A month underground: Volunteers in Kharkiv metro entertain children scarred by war
In Ukraine, UNICEF is helping to turn metro stations into support spaces for children.
Liudmyla Voloshenko, 41, is busy combing her 10-year-old daughter Sonia’s hair in one of the trains that have become home for thousands in the Kharkiv metro.
“Today my mother and I went home to wash our hair and get some things,” says Sonia, leaning back into her mother’s arms. “It was scary.”
Since war broke out in Ukraine on 24 February, Kharkiv’s metro has become a shelter for thousands of people fleeing the gunfire and shelling above.
Across Ukraine, millions of children like Sonia are paying the price every day, as the war takes its toll on their well-being, safety and education.
“It is very tough for us to stay here with children,” says Lidumyla. “They want to go outside, they want to ride roller skates and bicycles. They want to go to school and communicate with their friends.”
Because of the war, children in Kharkiv do not go to school. Instead, UNICEF-supported volunteers have set up children’s spaces at metro stations, where teachers and psychologists work with children on a daily basis.
Yuliia Kruhla, 41, is one of the volunteers. Before the war, she was a professional florist, and before that she worked as a school teacher for ten years. Now she has decided to return to working with children.
“Due to severe stress, children experience insomnia, uncontrolled aggression and even mental disorders,” says Yuliia. “To improve their emotional condition, we do warm-ups and breathing exercises. We are distracting them from the war.”
A play that she and the children had been preparing for four days finally premiered.
“This is a play about two planets – a good one and a bad one,” explains Sonia, who has become a director and screenwriter. “And a bad planet attacks a good one.”
UNICEF has provided volunteers with materials for classes, including notebooks, stationery, modelling clay and paints.
“There are around 1,500 children at 29 metro stations – from infants to 15-years-olds,” says Maryna Ladyzhenska, 48, who coordinates educational activities for children in shelters at Kharkiv metro stations. “It was UNICEF that provided money to equip playgrounds and spaces, to procure stationery and toys, and to support the volunteer movement.”
According to Maryna, some of the children have not ventured outside for four weeks. Many are afraid to step outside.
“The key problem is the decline in social contacts and lack of schooling,” says Maryna.
Vadym, 14, says that a shell hit his school, causing all the windows to shatter. Now he and his mother live in a metro train.
“Sometimes it’s cold here,” he says, sadly. “But generally it’s more or less OK.”
“The classes here are not like a school where 30 people are sitting and someone understood the teacher’s explanation and someone didn’t. Here, they explain everything to you personally, you are not afraid to ask questions.”
Teachers, psychologists, sports coaches and dance tutors all bring their expertise to the children’s spaces.
“These are people who are involved in one way or another in education – both formal and non-formal,” says Maryna, proudly. “And now they have volunteered to work with children and youth.”
For children like Sonia, the classes are life-changing. But nothing can make up for the most precious thing they have lost – home.
"We now have two classes a day – math or Ukrainian, and then music,” says Sonia. “I have made a lot of friends here. But I still dream of returning home and that everything be fine.”
Over a month of war is taking a devastating toll on millions of people in Ukraine, particularly children and the vulnerable. So far, 4.3 million children have been displaced from their homes and millions more are in desperate need of safety, stability and protection.
As the gunfire and shelling escalates, UNICEF Ukraine is making efforts to build the capacities of NGOs and youth organizations across the country, in order to address the mental health impact of the war and promote the psychosocial wellbeing of those who have been affected by the conflict.
So far, more than 4,500 children and adolescents have participated in activities in Kharkiv’s metro stations. UNICEF and partners plan to engage around 500 volunteers, educators and psychologists to support children, adolescents and their families on the move. The project is implemented with the support of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) via the KfW Development Bank
“Our goal is to support children, adolescents and youth with not only basic needs such as water, food, hygiene, but also educational opportunities and psycho-social support,” says Liliya Lyubomudrova, Adolescent Development Officer at UNICEF. “Staying resilient, developing coping mechanisms and addressing traumatic experience is extremely important, especially for children and adolescents. It is a long marathon, and resilience is key for survival during the war and after.”