Healing emotional wounds from conflict in eastern Ukraine

UNICEF-supported youth clubs provide free psychological counselling sessions to children and teenagers

By Chris Schuepp
Adolescent girls attend an art therapy session
07 April 2017

After living through three years of conflict near the contact line in eastern Ukraine, many children and teenagers in the city of Mariupol need psychosocial support. Learn how four youth clubs are giving these children the resources they need to begin to heal their emotional wounds.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine, 7 April 2017 – The emotional wounds and trauma of living through more than three years of conflict are an everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers in eastern Ukraine.

Mariupol is one city that has seen much of the violence. Located in eastern Ukraine on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol is about 25 kilometres from the contact line, which divides the government and non-government controlled areas where the fighting is most intense.

Life has drastically changed for children and young people in the eastern part of the city.

Anastasiya Kashyra is a child and youth psychologist in one of four UNICEF-supported youth clubs run by the Mariupol Youth Union.

“Here the children see soldiers on the streets, there is a military checkpoint just around the corner behind the local school and of course, the sound of the shelling can be heard almost every night and sometimes also during the day,” says Ms. Kashyra.

UNICEF estimates that at least 1 in 4 children – some 200,000 girls and boys – in the two regions most severely affected by conflict in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, are in need of urgent and sustained psychosocial support.

Anastasiya Kashyra (left), psychologist at a Youth Club in Mariupol, works with young people in one of the districts of Mariupol most affected by the proximity of the armed conflict.
Anastasiya Kashyra (left), psychologist at a Youth Club in Mariupol, works with young people in one of the districts of Mariupol most affected by the proximity of the armed conflict. Ms. Kashyra says children in conflict-affected areas deal with recurring stress due to ongoing violence and require sustainable support.
Deadly attack on Mariupol

January 24th, 2015 is a day everyone in Mariupol remembers. Rocket fire killed 30 people and injured approximately 100 more.

“This day left many of the people here with severe trauma. Every time young people hear the sounds of shelling, the memories come back and the teenagers are scared and come ask for help. When the shelling starts, the post-traumatic stress disorder that many of them suffer from emerges,” says Anastasiya.

Shelling can be heard from the Youth Club. Sometimes the windows in the building shake when the attacks are nearby.

“It’s difficult to heal when the psychological wounds break open over and over again, every shelling is a reminder that the 24th of January can repeat itself at any given time,” says Ms. Kashyra. “The children have even become experts on missiles already. They discuss whether the sounds came from a Grad or a 122 mm or a 150 mm. This is sad.  Children should not become experts on missiles.”

Children participate in a drawing session at a youth club
Children participate in a drawing session at a youth club in Mariupol. Many teenagers have been displaced from their homes, and welcome the cozy atmosphere in the youth centres that support their integration in host communities.
Learning to express difficult emotions

Many of the teenagers who attend the centre struggle with expressing their feelings. The centre organizes discussion groups, personal counselling sessions and art therapy to help young people express the difficult emotions they are living with due to the conflict.

One of these young people is Masha*, who was displaced from her home due to the ongoing fighting and now lives in Mariupol.

 Ms. Kashyra explains that Masha drew Mariupol as a big black cloud despite the fact that she has lived in the city for two years. The girl’s father was killed in the conflict and Masha blames herself for his death. 

“We wrote a letter to her father together, put all her emotions into it, her fears and her feelings of guilt. Then we set it on fire and agreed that through the smoke the message will reach her father. She felt much better after that, but of course, these things take time,” says Ms. Kashyra.

A boy colours in a mandala at a youth centre in Mariupol.
A boy colours in a mandala at a youth centre in Mariupol. These intricate designs are used in art therapy to calm children and teenagers down, boost their courage and prepare them for counselling sessions.
A second family

The youth centre opens at 11 in the morning and closes at 8 in the evening. When Ms. Kashyra arrives at 10:45 am, there are teenagers waiting for her, and when she closes in the evening, they walk her to the bus station.

“They love us, they have found a second family here at the youth club and that keeps me going despite all the problems. It tells me that the work we do is appreciated and absolutely crucial in these troubled times,” she says.

The four UNICEF-supported youth clubs in the city of Mariupol attract about 1,000 young visitors every month and provide up to 150 individual psychological counselling sessions for children and teenagers. All services at the youth clubs are free of charge.

But, the majority of girls and boys who have been severely affected by the conflict are not receiving adequate psychosocial support. Services are stretched and underfunded. Dedicated professionals like Ms. Kashyra are working to address the critical needs of these children, but as the conflict continues, additional resources are urgently required.


*The names of the affected teenagers have been changed in this article to protect their identities.