A little blue backpack helped with the wait for school

UNICEF, with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, provided 725 educational kits the most vulnerable preschool children living less than a kilometre from the ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine

UNICEF
10 August 2020

Six-year-old Nikita can already read syllables and count up to 15. The blue-eyed boy and his older sister managed to prepare well for school during quarantine.

"I want to go into first grade because it will be interesting and I will have friends there," says Nikita, while clutching a schoolbag given to him by UNICEF. He will take it to his first classes on 1 September.

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UNICEF, with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, provided 725 educational kits for Nikita and other the most vulnerable preschool children living less than a kilometre from the ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine, containing school backpacks, stationery and books to support home learning during quarantine.

"I have plasticine, paints, markers and pencils. I will use them to draw. I love drawing pictures of animals," says Nikita smiling and unpacking his little backpack.

The school closest to the ‘contact line

Nikita's future school – No. 13, in the village of Zalizne in Donetsk region – is the closest school to the ‘contact line’ in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine. Despite this, along with his sister and brothers he is counting the days until classes begin.

"Nikita is now six years old. After he was born, shelling started here. As it turns out, he has never seen a different life. And he spent the whole spring and summer at home because of the quarantine. He is bored. Therefore, of course, he is waiting for 1 September like a big holiday," says Yulia, the mother of Nikita and four other children. Meanwhile, the children are looking at a book with bright pictures about how to act during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Military positions begin two streets from Nikita's house in the village of Zalizne in Donetsk region. And you can still see the blackening dugout, in which the whole family used to hide from shelling in the first year of Nikita's life, in the yard, where the boy now plays with his three brothers and sister.

"We are not allowed to go even to the area behind the next street," says Danil, the oldest of the children.

Due to a fragile truce, the family has not used their impromptu shelter for the past two years, but they have not yet decided to bury it completely.

"My middle son Yegor gets frightened when he hears shooting, he hides in the cupboard and cries. Nikita is a little less afraid, but he also wakes up when he hears shelling at night," says Yulia. She adds that several times in 2014 and 2015 she had to pick her eldest son and daughter up from the school shelter, where they wait out the shelling.

New challenges caused by the quarantine

Heavy fighting has stopped in the village, but adults and children in Zalizne still continue experiencing the consequences of the armed conflict. Yulia's husband lost his permanent job at a local mine, which was closed due to the hostilities. Now he has to commute to another city for a part-time job, while Yulia takes care of the children and a large home.

"We used to be able to plan things, make purchases, save for holidays. And now it's even difficult to provide the children with school supplies," Yulia admits, adding that the UNICEF school kit has been "a great help" for her family.

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Now Yulia and her husband have had to postpone their renovation of the part of the house that was damaged by the shelling, because they are collecting money to buy a new tablet. This autumn, the Yevdokimov family will have four schoolchildren, and the only computer they have will not be enough for everyone to work on their assignments.

"Quarantine has become a challenge for us. The children took turns studying at home," says the woman.

Nikita's older sister, 11-year-old Tanya, in addition to her homework, finds time to study with her younger brother during the summer holidays. "He likes it when we play school," smiles Tanya. During the quarantine, she had been reading books to her brother out loud and crafting paper with him. "He is really good at remembering letters and numbers if you praise him."

Most of all, Tanya, Nikita and their brothers dream of going on holiday with the whole family and seeing the sea someday. But for now their parents cannot afford to make this dream come true, and they expect that in the autumn the school will make children's lives exciting and eventful.

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"We all really hope that the COVID-19 epidemic will not prevent children from studying this year. It is dangerous to walk in the village, but it is hard for them to be at home all the time," says Yulia, hugging her younger sons.

Going to school to return to kindergarten

In the neighbouring village of Pivdenne, six-year-old Masha is also waiting for the summer to end so she can put her backpack on her shoulders and go to school with her older sisters. But Masha has her own reasons to wait for the start of classes. "I really love my kindergarten. I want to go back to it. I want to graduate from school and learn to be a teacher to work in my kindergarten," says Masha, holding a ginger cat in her arms.

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Masha and her three sisters stayed with their mother in their flat in the front-line village throughout the spring and summer. During the quarantine, they communicated with their friends who live in the opposite multi-storey building through the bedroom window, which was sealed with film because of the shelling.

"We climbed onto the windows and waved to our friends through the window," Masha smiles.

A cheerful and sociable girl, Masha was born the same time the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine started. Her mother, Oksana, says that her girls are experiencing their childhood under challenging conditions, and shelling has become a regular part of almost every evening for Masha and her sisters.

"They are constantly shooting here, even now. There are no jobs because of the war. I have to clean the entrances. I would like to give the children something good to please them because I love them very much. But it is tough for us to live here," admits Oksana.

The woman altered her older daughters’ old clothes so that the younger Masha had something to wear to class. And the backpack from UNICEF has become a real gift for the girl for home learning and school. “We were thrilled when we received the backpack. It has everything you need to study. I wouldn't be able to buy it,” says Oksana, who is raising the four girls alone.

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Masha herself likes that she has a school backpack now, like her older sisters and friends: this means she is almost an adult. “Soon I'll go to school with my friends from our yard,” Masha smiles. “It'll be fun there.”

To help children across the country to keep learning even during COVID-19, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education and Science with distance learning options and educational supplies for children, to ensure continuity and to help parents, caregivers and teachers access resources and support during the quarantine. UNICEF Ukraine has also delivered hygiene kits and disinfectants to help educational facilities – including those hosting final exams – adhere to safety protocols.

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