Schools steer Ukrainian children through the hell of conflict
Through the ‘Safe Schools’ project, UNICEF is working to support and to define the concept of safety in Ukrainian schools.
Denys Chekmeniov, 40, and his family had little choice but to flee their home in Donetsk, Ukraine, when the shells first began to fall in 2014.
“I didn’t want my children to be psychologically traumatized, as the war is quite scary, and it is hard for fragile child’s mind to cope with such events,” says the father-of-two.
Now, although the family live away from the frontline in the industrial city of Mariupol, Denys says the five-year conflict continues to upturn their lives. His eldest daughter Diana has changed schools three times just to find a peaceful place to study.
“She often has to change her friends, and has to constantly adapt to a new environment, a new life,” he says. “She is a child, so these moves were very difficult for her.”
School No. 36 in Mariupol, where Denys’ daughter now studies, is one of 14 schools in the conflict-affected Donetsk and Luhansk regions where teachers and children are using critical life skills learned in the ‘Safe School’ project run by UNICEF. This project aims to create a child-friendly and protective learning environment in schools.
There are difficult situations in which people sometimes don’t want to make peace, and I was taught to help them make
Since it began in 2018, UNICEF’s ‘Safe School’ project has trained more than 100 teachers in Ukraine to provide vulnerable children with life skills education, increasing the likelihood that they will contribute positively to post-conflict recovery. Life skills included clear communication, empathy, cooperation, problem-solving, respect for human rights and reconciliation.
School principal Ruslana Karnaushenko believes skills like these should be taught to both children and adults. “This project is very important,” she says, enthusiastically. “It provides an opportunity to control and manage emotions, to speak up without fear, and to be heard and understood.”
These skills are crucial for the 375 children enrolled at School No. 36, some of whom live in an orphanage.
"Children who lack social protection are the most vulnerable to violence,” says teacher Valentyna Krychenko, who took part in the UNICEF’s workshops ‘Safe Schools’. “There are students in each class who don’t fit in, who socialize poorly, and it is harder for them to find common ground with other children. Children at school need love – all of them, both good and bad, need to be loved with all of your heart – this is key for their safety.”
One of the most important skills learned was mediation.
Valentyna says that while there were arguments and confrontations at school before the project, there are now much fewer because of the workshops.
“Our school is small, and we quickly prevent everything related to aggression,” she says. “Our children know what bullying is, and we teach children and their parents about their rights and responsibilities.”
One of the most important skills learned, Valentyna says, was mediation. This encourages children to find ways of addressing problems without violence or aggression.
“During the project, my class was deeply involved in a mediation workshop,” says Valentyna.
“And after that, other teachers invited my student leaders to teach workshops for their students. Children became little trainers themselves.”
“I think this project is very important for students,” says Diana, 13, one of the pupils. “There are difficult situations in which people sometimes don’t want to make peace, and I was taught to help them make peace.”
“There are fewer quarrels, and if they still happen, it is because classmates can’t find a way to share something, but everybody understands that children also have their problems," adds Diana’s classmate, Veronika.
Veronika dreams of becoming an investigator.
“I am very interested in this profession because I want justice in our country,” she says. “Mediation taught us that if there is a quarrel between our classmates, it is not only our teacher or psychologists who can help, but also other classmates.”
Through the ‘Safe Schools’ project, UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine to support and to define the concept of safety in Ukrainian schools. It is also working with partners across eastern Ukraine to provide much-needed counselling, psychosocial support, and information on the risks of mines to hundreds of thousands of children, youth and caregivers affected by the conflict.