalia. Katia agrees and adds, “Tomorrow we are staging a school play.”

In partnership with the European Union, UNICEF has provided around 25,000 children in similar situations with psychosocial support in eastern Ukraine.

UNICEF Image: A child and his mother.
© UNICEF/Ukraine/2016/Philippov
Anton Boiko and his mother admit that it was a tough decision to move.

Moving to study

Anton Boiko, 14, and his mother Maia left their apartment in Donetsk and moved to Druzhba, so he was able to continue regular school education. “Donetsk, the area where we lived, was shelled, and when my school was hit by a shell, me and my mum decided to move to the village where my granny lives,” says Anton.

The family admits the decision to move was a hard one to take. Maia lost her job as a courier when her company closed at the beginning of the conflict. “I don’t have a job in this village either, but ... our granny gets her pension regularly, while we receive social payments. And Anton liked the new school a lot,” Maia says, adding that as the only displaced child in the school he receives a lot of attention.

Living and financial conditions remain a major challenge for them. There is no centralized water or gas supply. To cook meals or take a shower, Anton brings water from a well. To heat their house, he chops wood every day.

Anton’s school receives water by truck from volunteers. It is only three tons a week, so the school has to use it economically – every litre counts. 

He is reluctant to describe his hobbies. The strings of a rickety acoustic guitar are broken and a soccer ball with the badge of his favourite team deflated long ago. "We just don’t have money to buy new things,” his mother says. “When you have to buy food, clothes and medicine, a guitar or a ball is not a priority.”

UNICEF Image: A group of students in class.
© UNICEF/Ukraine/2016/Philippov
Anton says that school helped him to settle in the new place.

Oleksii Holovatyi, the school principal, explains that he tries to create a friendly environment in the school so students would be happy to go to class. “We try to teach children empathy, respect and mutual support in such a difficult time. We already observe that children are able to cope better with their current situation. However, it is not only the psychologists, teachers or parents who teach them – the very life in our region has a role to play, too,” he says.

The school implements UNICEF`s programme Learning to Live Together, funded by European Union through its Humanitarian Aid and Civil protection department (ECHO).

>> Learn more about UNICEF's work in Ukraine



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