When the first explosions sounded in Lutsk, a city in northwestern Ukraine, on February 24, Yulia and her son had nowhere to go. So they hid in the basement, where Yulia tried desperately to explain to her son, who has Down’s syndrome, what was going on.
Nobody was ready for the war,” says Yulia, 37. “The biggest problem for kids like mine with Down’s syndrome is air alerts and sirens. They just don’t understand this terrible sound, which they have never heard before. I talked with my son and explained to him that there is danger, that we have to hide in bomb shelters. I was scared for my child and I had no idea what to do. We didn’t have many options to escape. I was about to give up in despair.”
After months of struggling to cope, Yulia discovered a ‘PORUCH’ project run by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which is aimed at reducing war-related anxiety and providing mental health support and opportunities to connect with peers.
During the meetings, parents can share their worries, while children work with a coach-psychologist who combines sports games with psychological assistance.
Yulia knows how important it is for her son to communicate with others.
“It’s so important for me that these sessions are inclusive,” says Yulia. “My son is meeting new people and learning to interact with other children of his age here. Especially during the war when social connections are limited.”
Another mother, Kateryna, also brings her son Tymofiy to the meetings.
“Before the war, Tymofiy went to a training and rehabilitation centre, as well as attended various sections and clubs,” says Kateryna. “Now they are all closed, so he studies at home online, and also visits classes at the local NGO ‘Down Syndrome’.”
“My son adores sports activities and he was disappointed that his sports club closed when the war started. But it is also a great opportunity for our children to practise the social skills they gained earlier. It is totally about inclusion and socialization.”
Dmytro, a coach and psychologist who works with the PORUCH project, says that children tend to harbour constant background anxiety about the war. Games, he says, can be the key.
“We try to monitor children’s anxieties, check their state, and work with it,” says Dmytro. “With the games, we offer them the opportunity to choose. For example, many children choose the role of a shark during the game. They want to be at the top of this pyramid, so nothing bad happens to them. We allow them to try themselves both in the shark role and in the role of a nice fish Dory. We cheer children up and also make it clear that there are points of reference on which to rely.”