Like almost any 10-year-old boy, Pasza Gubenko loves to eat spaghetti, and he’ll talk your ear off about his favourite soccer team, Dynamo Kyiv, and the best player in the world – Manchester City’s Ukrainian left back Oleksandr Zinchenko, of course.
He has stopped to chat only briefly while playing with a couple of boys in a shelter in Przemysl, Poland. At first glance they could be children anywhere, running and laughing loudly.
But spend a few moments with Pasza and he starts talking about his family’s harrowing escape from Rykun, a village not far from the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. “Tanks in the street,” he says in halting English. “Russian solders hiding in the forest. One hour to leave.” He runs to grab his phone and pulls up a photo of an armoured car he spotted on the highway to Poland. “Ukrainian army,” he says with a smile.
The play room is full of boys and girls just like Pasza. They look outwardly happy, but it’s not hard to see the impact of what they’ve gone through to get here. Over in one corner, six-year-old David shouts, “Bomb, bomb, bomb!” as he throws balls at a small tent. Near the back wall a little girl sits quietly clutching a rabbit doll and moving close to her mother whenever a newcomer walks in. Her mother says they are from Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, and she came here with her two daughters, but not her husband. He had to stay home to face the Russians.
“Right now there are a lot of very traumatized children. They have been touched by the war,” says Lila Kalinowskla, a volunteer in the shelter, which has been set up in Ukraine House. “They are trying to behave normal, like they are playing the game that ‘we are okay.’ But children feel everything.”
Of the more than two million people who have left Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), estimates that at least one million are children. And because the Ukrainian government has required men aged 18 to 60 to remain in the country, most of the children arrive having seen their families torn apart.
“I don’t know what we’ll do,” says Tanya Salo, standing at a rest stop on the side of a highway outside Przemysl. She spent five days on the road from Kharkiv jammed into a Nissan Micra with her husband, three children and the family’s pet dog and cat. The couple plastered a large sign on the rear windshield that said “children” in Ukrainian, hoping it would offer some kind of protection as they raced to safety.
Ms. Salo had to say goodbye to her husband at the Polish border and carry on. She’s hoping to get to Gdansk and stay with a friend, but she has no further plans after that and worries about what all this will do to her children. “It’s hard on them,” she says before tears well up in her eyes.
Refugee advocates say the fallout from the war will be devastating for children. They’re especially concerned about the thousands of kids who have been separated from their families.
“The number of children on the move is staggering,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s regional director for Europe and central Asia. “Children are leaving everything they know behind in search of safety. This is heartbreaking.”
Tatiana Savchuk felt she had no choice but to send her children over the border alone. She’d arrived late Wednesday with her daughters – six-year-old Dasha and eight-year-old Liza – in Shehyni, a Ukrainian town next to the Polish frontier. As they joined the long line to cross the border, Ms. Savchuk suddenly realized she’d lost her passport and identification. She didn’t want to return with the children to the dangerous situation back home, so she begged a woman in line, Valentyna Chrishechkina, to take the girls with her. Ms. Chrishechkina was travelling with her daughter and two grandchildren, but she agreed.
The two women quickly exchanged phone numbers while Ms. Savchuk handed over the girls’ birth certificates. Ms. Chrishechkina had to do some fast talking at the border but managed to persuade Polish officials to let her in with the children.
She’d been assured by their mother that the girls’ grandmother was on her way by bus from Italy and that she would meet the children at the train station in downtown Przemysl on Thursday. But the bus took a wrong turn, and the girls’ grandmother wound up 90 kilometres away in Rzeszow. She didn’t get to Przemysl until Friday morning.
Ms. Chrishechkina never wavered. She sat with the girls at the station and waited, all day and through the night. She even told her daughter and grandchildren to carry on to Wrocław, in western Poland – that she would catch up with them later. “It was my obligation,” she said when asked why she took on such a responsibility. She couldn’t imagine the trauma it would cause to the girls or the hardship their mother had endured. She just wanted to get them to safety.
She hadn’t been alone in helping young Dasha and Liza. Three women Ms. Chrishechkina met in line also watched over the girls and joined in the wait at the station. Among them was Natalie Vtoryhina, who fled Kyiv on Wednesday with her 11-year-old daughter, Barbara, a budding gymnast.
Ms. Vtoryhina said she worried about what the girls were going through and how it might affect them later in life. Our children “have to stay strong” was all she could say.
In Stalowa Wola, about two hours north of Przemysl, high-school principal Marek Czopor has been struggling every day with what will become of the children under his care. The school’s giant gymnasium has been turned into a shelter for 200 Ukrainian orphans and children with disabilities. It’s one of three in the city, which is expecting as many as 1,000 orphans from Ukraine.
Mr. Czopor is hardly a softy. He’s a burly, brisk administrator who proudly displays pictures of his days playing volleyball on his office wall. But the orphans have touched him deeply. Most are younger than 10, and they usually arrive with next to nothing, looking scared beyond belief. “Every time, I cry,” he said, holding back tears. He has barely slept since the shelter opened last week.
The school takes care of them for just a short time, then city officials try to find places for the orphans to stay. Mr. Czopor isn’t sure where they’ll end up but he knows one thing for certain: “They will remember this the rest of their lives.”
As more and more children pour in across the border, many shelters have begun to adapt to their needs. Some have created special rooms and play areas for children, filled with toys and colouring books. Others have brought in doctors and counsellors.
“I’m very worried about these children,” said Anna Ostrowka, a psychiatrist who has helped out at a shelter in Przemysl. She has already seen signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in some of the children she has met.
Ms. Kalinowskla at Ukraine House said volunteers had wrestled at first with setting aside a play room for children because some argued that the space could be put to better use sheltering more refugees. But after seeing so many children, they decided the kids’ room was far too important. “It’s like a little piece of normality for them,” she said. “It is very, very important for us this place.” But the shelter can only do so much. Ms. Kalinowskla said the children stay for a night or two, then head off with their mothers to find somewhere to settle. “I really hope they go to something better,” she said.
There are plans to help integrate refugee children into communities and offer them help learning Polish. The Polish government has said it will create 500,000 places in schools for refugee children. In Przemysl, one Ukrainian school has added 108 spots for refugees, boosting its student population 50 per cent almost overnight.
There are glimmers of hope and signs of remarkable resilience in Przemysl.
Gaina Lazar arrived here almost two weeks ago with her daughters, 10-year-old Eva and 14-year-old Lisa. They’d travelled from Sambir, in western Ukraine, and like many families Ms. Lazar’s husband had to stay behind. When they got to Przemysl, Ms. Lazar and the children looked shell-shocked and drained. They were scared, lonely and lost.
And yet, within a few days, a group of volunteers helped them find a place to live in the city and got the girls enrolled at the Ukrainian school. Ms. Lazar said they feel more settled and her daughters have made new friends. As she walked home from school Friday, Eva chatted non-stop and broke out into the occasional song. “I like it here,” she said. “I feel more safe here.”
Ms. Lazar is grateful that the family has found some security, but she can’t help worrying about her husband and what’s happening in Sambir. “I feel safe but I’m not happy,” she said. “I am still thinking about home.”