Children: the invisible victims of Ukraine’s crisis

The ongoing armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and changes in Crimea have led to the displacements of tens of thousands of people. Economic constraints, security issues, breakdown of social structures, loss of loved ones, and direct exposure to violence have affected the psychological state of many people. Most worryingly, children – who often don’t have the coping mechanisms or understanding of the situation – have been significantly affected.

Twelve-year-old Sumaya is one of almost 5,000 children who had to flee their homes in Crimea in the recent months and move to mainland Ukraine. Along with her mom, dad and seven siblings, she’s now in a new place and in an unusual situation. Her mom is pregnant and is about to give birth; her dad is disabled and cannot provide for his family; and the children have lost their friends and classmates. Displacement has affected all family members and Sumaya now has to also help take care of her youngest brother – 1.5 year old Zacharia.

At home in Crimea, she did theatre and needlework. She was a great help to her mom, a very attentive older sister and a leader at school. After moving to Vinnytsia, Sumaya still tried to be responsible, open and always ready to help, before the reality of what had happened to the family sank in. After a while, she became introverted and passive. Her behaviour became more negative and in her communication with younger children she became aggressive and antisocial.

Sumaya and her family. (c) UNICEF Ukraine
Sumaya and her family. (c) UNICEF Ukraine

“Sumaya’s behaviour aimed at attracting the attention of adults and other children, which she very much lacked from her parents. When she managed to get the attention, she became softer, but still didn’t get involved in playing with other children, she preferred to observe, ” says Victoria Pasychnyk, a psychologist with the human rights NGO Dzherelo Nadiyi, who works with internally displaced children and their families.

Supported by UNICEF, this organisation has been working with two groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Crimea since the first days of their arrival in the Vinnytsia region of mainland Ukraine. The organisation provides individual and group therapy: children from internally displaced families play educational games, participate in psychological support sessions and do other activities to help them adapt to the new circumstances and to cope with the stress.

Sumaya has become more open, happy and positive, as her friends and family were used to seeing her before the displacement. The key factor for her behavioural change was the psychosocial support provided during group sessions with older children. Thanks to this support she has been able to share her dreams and secrets, and discuss other topics that worry children.

An individual psychosocial support session. (c) UNICEF Ukraine
An individual psychosocial support session. (c) UNICEF Ukraine

“Sumaya is back to being emotionally stable, she is again open to communication, and she started sharing her worries and problems with others,” says Victoria.

Psychosocial sessions with her mom also helped get ‘old’ Sumaya back. Her mom was given recommendations on how to share time and parental attention among all the children in a large family to avoid children’s jealousy, resentment and feelings of unfairness.

UNICEF is partnering with NGOs and the local government to provide psychosocial support to other children and families that have been displaced from Crimea or Eastern Ukraine over the last several months. The aim is to reduce IDP children’s and families’ stress levels and to help them integrate into their new communities. More than 370 children and parents displaced from Crimea have benefited so far from on-going psychosocial support in the form of individual and group therapy.

In addition to conducting individual and group counselling sessions, UNICEF is facilitating training sessions on working with displaced children and families for 400 psychologists, social workers, school counsellors and teachers; with the aim of reaching over 9,000 internally displaced children and families in the next six months.

Giovanna Barberis is the Representative of UNICEF Ukraine.

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