UNICEF workshops help children in eastern Ukraine cope with conflict

16-year-old Mykyta attended a UNICEF workshop that help children and young people in Ukraine to overcome trauma of war

Yulia Silina
Mykyta is at Toretsk school located near the contact line in eastern Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov

12 April 2018

TORETSK, Ukraine, 21 March 2018 - With its large windows, piles of textbooks and photos on the wall, classroom 10A at #10 Toretsk secondary school looks like any other in Ukraine. However, just two years ago, the bell here rang not only for classes but for immediate evacuation to a bomb shelter. In the space of just one year, between 2014 and 2015, the school was damaged by shelling at least four times.

Mykyta at Toretsk school located near the contact line in eastern Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
Nikita Kondratenko, 16 years old, student of Toretsk School No. 10, recalls that training on life skills made some of his classmates cry when they were talking about their plans for the future. Thanks to this training, Nikita became friends with his classmate Sasha after finding out the both of them like the same music and sports.

Now, workshops organised by UNICEF with the support of the European Union - Humanitarian Aid - are helping students at Toretsk – located just kilometers from the contact line – to overcome the daily trauma.

I remember very well what children were like in the beginning of the war. They were like mice – quiet and withdrawn, with fear always in their eyes. All of us, both the children and the teachers, were living day to day.

Natalia Tsenkova, teacher at Toretsk school

Natalia often had to calm the children down as she helped them into the school bomb shelter. But teachers were also afraid, especially during the first year of the conflict, when their school was damaged by shelling and the impact shattered the windows. 

The first times shelling happened, it was a shock for us. I needed to try as hard as I can't show them that I am afraid as well, and to smile when we were going down to the basement.

Natalia Tsenkova, teacher at Toretsk school

UNICEF helped Natalia to distract children from the conflict.

Teacher Natalia sits at the desk at Toretsk school in eastern Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
Natalia Tsenkova, a teacher of 10th grade in Toretsk School No. 10, says that when she is working with students she tries to be caring and understanding as the conflict in eastern Ukraine puts a lot of pressure on students. Sometimes she bakes cake for students and drinks tea with them at school.

All homeroom teachers from our school took part in a UNICEF workshop called ‘Learning to Live Together. We learned to help children deal with stress, help them talk it out, not withdraw from the others. Now, we always play and have competitions. I tell them funny stories, so that they would forget about the war.

Natalia Tsenkova, teacher at Toretsk school

She even turned one of her classes into a tea party.

Children love my shortcrust pastry pie. And they always ask me whether I’m bringing it for the tea party again. And every time I stay up late making it for them. It has already become a tradition.

Natalia Tsenkova, teacher at Toretsk school

Mykyta Kondratenko, 16, was among those transferred to a different class after 367 of his peers left as a result of the conflict. He says it was easy for him to become a part of 10A and find new friends, thanks to a UNICEF workshop on life skills.

We had an interesting workshop. We needed to choose one image out of many and talk about our associations with it. Trainers helped us open up, and everybody was speaking about their dreams and feelings. It was really touching. Many of us were crying.

Mykyta, 16 years old
Mykyta looks at the camera in Toretsk school
UNICEF Ukraine/2018/Filippov
Mykyta lives with his family a few kilometers from the contact line. A couple of times he came under shelling, and each time he warried about safety and well-being of his younger brother.

After the workshop, he started seeing his classmates differently, because he had found out about their interests and dreams. He was most impressed with his classmate Sasha, whose apartment was hit by a shell and who, before the workshop, had seemed withdrawn. Now the pair of them are friends and play football together in the summer. “Sasha was telling us about his feelings,” says Mykyta. “And about how much he loves football now.”

Psychosocial distress stemming from the conflict continues to impact children, their parents and educators, and psychosocial support remains a critical need.

In 2017, ten teachers from #10 Toretsk school received UNICEF's 'Learning to Live Together' life skills training. These workshops helped to reduce aggression and anxiety in students, through teaching and learning methods that were learner-centred, active, participatory and varied. The games and activities helped both students and teachers to relax, and resulted in greater openness, confidence, tolerance and team spirit among children.

Toretsk school
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
School No 10 in Toretsk, Donetsk Oblast, is located 15 kilometers from the contact line.
Mykyta studies at Torest school
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
Nikita lives with his family a few kilometers from the contact line. A couple of times he came under shelling, and each time he warried about safety and well-being of his younger brother.

These workshops are part of a bigger programme being rolled out in 66 educational institutions across eastern Ukraine by UNICEF, with the European Union’s support, that help to strengthen the resilience of over 13,800 children and adolescents living on both sides of the contact line.

Mykyta still worries about the conflict in Ukraine and his family, especially his younger brother. 

My brother Glib is only nine, we go to school together. We are very close. That’s why, during shelling, I am most worried about him. I even think that it was easier for Glib to spend nights in the shelter, because I was always worried about my family and relatives. And he was younger, so he didn’t quite understand what was going on.

Mykyta

For him, like hundreds of other children, the workshops have offered structure, stability and hope for the future.

After you talk it out, it gets better.

Mykyta