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A Ukrainian teenager cannot attend school with peers, finds friends at a UNICEF-supported Youth Club

By Chris Schuepp

Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, February 2017 - 15-year-old Vlada Afanasieva from the village of Slovianoserbsk in Luhansk oblast has been directly affected by the conflict in Ukraine in many different ways.

Vlada's journey

In June 2014, Vlada, her parents and her younger sister had to flee their hometown of Slovianoserbsk due to conflict-related shelling, and were relocated to Odesa. Vlada was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) as a child and has been using a wheelchair since she was six years old. After two years in Odesa, where she and her family lived in a high-rise apartment block on the 12th floor with frequent power-outages and lacking water supply, a whole group of people with disabilities - including Vlada and her family - were again relocated. This time her new home is a sanatorium in Sviatohirsk, only about 100 km from her hometown, but divided by the "contact line" between government- and non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine.


Vlada and her friend Sasha who helps the 15-year-old girl to get around Sviatohirsk, her new home. - UNICEF Ukraine / Chris Schuepp / 2017

"The living conditions in Odesa especially towards the end were not really good. Imagine, being on the 12th floor and the power goes out. Of course, the elevator wouldn't work anymore either. I was basically locked up in my room with nothing to do and nowhere to go," says Vlada, remembering the time in Odesa. Since moving to Sviatohirsk in October 2016, the living conditions have improved, but there are downsides for the 15-year-old girl. "Odesa is a big city. There's always something to do. Sviatohirsk is small, opportunities for young people are very limited and it can get boring here really quick."

Vlada's education

Back in Luhansk, Vlada entered school in 1st grade like any other child. "The school was not far from home and we had a wheelchair ramp there. Everything was on one floor; there were no obstacles at all for me. It was a very inclusive school and I attended the classes with everybody else," Vlada remembers. "In Odesa, after we had to move there, the school was 10 minutes away by bus and there was a wheelchair ramp as well, but from then on: stairs, stairs, stairs and nothing else. It was impossible for me, so I could not go to school anymore."

Now in Sviatohirsk, Vlada's new home, there are similar problems. Olga Valiukh, the principal of the school in Sviatohirsk: "When the group from Odessa arrived, we talked to everybody to see which children could attend our school. At first I thought it was possible to include everybody, but there are certain things we cannot facilitate. The gym and the cafeteria are located on the ground floor where also the children from grades 1-4 have their classrooms. On the second floor we have the classrooms for the children from grade 5. The computer classes are also there. And on the 3rd floor are the classes for the older children and that's where Vlada would be. We don't have an elevator here, so somebody, a personal resource person, would need to be with Vlada at all times. She needs help to get up and down the stairs with her wheelchair. Otherwise she cannot participate in all activities. The fact that our building has different floors and no elevators or ramps is also an issue in case of emergency. Vlada is more than welcome to attend classes here any time she wants if she is with a person who can help her with the wheelchair."

Instead of attending school with everybody else, Vlada is now home-schooled by teachers who visit her according to a plan developed by the principal of the school. "For 14 hours per week, our teachers go and work with Vlada. We follow the rules of the regional education department to make sure Vlada gets an education adequate to her age. We are open to her coming to school, of course, but we can only have her here when she has a personal consultant with her at all times," the school principal adds.

For Vlada, that home schooling is better than nothing, but it is still not the same. "In school, you talk with people, you raise your hand, you answer, you joke around, you have fun. But frankly, when you sit at home, alone, with your study books in your hands, then the motivation for learning drops immediately."

Vlada's happiness

Yet there is a place where Vlada can meet with her peers and enjoy activities together with her friends. "A week or two after we arrived in Sviatohirsk, we were told about this youth club run by the NGO Slavic Heart. I went there with my friend who helps me with the wheelchair and everything else. We loved it! The atmosphere is great, everybody is friendly here. We cook together, make cookies together, we play, we have training sessions on different issues. Together with Anton, one of the trainers, I edit videos on the computer. The youth club is on the ground floor and if I have to go to the conference room on the 2nd floor, somebody is always there to help me."


Vlada at the UNICEF-supported youth club in Sviatohirsk where she can meet with her peers and enjoy a wide range of activities. - UNICEF Ukraine / Chris Schuepp / 2017

In the upcoming weeks and months Vlada wants to participate in a filmmaking workshop at the youth club. "I really like talking to people there, the handicrafts are great for my motor skills, just everything is fun there. Given the limited opportunities here in Sviatohirsk, this is the place to be for me," says Vlada with a smile on her face.

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UNICEF Ukraine currently supports 15 youth clubs in eastern Ukraine to give teenagers additional opportunities for learning, building life-skills and becoming active citizens in an inclusive environment for young people.

 

 
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