Afraid for future, children in Ukraine study underground
As war continues in Ukraine, child deaths, empty classrooms and the destruction of schools are leaving millions of children fearing for their lives and futures.
For Alina and Artem, who are both aged nine and from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, their school year will end with damp books, an unreliable but crucial internet connection, and lessons that are constantly interrupted by air raid sirens.
Both children have spent the last three months studying remotely in a dark, dank underground car park, where, along with their parents and a few other families, they have been sheltering from the air attacks and shelling above.
"I want to see my classmates in reality, not just virtually,” says Alina, sadly.
Searching for a connection
Although the parking lot offers some protection from the violence above, it is not suitable for living in. Alina's parents have done their best to make it homely, building makeshift wooden beds from boxes and using extension cords to provide electricity for tea and heaters. But temperatures can plummet and phone and internet connectivity are very poor.
"I don't like this humidity, dust and cold,” says Alina. “While sleeping, I have to wear wool tights, warm pants and a coat. And it's not enough anyway, I'm always cold."
Due to the poor internet connection here, it is almost impossible for Alina to join Zoom lessons in the parking lot, so the youngster often studies upstairs in the family’s apartment. Her lessons are nearly always interrupted by air raid sirens.
"I do my homework downstairs,” she says. “It's not convenient, because the exercise books turn gray and get spoiled. And the internet doesn’t work."
Alina does her homework on her knees. In order to send it to her teacher, she stands at the top of the stairs, at the exit to the parking lot, and searches for a mobile signal.
"I have sad days, middle-sad days, but there are no wonderful days," she says.
The prospect of summer – and of peace – keeps Alina going.
"I really hope the war ends this summer, so we will be able to go outside freely and there will be no sirens or explosions,” she says. “We all just want to have a rest from it."
Dreaming of a brighter future
Artem’s biggest dreams are Spider-Man coming to Kharkiv and an end to the war. So far, both dreams seem equally out of reach.
"I hope the war will end, so everything will be alright and peace will come,” says the nine-year-old, who lives in the underground car park with Alina. “We will play, meet our friends, and be able to go to McDonald's or a park. All that is left to do is hope.”
Before the war broke out in February, Artem lived in a cosy apartment with his family, went to school and took part in sports competitions with Alina. Then life fell apart.
"In the first days of the war, I didn't understand anything,” he says. “I was trembling. I thought it would all end soon. Like a couple of days and that's it. But after sitting here in the parking for a week, I realized that it would take a long time.”
Like Alina, Artem rarely goes outside due the constant threat of shelling. The children’s activities in the shelter are also limited.
"We can't run or play hide and seek, because it's very dusty here,” explains Artem. “And we will breathe in this dust if we run.”
Instead, the children sit quietly on their homemade beds, playing board games or preparing their homework.
Since Artem found out about celebrities travelling to Ukraine to support children, he has been dreaming about Spider-Man visiting Kharkiv.
"I want Spider-man to come to us so much,” he says. “I really like him. If only he would come now, it would be so cool."
However, he concedes that a visit at this time may be difficult.
“Well, I think there is not much chance he comes, as he lives far from here and probably speaks another language,” he adds, with a sigh.
For children affected by the war in Ukraine, school is critical – providing them with a safe space, and a semblance of normality in the most difficult of times. Education can also be a lifeline, offering access to information on the risks of deadly explosive ordnance and connecting children and their parents to essential health and psychosocial services.
UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly to reach as many children as possible with safe educational opportunities.
“Ensuring access to education can be the difference between a sense of hope or despair for millions of children,” said Murat Sahin, UNICEF Representative to Ukraine. “This is crucial for their future and that of all Ukraine.”
In dozens of Kharkiv metro stations, where children have been forced to shelter for safety, UNICEF-supported volunteers have set up spaces where teachers, psychologists and sports instructors play and engage children on a regular basis. Educational videos released by the online kindergarten ‘NUMO’ regularly hit hundreds of thousands of views. An ongoing digital campaign on explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) created by UNICEF with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reached 8 million users online.
Furthermore, the ‘All Ukrainian Online Education Platform’ for students in grades 5-11, developed by the Ministry of Education and Science with UNICEF support during the COVID-19 pandemic, is reaching over 80,000 displaced students inside Ukraine.
“Despite the horror of war, impressive work has gone into making sure children can keep learning,” said Sahin. “Ultimately, the fighting needs to stop so that classrooms can be rebuilt, and schools can be safe and fun places to learn again.”
Children and schools must be protected in line with international humanitarian law. Parties to the conflict must take measures to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the military use of educational facilities.