When the war in Ukraine broke out, Kateryna, a mother of two, quickly packed up some essentials – diapers, clothes – and left the family home in the village of Kryukivshchyna, close to Kyiv. She didn’t take much. She didn’t think she needed to.
“We left everything, because it didn’t feel like we were leaving home. I never imagined that we wouldn’t go back. The apartment was a huge part of our life. We’ve lived there since our children were born,” she says through tears.
“It’s cool there,” says Mykyta, 6, her eldest son. “My bed is there and lots of toys. I miss my best friend, Danya. He invited me to his house for his birthday. He always invites me everywhere.”
This year, the two boys aren’t getting together to celebrate. When Kateryna fled in February with her two sons and her sister, she went to stay with her parents, in Khmelnytskyi, western Ukraine. At her parents’ home, she would watch the news as it showed footage of bombed residential buildings. One day, she recognized her own neighborhood.
But it wasn’t safe at her parents’ house either. She remembers how the noise from low-flying helicopters frightened the children, and that neighbors saw a rocket fly past a window. “I saw fear in my children’s eyes and made my decision.” In early March, she left Ukraine and headed to Poland with her younger sister Daryna, Mykyta, and one-year-old son Matviy.
Building a new life in Poland and accessing health services
Poland has welcomed more Ukrainian refugees than any other country – almost 1.4 million people have registered there. Many are children, so their needs are at the heart of the refugee response.
Kateryna quickly registered the children at UNIMED Medical Center in Kraków, close to their home, keen for both her boys to receive the vaccinations they need.
“I believe that vaccination is important for children, for the entire population of the country,” she says. “I think even during the war, we shouldn’t stop, because dangerous diseases are still nearby.”
To help with the increased demand for vaccinations, UNICEF is supplying additional vaccines to Poland. Dr. Iwona Paciepnik says that these free vaccinations are helping to reach more Ukrainian children. “It encourages parents and speeds up the process.” she says. “We see many children at the age of two or three who haven’t received a single dose. In our clinic, we are starting vaccinations for children of all ages.”
Dr. Paciepnik values the impact of vaccines, both as a professional and as a parent. “My own son is vaccinated. It’s important. I can’t protect him from a lot of things in this world, but I can protect him from preventable diseases.”
Making new friends and building confidence on the football field
In addition to getting the vaccinations her children need, Kateryna is also focused on making sure her two boys can participate in activities they enjoy and that they make new friends. “Mykyta is so sociable that he’ll find friends everywhere,” she says. “I found an advertisement for a football club. It turned out that the coach is from Ukraine, and he is a neighbour.”
The coach, Oleksandr, runs the club at the Interschool Sports Center. As well as trying to give children the opportunity to play football, he’s also committed to supporting children’s overall wellbeing by helping them make friends by participating in sports.
“Some children were shy, some were more communicative,” he says. “But over time, everyone adjusted, and now parents tell us that their children happily run to training. As it’s a team game, they become friends, they help each other.”
New beginnings at a new school
While Kateryna is happy that Mykyta is meeting other children, she has been worrying about what’s next for his education. Over the summer, she says she wasn’t even sure where Mykyta’s first day of class would be. Like so many parents who have been forced to uproot their children, Kateryna was finding it difficult to make plans amid the constantly changing situation. Still, she tried to ensure her son at least kept up with some basics by helping him practice the alphabet and encouraging him to learn some Polish.
Mykyta is now enrolled in one of three new schools that have been set up by a foundation called Unbreakable Ukraine, which UNICEF supports. The founder, Viktoriia Gnap, says the first day was “fantastic and festive”.
“I’ll tell my friends that I was in school. I’ll say that it’s big, bright and sunny,” Mykyta says, as he tours the building shortly before opening.
At the park, the teachers have arranged some games and activities to ease the children in gently to their new academic life. “We choose methods and activities that allow the children to mentally relax, be united and feel supported,” says Natalija Makarenko, herself a refugee.
Makarenko taught in Ukrainian classrooms for almost 20 years, so she knows firsthand how significant it is for these children to be back in school. “Today is an important day. I am with the children. We speak, we exchange thoughts, we hug – we continue to live,” she says.
Mykyta’s school is Ukrainian. “It provides uninterrupted access to the Ukrainian curriculum, for the kids and parents who plan to return to Ukraine,” explains Gnap.
But there’s more demand than these new schools can meet, for now. Each of Unbreakable Ukraine’s three schools have around 500 available places, but received over 7,000 applications.
UNICEF and the Polish education system have also partnered to enroll refugee children in Polish schools. UNICEF is providing equipment and support for teachers in these schools, in addition to assisting children who are choosing to continue to follow the Ukrainian curriculum online. For those children, Unbreakable Ukraine is also offering evening classes and Saturday school.
“Face to face studies and other activities help children to adapt to a new reality and build a new normalcy,” Gnap says. “A lot of parents say when they see their kids’ happy faces this helps them to heal a lot too.”