Ukraine’s children find strength, shelter in subway schools

Volunteer teachers are coming together to help children who have been forced to shelter underground.

25 May 2022

The classroom where Tetiana Prystupa teaches today looks very different to the one where her pupils learned maths and physics before the war. 

Now, in the workers’ locker room of a city metro station, explosions and gunfire echo from above as Tetiana takes the young children who are sheltering here through the basics. 

"At first, I intended to find older children to conduct maths classes with them, so that I could kill the time,” says Tetiana, who worked in a school in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. “But then I was personally asked to be a volunteer, to teach children of different ages.”

Today, her pupils also look a little different, having gone from teaching secondary school children to primary school children.

"I was always afraid to work with primary school children, but it turned out I can"

At first, volunteers supplied essential items for the makeshift school, such as pencils, felt-tip pens and paper. Then the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) stepped in to provide assistance. Since 24 February, almost 300 000 children have benefited from learning interventions with supplies provided by UNICEF, and at least 187 000 children have been engaged in formal or non-formal education.

Yana, who is among others sheltering in the metro, is grateful for the lessons, which take place in the mornings and the evenings. "The children sculpt and paint,” she says. “They talk with each other, and so they are distracted from what is going on. I like it, my daughter really likes it too.” 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 them and their parents to essential health and psychosocial services.

Together with partners, UNICEF is working to reach as many children as possible with safe learning opportunities. 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.

Support for the metro schools initiative is provided from the project "Spilno", which is implemented by Kharkiv Professional Development Foundation together with UNICEF. The project aims to help children, adolescents and their families who are living in shelters or have been displaced to safer places. 

“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.”