What Ukrainian children need amid the trauma of war


According to the United Nations, two-thirds of children in Ukraine have been displaced from their homes, with the two-month-old conflict showing no signs of resolution. Many of these children live in bunkers as their towns and villages are bombed; those who fled to neighboring countries also face emotional trauma.

Iryna, 31, was still on maternity leave with her firstborn when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated. She evacuated to Poland with her sister and their children, leaving behind their husbands since the men were not allowed to cross the borders.

Photo: Francesco Pistilli for the IRC

Meeting the unique needs of children is an important part of IRC’s work with local partners in Ukraine and Poland, where more than 2.9 million Ukrainian refugees have found refuge. Go inside our answer.

Children in the face of war

Children who have arrived in Poland in recent weeks have seen and heard terrible things. Many had to take shelter underground as attacks intensified around them.

“The trauma may not show up right away,” says Heather Macey, who led IRC’s initial response in Poland. “But then you go to a [refugee] reception center, and there is silence. The children do not play. It is not normal.

IRC staff and partners have also heard of numerous incidents of children crying or wetting themselves as a result of the trauma they have endured.

Exposure to trauma can have a lasting impact on a child’s health and future. This includes the risk of ‘toxic stress’, a biological response to prolonged and severe adversity that disrupts a child’s brain development.

Separated families

Men of military age are not allowed to leave Ukraine, meaning many women and children forced to flee the country travel alone. “The mental and physical toll of conscription, which caused the separation of millions of families, was immense,” Macey said.

Many women arriving in Poland and other countries as refugees may find themselves on the fringes without local contacts, language skills or employment opportunities that will allow them to support their children.

Two women and four children stand together in winter coats, facing the camera.

Sisters Marta* and Oksana* fled violence in Ukraine and the only home they have ever known. “[Our husbands] left us at the border, and now they’re coming back because someone has to protect [Ukraine]. We decided that we had to protect the children so they could grow up because they are our future.”

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

Based on the IRC’s experience in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict contexts, we know that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in a crisis like this.

When the IRC surveyed Ukrainian refugees in Poland, 28% said they were at risk of human trafficking, while 19% had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence.

Many refugees fear that the situation will get worse. Of those surveyed, 36% feared their families would be further separated. Mothers said the psychological impact of the crisis on their children has been devastating.

A safe space for children

The IRC works with local partners and the Polish government to set up services for traumatized children, including what we call safe healing and learning spaces. These provide a caring and predictable environment where children can go during the day.

“They will have a much better prognosis if we can work with them and support their mothers immediately,” Macey says. “If we don’t, it can take months or years for children to overcome and process these emotions.”

In Warsaw, this approach will be a springboard towards the full integration of children into the school system. The IRC will also partner with a local organization focused on transitioning children within schools, ensuring a complementary approach. The children will be assigned assistants who will support them during their installation in the Polish classes.

IRC’s response

In Poland, in addition to our safe spaces for children, we work with local partners to provide refugees with psychological and legal support and translation services. We are preparing to provide cash assistance. We are also providing essential items including sleeping bags as well as medical equipment to health teams operating at border posts and refugee reception centres.

A young boy holding a cat sits on a bag next to his sister, who is kneeling on the ground.

Maxim*, 8, and his family stayed in Ukraine as long as they could so that his 4-year-old sister with special needs could continue her treatment. But when his hospital began to be overwhelmed with the wounded from the conflict, his doctor told them to flee to Poland where there was a hospital that could help them. Now safe in Poland, they hope to return home and rebuild their lives.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

In Ukraine, we are working with our partners to support evacuation efforts for women and children and to provide psychological care and other forms of support to people forced from their homes by violence. We are also providing displaced families with groceries, blankets, warm clothes, stoves, cash and other essentials.

But what Ukrainian children need most is to be home with their whole family and to be safe.

“Civilians, especially women and children, must be protected at all costs,” Macey said. “The ultimate solution is in Ukraine; we need an immediate ceasefire and an end to the violence.

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