Escaping War

What Ukrainian children carry with them

A child's drawing with 'I love Ukraine'
A drawing done by an anonymous Ukrainian child refugee says 'I love Ukraine' [Omar Havana]
A drawing done by an anonymous Ukrainian child refugee says 'I love Ukraine' [Omar Havana]

More than half of Ukraine’s children are now displaced from home.

According to UNICEF, of the country’s 7.5 million children, 2 million have crossed into neighbouring countries as refugees and 2.5 million are internally displaced.

They have left their homes, friends, families, and lives behind.

"War suspends the children's childhood; it's life-changing to leave everything you know and love and see things being shut up and [torn] to pieces,” says Ane Lemche, a child psychologist for Save The Children, speaking over video call from Denmark.

“Children sometimes flee with the clothes on their back in the middle of the night and they have lost many of the things that used to be normal things in their life,” Lemche says. “So, in the short term, some children will experience anxiety and stress, and definitely confusion, some of them loss of memory, loss of ability to concentrate and focus on things."

"I know there is a war in Ukraine, but I am not sure what the word war means," says 11-year-old Nastya who, together with her mother and aunt, escaped their home city in western Ukraine for neighbouring Romania, before they make their way to Turkey. “In Ternopil it was safe, we had prepared a backpack in advance in case we needed to leave urgently. One day my family decided it was time to leave Ukraine. I know people are killed,” she says.

The UN says that 90 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the war are women and children. The Ukrainian government does not allow most men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country, needing them to remain in Ukraine to fight.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled into Romania via the border crossing into Siret. Valerian, a 6-year-old from Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, arrived there with his mother and some friends after three days of travelling. They are on their way to Germany.

“I would love to be a soldier like my grandfather,” he adds, building a gun out of LEGO bricks he found while waiting after crossing the border. “I love to play with LEGO and build things, I did not take any toys with me so I was happy to find LEGO here and build this gun.”

Valerian spent two days in the basement of an apartment building with his family after their home was bombed and their neighbour’s daughter was killed. “In our city, it used to be a place like a refinery, I loved to play there, now it does not exist, the Russians bombed it,” he says.

Conflict, violence and insecurity can have major psychological effects on children. Unless appropriate support is provided, their distress can last well beyond the end of the conflict, psychologists say.

Lemche says that children who have just fled a war need more structure around them, a calm environment, and people who are kind - which will help them be more grounded in their feelings.

“They will also need to have something that they can touch as toys or something to hold up, as they will feel that there is something that they can control or they can understand,” she adds.

Many of the families who escaped Ukraine packed only their most essential things, some forgetting the toys and other items belonging to their children. Those children who managed to escape with their most precious item embrace it as if their life is inside their favourite toy, book or object. That item represents what they loved so much and left behind. Those who were not able to bring something with them, embrace the first toy offered to them by the volunteers who greet them after crossing the border.

"Children use toys and other items for different reasons when they are fleeing from war,” says Lemche. “One way they help is by giving them a sense of grounding and coherence, it shakes their mind of what they have experienced, it puts them in a situation where they can focus on something else, alleviating the stress for a while. Also, they remind them of someone that they care about but who is not with them, this could be a way to feel connected or close to someone that they need to have close by and they don't.”

In Suceava, Romania, Al Jazeera met children fleeing Ukraine’s war and spoke to them about the treasured items they carry with them and their memories of the things they left behind.

A child's toy
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Masha, 11 years old from Kharkiv

“When I left Ukraine I took my favourite toy with me, a yellow duck named Mickey. It is a very popular toy in Ukraine and I did knit the pullover for it myself. I was happy to arrive here and play with it as during the escape the duck remained inside our bags. My favourite thing to do in my city is to play with my dog at home. In school, I study 5th grade and I really love maths.”

Masha escaped Kharkiv together with his four brothers and both parents. They drove their own car most of the way, but then abandoned it on the Ukrainian side of the border as they felt people inside Ukraine needed it more than them. They crossed the border into Siret on foot.

“We have a very good feeling when we crossed into Romania as we felt finally safe, volunteers since then have helped us in everything, and now we are travelling to Germany as we are very unsure about the future of our country,” Masha says.

A paper with writing
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Yurii, 6 years old from Chernivtsi

“I wrote my name and my telephone number as well as the names of each of my kids on a piece of paper many days ago and I put the paper in a pocket of each of the jackets of my three kids. Something could happen to me and they could get lost,” says Yurii’s mother, Tonya.

Tonya, 29, took Yurii, 6, and his two brothers, Eugen, 9, and Volodymyr, 3, and escaped their home in Chernivtsi, near the border with Romania. Yurii's aunty Oksana, 29, also left with them. The family is travelling to Portugal. “Not many people escaping Ukraine are choosing Portugal as their final destination, that is why we chose it. I think it will be easier there for us to find an apartment and a job. I am an English teacher,” Tonya says.

Yurii says, “I love to draw at home and play hide and seek with my brother. I attend pre-school and I am a good student. I have been drawing since we left and as I don’t know how to write I asked my mother to write 'Please do not attack Ukraine' in my drawings."

Although Chernivtsi was relatively safe, the city is running low on supplies, without much food or petrol and everything increasing in cost. "So it was time to leave," Tonya says.

“I have told my kids that we are doing a treasure hunt through different countries as well as exploring new territories. I have also explained to them about the war: 'In war, there are good and evil people, they can show the worst of them and they destroy things in our cities and this is wrong,'” Tonya explains. “I packed the essentials many days ago, medicines, documents and water and just a few clothes for the travel. Everything was ready in case we needed to leave our home urgently.”

Wool and knitting needles
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Radmila, 12 years old from Dnipro

“I would love to tell my grandmothers (Olga and Ludmila) not to be afraid; they are still in Ukraine," says 12-year-old Radmila. "Please both be strong. Please do not panic, things will be ok very soon again in Ukraine.

“I study 7th grade in school and I love to study English. Dance and knitting are my favourite things to do during my free time. Kira is my best friend and we love to hang around our house. I spoke to her last time when I crossed the border. I love to try new things and as I cannot go anymore to school, I try to learn on my own, it is like I am learning to knit and now I love it. I am now making clothes for some toys that I have. I love to be creative," she says.

Radmila travelled to Romania with her mother, Ludmila, 38.

"My father drove us to the border and left us there as he went back," she says. Men between 18 and 60 cannot leave Ukraine as they are called on to fight to defend Ukraine, but Radmila is not aware of this. "I am very sad as my father is not here with us.”

Back in Dnipro, the family did not hear sirens, but the information and updates they received on a group on Telegram made them make the decision to leave. “There is a conflict between two countries, I don’t understand how an adult can do things like the ones happening in my country, I don’t understand what happens in his mind honestly. Other people say that Putin is bored so he decided to do this," Radmila says.

The family will travel to Bucharest and stay there with a friend, hoping the war will end soon and they will be able to return home.

“The first thing that I will do when I will be back home will be to see my dad again and also to meet some of my friends who are also family to me.”

A math book
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Maxim, 8 years old from Kyiv

“I love maths in school where I study 3rd grade. Together with my mom Anna, we left our city on the second day of the war," says 8-year-old Maxim.

That day at 4am a Russian drone was shot down near their home and the sound horrified them. "We were really scared. So, we moved to my grandparent’s home where many of our relatives were also taking shelter. It was when [we were] all together we decided to leave the country.”

Anna, 34, works as an accountant for a German company in Ukraine; the company offered her the chance to relocate to Germany where she will travel with Maxim after crossing the Siret border in Romania.

Maxim loves to play football in the streets near his favourite place in Kyiv, "The Park of Partisan Glory" and says he planned to start ice skating before the war started and stopped those plans.

“I understand there is a war in Ukraine, and Russia is destroying our houses and killing our people, many things are happening now in Ukraine, and I would love this war to be over," he says.

"I left a game on my computer when I left home (Minecraft) and I cannot wait to come back and play it again, but the first thing that I will do when I will be back will be to go to see my grandparents and play with them.”

Hands holding coins
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Misha, 11 years old from the Khmelnytskyi region

“Every time I hold these coins, I think about my father who is in Ukraine," says 11-year-old Misha. "The coins make me feel closer to him, I held the coins all the time during the escape.”

Misha escaped Ukraine together with his mother Oksana, 38, and his grandmother Tatiana, 72. They crossed into Romania, and are now planning to relocate to France where some family friends live.

“No place in Ukraine is safe anymore. Despite [the fact] there was no bombing around us, we panicked, our country is at war, we were very scared," his mother explains. "Since the beginning of the war, Misha started to protect us and worry a lot about how we feel. He understands what is happening in our country."

“I love to talk to my friends on the computer but I do not talk to them since we left. I loved to run in the streets near my home, especially with my best friend, Sasha. I am not a very good student (he is in 5th grade) but I love to sing," Misha says.

“This coin collection was passed from my grandfather to my father and from my father to me. I did not take all the coins, but I took my favourite one, a 1943 100 Romania Lei."

"I miss my father so much ... The first thing that I will do when we will be back in Ukraine is to give a very big hug to my father.”

A chess board
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Zahar, 11 years old from Chernivtsi

"I will cry and be sad in Belgium as my dad and my grandfather are still in Ukraine and they are the best thing that I have in my life," says 11-year-old Zahar.

"I started playing chess when I was 7 years old, but I also love to play other board games and cards. I normally play with my brother or my dad. I have some friends, but not many real friends."

Zahar escaped Ukraine with his mother Ivana, 36, his brother Nazar, 7, and his cousin Igor, 13. Together they are waiting for a train at the Suceava train station that will take them to Bucharest and from there they will travel on to Belgium, where Zahar's grandmother lives.

"I love to watch TV and play outside; studying English is very difficult but maths is amazing. I am not sure what I will be in the future but I would love to work building things. We still study online every morning using the phone.

"The first thing that I will do when I will be back in Ukraine is to visit all my relatives there."

A child's toy truck
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Yura, 6 years old from Chernivtsi

“I love to play with cars but this orange tank is now my favourite one,” says 6-year-old Yura, who is travelling with his mother Yrina, 32.

“I would ask the European countries to help Ukraine to be again a country in peace very soon. We would love to return to our country very soon,” says Yrina. Their city is only a few kilometres away from the border. “There were not many people queueing yesterday so we crossed very fast, but Yura’s father stayed there. Originally, we wanted to go to the Polish borders, but queues there are very long and people wait for days to cross. We are now going to Bucharest and from there to Rome. Madrid in Spain is our final destination as we have relatives there.”

Yura says: “I love maths and solving problems. I study 1st grade in school, and playing football is my favourite thing. Skating also on the street of my city is fun. I have so many friends, but Vlad is my best friend. We don’t talk since I left Ukraine.”

A fist
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Myron, 17 years old from Donetsk

“I would have liked to stay and fight for my country but I am 17, not 18,” says Myron. “I remember saying many times during the escape that I wanted to stay and join the army to defend my country, but I did not want to worry my mother so I followed her, I learned that family is more important than the country in those days.

"My mother was very scared, especially when a rocket exploded near our home and shattered our windows. That was the moment [we decided] to leave our country. It took two days to arrive in Romania. I travelled with my sister, mother and grandmother from our city, Donetsk. It was a very hard trip, almost impossible to sleep, children were crying, dogs barking everywhere."

Music is also a big part of Myron's life.

“Rap has been my life since I was 15 when I met another guy in my city who introduced me. Now I write songs that speak about love, my life, cars, money…I am not sure If I will write about the current situation, I really need to think deeply about it," he says.

“Music has helped me to deal with the situation, it made me escape from everything including this war, music really transforms me and calms my nerves, it helps me a lot psychologically,” he adds.

About the war, he says: “We did not want this; Russia has attacked my country.

"Of course, we would love to come back one day to Ukraine, if there is something still standing. But now I am thinking that I should stay here in Romania and study, we will see ... I wish for peace in my country, all is about politics and for that reason peaceful normal people are dying in Ukraine.”

A child's toy sheep
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Matviy, 6 years old from Lviv region

“I don’t know where my friends are, I did not speak to them since we left home, I know only that everyone went to different parts of the world," says 6-year-old Matviy.

Matviy studies pre-school and loves to play football at a playground near his home. His mother says he is very polite at school, which is very different to how he behaves at home.

“We did not take many things with us when we left home as we thought that we will come back soon. We moved to Chernivtsi with my parents many days ago and now we are leaving our country with almost nothing from our home. I have brought my sheep with me; I love to play with it," he says.

Matviv crossed into Romania with his mother, a cousin and his two brothers. From there they will travel together to Germany where an aunt lives.

“I would love to be a soldier one day," he says.

A child's drawing
[Photo by Omar Havana]
[Photo by Omar Havana]

Drawing by Marc, 11 years old

"I think toys can represent kind of what [children have] left behind. It can represent security, something familiar in a really unfamiliar place where they don't know what's going to happen," says Georgina Campbell, a mental health and psychosocial support technical advisor at International Medical Corps. She spent time along the Polish border with Ukraine, where refugees are also fleeing, and says she was touched to see many young children travelling through carrying small suitcases with cherished toys or objects.

Campbell says it is also important to be mindful of what children are exposed to because their imaginations can run away with it, as is evidenced by some drawings she has seen of bombs and tanks.

But, "it expresses something," she adds. "A picture is telling you something about how they're feeling, where they're at. And then I think it comes to the adults to kind of sit down with them and sort of be the safe space.

"I think when anybody feels a conflict ... what everybody is looking for [is] a better sense of control, a better sense of security, and a better sense of the familiar.”

Source: Al Jazeera