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UNICEF provides winter assistance to help children and adults to survive harsh winter in eastern Ukraine

POPASNA, Ukraine, February 2018 - In a warm and bright room at Popasna Nursery and Preschool # 3 in Luhanska oblast, six year olds are holding hands, dancing and singing holiday songs, and a peaceful holiday ambiance permeates the two-storey green building. However, just two years ago the shells that rained down on Popasna because of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine destroyed more than half of the preschool facility.

Windows to the War

“If you look that way, it’s only five kilometres to the contact line. Artillery shells hit us from that side. In the town, our preschool became known as ‘windows to the war’,” says preschool director Olena Chupryna, 51, looking out of the upstairs window of the junior nursery group’s homeroom, with the children playing loudly behind her back.

Ms Chupryna recalls that all of the windows in the preschool were shattered and all the doors blown out, while the roof, fence, and heating system were damaged. “In winter 2015, there was heavy fighting for control of our town, and we were shelled by artillery. I remember very well how worried I was about the heating, if our preschool was going to be cold. I went to the boiler room to check things there, and 20 minutes after I left the building was hit by several shells,” she says. She admits that even after two years she still gets shivers when remembering those days.

One of the preschool’s maintenance staff died in the winter 2015 shelling, and the other employees are still upset about it. “The conflict has, of course, affected all of us. Even the children, though they are still little and don’t understand everything that’s going on, have become more emotional, more nervous, and more excitable. I think all of this is because of the shelling,” she states. That’s why the preschool staff are attending workshops on psychological stress relief, designed as part of a UNICEF programme to help the children recover from the impact of the conflict.

Warm Room and Warm Atmosphere

The weather forecast worksheet on the windowsill, completed by children from the senior nursery group, promises Popasna rain, sub-zero temperatures, and snow for December. However, the preschool is ready. “Our preschool is fully prepared for the winter: the building has been insulated, and the draughty old windows have been replaced by insulated glazing. We have received a tremendous amount of assistance from UNICEF. We would like to give our thanks separately for the electric heaters, two for each group, so that if one stops working, there will always be a spare,” the director says. She adds that without the help of international and Ukrainian donors, it would have been almost impossible to reopen the nursery and preschool following the active stage of the conflict.

During the cold months, UNICEF delivered portable heaters, generators, boilers, and coal to kindergartens, schools and medical facilities near the contact line to keeps children warm. Thanks to the support provided by the Government of Germany, UNICEF reached over 75,000 vulnerable children and adults in eastern Ukraine with winter assistance.

Now the building, built fifty years ago, is even warmer than it was in 2014, following the renovation and installation of the electric heaters. “This is the case in which bad luck was transformed into good luck. Our children have not been forgotten, and they keep receiving a lot of support, both financial assistance and through psychological workshops and training on mine safety,” the director says.

The educators at Popasna’s nurseries and preschools invented a game with code words to make evacuation workshops less traumatizing for children. When the little ones hear that this game has started, they know they need to break up into pairs and go down to the ground floor of the building, to a safe place with no windows. “Children used to cry because they understood it was dangerous if they needed to go down to the hall,” Ms Chupryna recalls. “However, now that it’s quieter they are starting to forget those days, and they think of evacuations as fun games.”

Music That Is Louder Than the Sound of Shelling

Director and teachers at Popasna Comprehensive School #21 have also invented their own method to distract children from the sound of shelling during military operations. They had radios installed in the halls and classrooms, and the music that played on days when Popasna was being shelled was particularly loud.

“We played the music as loud as we could and lay down in the hall with the children, covered our heads and waited for it all to end,” says Marina Ustenko, 42, who was appointed director right at the time when the conflict started.

Today, the walls of the historical school that has celebrated its 128th anniversary are covered with bright scenes from school life and cartoon characters. “These are not just paintings. They are very important for us: the teachers and children painted them together in 2014 and 2015 while there was heavy fighting,” Ms. Ustenko says.

The school didn’t even close on the loudest days, as at least 20 of the 250 students came to class every day. The school does not have a shelter, but the school walls are thick enough to protect the children.

School You Don’t Want to Skip

High school students at the Popasna school hand made a very realistic fireplace for the holiday season, decorated with garlands and candles. Although there is no real fire in it, the fireplace created a cosy atmosphere in the classroom, and the room is kept warm by electric heaters. The school’s coal-based boiler room was unable to generate enough heat for the entire building, especially the damp corner classrooms.

“Our classroom is the warmest in the school, and we can even wear t-shirts. With other classrooms it was more complicated, and they were colder. But now we have UNICEF heaters, so students in other classrooms will also be able to wear t-shirts, because it will be warmer. And they’ll feel more comfortable: it’s much better when you don’t have to wear several sweaters and don’t look like a ball at school,” says Viktoria Savova, 16, a friendly senior pupil.

The girl confesses that despite the ceasefire she is acutely aware that her hometown is close to the contact line. “I know that there are still mines in the suburbs, and it is dangerous to walk there. Sometimes we can still hear distant shooting. And it is so sad that we have lost contact with our friends and peers from Luhansk, who remained on the other side of the contact line,” says Vika. This year, she participated in a mine safety workshop.

The friendly atmosphere of the school, filled with holiday preparations, helps the girl and her peers to cope with the negative effects of the military conflict. “You want to go to our school in the morning, you don’t want to skip it,” the girl says, smiling. “It is warm and comfortable, and fun to study here.”

 

 
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