Childhood upended by war in Ukraine

One month on, displaced children and their families are in desperate need of safety, stability and protection.

By Daylin Joseph Paul and Jason Miks
4 March 2022: 30 minutes after arriving by ferry from Ukraine to Isaccea, Romania, Aurelia and her two sons Nichita, 7 and Adrian, 14, are preparing to board a car which would transport them to the place where they would spend their first night in Romania.
24 March 2022

After a month of war in Ukraine, children continue to be killed, injured and deeply traumatized by the violence all around them. Millions of children have had their lives upended in the most devastating way. The war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War II – a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come.

UNICEF is scaling up its response to the increasing humanitarian needs in Ukraine and among refugees in neighbouring countries, working with partners to ensure the protection and well-being of women and children. Here are the faces and voices of some of the families whose lives have been turned upside down by the war.

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28 February 2022: A baby is cared for in a makeshift perinatal centre located in the basement of the medical complex in Saltivka, a residential district in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The head of the premature infant department describes the conditions, “We have an oxygen concentrator – our kids need oxygen. The light is supplied by a self-made device, but everything is very reliable.” The doctors and nurses, who have not left the basement location for five days, look after mothers and their children, pregnant women
A baby is cared for in a makeshift perinatal centre located in the basement of a medical complex in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

“Our kids need oxygen.”

Doctors and nurses caring for newborn children in the basement of a medical complex in Kharkiv, Ukraine, have gone days at a time without leaving the basement as they cared for pregnant women and newborn babies. UNICEF is delivering medical supplies including personal protection equipment and medical, surgical and obstetric kits, for distribution in Ukraine.

12 March 2022: Mikhail holds his daughter, Milana, 2 inside a heated tent in a reception after him and his family left their village near Odessa and crossed into Moldova from the Palanca border crossing.  “We kept on hearing the bomb sirens go off, we kept on hearing the bombs exploding at a distance,” he explains. “My younger daughter Milana does not understand what is going on, about the war happening around her. But my older children do and it is frightening. It is too much for them.
Mikhail holds one of his daughters inside a tent in Moldova near the border with Ukraine.

“The explosions kept coming closer. We had to leave.”

Mikhail and his family fled from a village not far from Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine. “We kept on hearing the bomb sirens go off, we kept hearing the bombs exploding in the distance,” he says. “We hardly slept for days, and I didn’t know anymore how to keep them safe.”

Romania. A woman stands near a Blue Dot tent with her two children.

“We have nowhere to go.”

Olga fled Ukraine with her two children, Timor and Vladimir, who are among the more than 1.8 million children who have crossed into neighbouring countries. Whenever children are driven from their homes by conflict, their exposure to danger escalates. In addition to the risk of being injured or killed by weapons and explosive munitions, displaced children face numerous challenges in transit, particularly if they are separated from parents or caregivers.

Poland. A small child draws a picture at a UNICEF-supported tent.
Sofiya draws on a sheet of paper in a UNICEF tent in Poland near the border with Ukraine.

“She loves to draw her dog, Zak.”

Sofiya has been drawing with a pen and paper from an early childhood development kit provided by UNICEF. She’s staying with her mother in a UNICEF tent near the Poland-Ukraine border operated by a local organization that uses UNICEF supplies including blankets and recreation kits. UNICEF has dispatched trucks to neighbouring countries including Poland that are carrying health supplies, hygiene kits, education and recreation supplies, blankets and winter clothing.

2 March 2022: UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell is talking to Ksenya, 3 years old, and her mother Maria, 35, who came from Kyiv after fleeing to Romania because it was too dangerous for them to stay in Ukraine. For the moment, they have no plans on what to do next and are waiting for a friend to pick them up and transport them to Moldova. “The reason for why I’m here is my daughter. She was very afraid”.
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell talks with a mother and child in Romania.

“The reason why I’m here is my daughter.”

Maria fled with her daughter from Kyiv to Romania as the conflict intensified. “She was very afraid,” Maria says. Families displaced by the violence are terrified, in shock and desperate for safety. UNICEF and UNHCR, in cooperation with local authorities and other partners, are activating Blue Dot hubs – one-stop safe spaces that provide crucial support to families, women and children on the move – in neighbouring countries, including Romania and Moldova.

Romania. A woman looks at her daughter as they wait at a Blue Dot hub.
Leona (right) sits with her mother at a Blue Dot hub in Sighetu Marmației, Romania.

“We have to leave our homes, our relatives, our friends.”

Leona sits with her mother at the Blue Dot hub in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania. “It’s like in the movies, but this is not a movie,” Leona’s mother says. “This is reality. This is our lives.” At Blue Dots like the hub in Sighetu Marmatiei, families can receive essential services delivered by UNICEF and other agencies, including information and advice desks where families on the move can find out about the support and services available to them as refugees (including from host countries), humanitarian agencies, civil society organizations and others.

March 15 2022: Anna, a child psychologist working for a local NGO that provides social services talks to Igor inside a tent at a UNICEF-UNHCR Blue Dot centre at a refugee reception centre close to the Palanca border crossing in Moldova, near the Moldova-Ukraine border after the boy fled from the Ukrainian city of Odessa with his mother Ina and his sister Olga, who is almost 3. “We will stay in Moldova for now, we are going close to the capital and staying at my father-in-law who lives here, explains Ina.
A child psychologist working for a local NGO talks to Igor inside a tent at a Blue Dot hub in Moldova.

“I worry for him all the time.”

At a Blue Dot hub at a refugee reception centre close to the Palanca border crossing near the Moldova-Ukraine border, a child psychologist has been talking with children such as Igor, who fled with his family from Odessa. Igor’s mother says her husband brought them to the border, but he had to return to their home in Odessa, despite the dangers. The children miss their father “a lot already,” she says. “I worry for him all the time.”

Moldova. A woman holds her baby boy in a child friendly space.
Axana holds her son at a child friendly space in a Blue Dot hub in Chisinau, Moldova.

“If the war stops then we will go back.”

Axana also fled with her family in Odessa. They have been receiving support at a Blue Dot hub in Chisinau, Moldova. “If the war stops then we will go back. My youngest two children, especially, are making friends, they have toys and a place to play.” Blue Dot hubs provide a safe, welcoming space to rest, play and simply be a child, at a time when their world has been abruptly turned upside down in fear and panic, and they are facing the trauma of leaving family, friends and all that is familiar.  

Moldova. A social worker plays with two refugee children.
A social worker plays with Ukrainian children at a UNICEF-supported child friendly space in Chisinau, Moldova.

“Every child is different, with different needs.”

The Blue Dots also provide counselling and psychosocial support for children, parents and caregivers. Psychologists, social workers and other trained professionals are on hand to identify children who might need further support, especially unaccompanied or separated children. “What we do here is to make children feel safe in their environment,” says a social worker at the UNICEF-supported hub in Chisinau. Read more about the heightened dangers for displaced children, particularly women and girls.

1 March 2022: Paintings made by children in Romania decorate the interior of the Blue Dot by UNICEF for helping the women and children fleeing from Ukraine, at the Romanian border crossing at Sighetu Marmatiei. "We are together with you, be strong!"

“We are together with you! Be strong!”

Paintings made by children in Romania decorate the interior of a Blue Dot at the Sighetu Marmației border crossing.


UNICEF and partners are continuing to work to reach children in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries with humanitarian assistance. In Ukraine, UNICEF has delivered medical supplies to dozens of hospitals, improving access to healthcare for 400,000 mothers, newborns and children. In addition, UNICEF has increased the number of mobile child protection teams working between conflict lines and is delivering lifesaving supplies. Read more about the situation and UNICEF’s response here.