Teens in Ukraine learn peace skills after six years of conflict

After six years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, teenagers in the port city of Mariupol have been learning how to deal with problems peacefully, thanks to a UNICEF project.

Yulia Silina, Kate Bond
05 October 2019

After six years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, teenagers in the port city of Mariupol have been learning how to deal with problems peacefully, thanks to a UNICEF project.

Special mediation training means the youngsters can bring their worries and doubts to their peers, who they feel are easier to trust and sometimes able to understand them better than adults.

As a result of the training, 12 peer-to-peer support services have launched in Mariupol high schools and technical schools with support from UNICEF and European Union (EU).

“We must offer children an alternative if we want them to stop solving their problems with fights, bullying and scandals,” says Oksana Datsko, one of the mediation coaches and mentors. “Mediation is an alternative.”

Oksana has taught mediation skills to children across Ukraine. She says teenagers from different regions have very similar problems.

“Lack of parental understanding, loneliness, conflicts with peers, fear to stand out in your group, fear of being bullied — many kids face these problems across the country,” Oksana says.

However, she believes those living in the conflict-torn East are especially vulnerable.

In autumn 2019, youngsters from Mariupol took part in a number of mediation workshops conducted by national mediation network La Strada – Ukraine, with support from UNICEF and funding from the European Union and Japan. The teenagers were taught how to prevent violence, how to deal with it and how to solve conflicts peacefully.


Looking for similarities instead of differences

Before the start of the mediation training, organizers conducted a poll. They asked local teens two questions: “Would you like to be a mediator?” and “Which of your peers would you trust your own problems with?”

Those who said they would like to learn peaceful conflict solving methods were subsequently trained by professional mentors for four days.

At first, the youngsters found the skills difficult to learn. It was also a challenge for the trainers.

“We thought we wouldn’t be able to handle it — 36 academic hours, four days of training,” says Maryna Matveichuk, one of the trainers from La Strada – Ukraine.

But their hard work was worth it.

“The training created this atmosphere of safety which is even more important in the east of Ukraine,” she adds. “The participants said they were very vivid days.”

Serious topics were mixed with activities, videos and practices.

“There is this important practice named ‘circle’ that everybody loves,” coach Oksana explains. “We would form a circle and each person would answer two questions. First about a loved one, and the second about a team or group where they feel needed.”

She recalls many kids crying as they shared stories about loved ones.

“The circle helps us understand that we all are made of the same good emotions and have similar sets of values. We all love someone, we all want to be respected. This is one of the mediation principles — looking for similarities instead of differences.”


Hope for the future

The trainings led to the creation of teams, comprising two adult coordinators and 20 student mediators. Many of the young participants, who have now become conflict-solvers among their peers, hope that their new skills will lead to a brighter future.

“In future, I see myself as an attorney, which is directly related to conflict-solving and dispute resolution,” says 16-year-old participant Artem Anpilohov. “This training helped me realize I’m on the right path.”

His friend Yana Ustymenko says the ‘circle’ exercise helped her to see relationships with loved ones from a different perspective.

“Now I know which way to go and what to do,” she says, confidently. “I have met new people, gained new knowledge and changed the strategy of my behavior in problem and conflict situations.”

The mediation project has been operating in Ukraine with support from UNICEF and EU since 2018. Many conflicts between students and their parents, as well as between peers, have been resolved with the help of dialogue and communication. Bullying has also been prevented.

Project mentors believe that mediation will improve the atmosphere in Mariupol schools by making them more friendly and comfortable.

“It’s important for children to know there are people next to them in their school who are willing to listen and help,” says Oksana. “And those people are other students, their peers, who are ready to offer their helping hand.”