At first glance, the School No. 12 in Slovyansk, Eastern Ukraine, looks like any other school. Proud parents drop off their sons and daughters first thing in the morning; children chase balls, play games and chatter excitedly and busy teachers rush in and out of the staff room.
Less visible is the fact that all these children have witnessed conflict and bear its scars. Two years ago, in April 2014, hostilities erupted. The children of School No. 12 endured violence and witnessed things no child should have to see: shellings, shootings, death. They felt fear and anxiety. Some experienced loss, first-hand.
“The school was often closed. Still, in many cases, the school was the only place where children were safe and guarded by adults, while the parents had to go to work,” the headmistress, Larissa Zhidkova tells us. “All children here witnessed war. Often, there were barricades, often armed forces – a terrible view. Most of the children stayed with their parents. Fortunately none of our children were hurt or killed.”
In School No. 12, there are 824 students, with 71 internally displaced. As the conflict continued, exams were cancelled and the school was closed.
“We stayed home for some time,” recalls Danylo,15, at the start of the hostilities. “We could not communicate. There was no telephone or internet. We wanted to go back to school to see our friends.”
Yvgeni has been a physics teacher for 20 years. He also completed his studies as a psychologist.
Today, he supports students and teachers with counselling and psychosocial support. Five minutes with Yvgeni and you know that teaching is his calling. He’s not only committed to his job and to his students, he’s committed to making a lasting difference. The students and the teachers trust him and that is critical as he helps them to reflect on what they’ve been through – and heal.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Yvgeni. At the outset of the psychosocial support courses, he reflects: “We had difficulties getting the children into the courses. They didn’t want to be seen as ‘different.’ But, after several lessons, one by one, more children asked to join. We managed to gain the trust of the students – that was our first victory in the programme. Then, even some parents joined in.”
“We’ve reached out to children who saw people die; children who were too traumatized and afraid to share anything. By talking about it in a safe environment, with support, with patience, their level of anxiety decreased – that’s one of the greatest achievements of this programme.”
Yvgeni is particularly proud of a girl from Piesky, a town close to the frontline. At the beginning, she cried for almost two months. “She took part in breathing exercises and, slowly, these helped her to be calmer and reintegrate. During that time, she also discovered that she had a special talent for singing jazz – and she’s now performing in all our school concerts.”
Yvgeni told me that his programme also includes training sessions for teachers. It helps them to learn how to identify and respond to heightened distress that children have faced due to the conflict. In addition, it helps the teachers to balance their work and life, and prevent burnout. The teachers’ training has been supported by the European Union’s “Children of Peace” programme strengthen education in emergencies.
“If a teacher is traumatized, this can be passed on to the children,” Yvgeni explains. “As a result of the training, they feel more confident with their students.”
All of the teachers reported an increase in their self-esteem, as well as personal and professional growth. In addition, they are better able to reach out to children and connect with them emotionally.
Today, Yvgeni is delivering breathing and stress management sessions to a group of students. They stretch arms and breathe out stress, anger and anxieties. If you met Kateryna,15, and Danylo, 15, you would never know that they have grown up in an area affected by conflict.
Thanks to the teacher training, “Our teacher is now trying to give more individual support,” says Kateryna, 15, about her teacher. “She’s now trying to care more about me. She supported our idea to have a picnic at the park for a school trip, rather than go to a café. The teachers do not only teach subjects, they also teach us about life.”
Asked about the courses, Danylo says that, “Yvgeni helped me to understand my grandmother. Sometimes she really winds me up and she’s always telling me what to do. Yvgeni taught me how to deal with my anger and showed me how to relax.”
When asked what more could be done to help the children and young people in School Nr. 12, Danylo’s answer is swift.
“Just send more teachers to Yvgeni!”
Yvgeni just smiles.
The psychosocial support and training to teachers was made possible thanks to the funding of the European Commission – Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO) as part of the EU Children of Peace programme.
Rebekka Opfermann is a communications consultant working with UNICEF Brussels.