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Too Vulnerable: War in Ukraine Torments Refugee Youth

More mental health support is needed for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian kids living as refugees in Poland and Romania. Many are facing uncertainty, anxiety and fear due to their immigration status, while others are experiencing war-related trauma.

Six-year-old Nikita drew the red-and-white Polish flag on a notebook and then crumpled up the piece of paper. His mother was shocked to see the gesture, so she slowly prodded him until the truth came out about what had happened earlier that day in kindergarten.

Originally from Odessa, Aleksandra and her son Nikita left for Poland in March 2022 in the wake of Russia’s invasion. In spring of this year, when this scene took place, they were living in Warsaw and the boy was attending zerowka in a public kindergarten (a preparatory year before school, which most Polish kids complete in kindergarten). In Poland, Ukrainian refugee kids were simply allowed to enrol in public schools and kindergartens, and Aleksandra was one of the parents who took advantage of that opportunity.

The adjustment was not easy, but Nikita was making progress. Like him, many Ukrainian kids simply had to manage in classes where teachers and other students spoke only Polish. Both languages are Slavic, so the government has been betting on Ukrainian kids simply absorbing Polish as they go along. Nikita did struggle in the beginning, complaining he didn’t understand anything, refusing to leave the house in the mornings or being aggressive towards other kids.

However, by the autumn of 2022, things were looking up, especially because Nikita had started speaking Polish. He was still mostly playing with Ukrainian kids from other classes during playground breaks, but he was slowly starting to engage with the Poles.

The day of the crumpled flag, Nikita told his mother, he was having lunch in the canteen at the kindergarten, sharing a table with four Polish kids. Suddenly, one of the boys looked at the others and said: “Let’s take a vote, who of us thinks that Nikita should stay in Poland and who thinks he should go back to Ukraine”. To Nikita’s despair, the boys unanimously voted for the second option.

“The teachers never even told me about that situation,” Aleksandra recounts. “In general, it has been difficult to communicate with them. They spoke no English and they didn’t understand me when I tried to speak Ukrainian or Polish using Google translate on my phone.”

“No one helped Nikita, he just had to manage on his own,” Aleksandra concludes, though overall she still describes their story as one of successful integration. In first grade now in a public school in Warsaw, Nikita started the year already speaking Polish, has a Ukrainian best friend in the same class, but relates well with the other Polish kids and can follow the lessons.

Like Nikita, many Ukrainian refugee kids made their way to Poland and Romania in the months after the war started, with hundreds of thousands continuing to reside in the two countries, the vast majority in Poland.

War and exile have placed a significant psychological burden on these children and their families, yet, almost two years into the crisis, they are not receiving all the support they should. While both Central and Southeast European countries opened their doors generously to Ukrainian refugees when the war started, they lacked the experience with refugee integration to find optimal solutions. Additionally, some would argue, the governments have demonstrated little political will to use this situation as an opportunity to develop those integration mechanisms.

Even serious problems

However, certain situations that Ukrainian children find themselves in can be much more difficult. Mainly teenagers, for example, are facing mental problems such as depression, panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to specialists.

Mariya (not her real name) is a 17-year-old girl who came to a psychologist at the urging of her family. “When we first met, Mariya didn’t say a word, just sat quietly. She was completely withdrawn,” says Yanna Nikolaichuck, a Ukrainian psychologist now working for a humanitarian organisation in Bucharest. “I just asked her to start drawing, to express what she was feeling, whatever came to her mind. She kept silent, but also kept drawing. Only I was doing the talking.

“Everything worked like that for about five months, when suddenly she started talking and telling me what each of her drawings represented,” says Yanna Nikolaichuck, cheerfully.

Now Mariya behaves normally, goes out of the house alone, talks to people and has made her first friends.

Nikolaichuck says that the most affected group, with the most serious psychological problems, is teenagers. For younger children, the adjustment to refugee life is easiest, as they often only need their mother or other family members around. Similarly, adults are coming to terms with their new life and trying to find solutions to the problems they face.

“But teenagers are the most vulnerable group. They need a world of their own, with friends of the same age who understand their problems, whom they can trust. But the war has destroyed that world and they don’t fit into the new reality as refugees,” says Nikolaichuck.

The psychologist says that in such cases, young people can show symptoms of mental illness. “Some of them refuse to eat, refuse to talk. Others simply refuse to wash. Sometimes, of course, they have suicidal thoughts. It’s their way of reacting to the problems they face.

No matter the problems, family intervention is decisive, as the parents are able to create a sense of safety for the kids in the midst of uncertainty. “In most of the cases where the family is trying to get help, it’s going to be okay,” says Anna Szadkowska, a psychologist from Lublin, who coordinated a municipality crisis response centre active in the first months of the war.

“The people who really struggle are those where there were deep problems in the family even before the war and then the trauma of the conflict added up on top of that,” Szadkowska says. “The worst is when we realise something bad is happening in the family, but we know the intervention system doesn’t work too well – not even for Polish kids, let alone refugee ones.”

Psychologists are using a broad range of tools to help traumatised kids. Liliya Vahnianina from Caritas Poland, for example, often resorts to a set of cards produced in Ukraine especially for this purpose, each of which has an image associated with the war painted on it.

Source : Balkan Insight