Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, right, meets Ukrainian refugee children at Paradisbakken school in Nexoe, as she visits the island of Bornholm in Denmark. File/Associated Press
Carey Mulligan, The Independent
My role as War Child global ambassador has taken me to various conflict zones around the world – but since the conflict in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, there has been something especially unsettling about this conflict being on our doorstep. Meeting children and families forced to flee their homes, when the context is so similar to the country where you live makes you acutely aware of the privileges of family, peace and safety.
Our trip took us to a small town in western Ukraine to visit the Blaho Community Centre, a re-purposed restaurant building run by an inspiring and resolute woman named Eleonora.
The centre houses around one hundred Roma refugees at any given time, some who pass through relatively quickly and some who have been there since the very start of the conflict. Around half of the residents are children. It’s so much more than a haven, it’s literally a lifeline for those who have experienced the trauma and stress of war, and the exhaustion and chaos of a journey to find safety. Many families sleep in cars if they are lucky to have one; it is more typical to find some kind of shelter in a railway station.
War Child has been funding the centre since the war began — so that families have somewhere safe and warm to stay, access to nutritious food and cash (voucher) assistance for those families on the brink. With the daily essentials that every child needs in place, the work that War Child specialises in can begin.
It goes without saying that children who have witnessed the most appalling atrocities that are common in war need bespoke help to be able to process that stress and trauma. Whether it’s losing a family member, watching your home crumble around you or being away from any kind of normality like school, friendships, books and toys — this all takes its toll. These are the essential building blocks of any childhood.
In order to have any sense of recovery, or to be able to grieve, children need to get this childhood back as quickly as possible. Our cornerstone in crises like these is making sure that there are educational catch-up classes. Without an education, children have no hope for the future and we risk losing an entire generation.
Equally important are the art therapy sessions that I saw — a tried and tested technique to get children to articulate what’s going on inside. So the child who is silent and will not talk can begin to find their voice. Or the child who is demonstrating aggressive behaviour has an outlet to process their grief.
Eleanora is the beating heart of the Blaho Community Centre. She has been a dedicated humanitarian for nearly 20 years working with Roma populations, and when the war erupted in the west of the country, she wanted to establish a dedicated centre to house families fleeing the fighting. Here staff receive psychological first aid training to ensure residents have support when needed and there is a dedicated psychologist who visits the centre three times a week to work with the people who live there.
Under Eleanora’s management, the centre is clean, bright and warm with a welcoming atmosphere. As nicely kept as the centre is, resources are modest and 30 to 50 people still sleep on mattresses in an old dining room. Everyone here is working through very real trauma, as well as a lifetime of exclusion. That’s because the majority of the people at the centre come from marginalised Roma communities.
Historic racism has meant that they are extremely vulnerable; for example children are not always able to attend school if they are Roma and it is notoriously difficult for adults to find work. It was very clear to me that if it weren’t for this centre many of these people would have nowhere else to go. Families like Andriy* and his two daughters Nataliya* and Sofiy*. His wife was killed in the shelling and he is now raising his two young daughters alone.
Their story is deeply moving, devastating to witness. But here at the Blaho Community Centre, the family have the determined support of Eleanora and her colleagues — to help Andriy to parent the girls and support them through the horrific circumstances they find themselves in. These are stories we might have heard reported many times. It’s an unimaginable circumstance to imagine for my own children. And as I sit across them and see their grief — there is the realisation that life without this centre would be unthinkably tough.
A huge amount of effort from both staff and parents goes into maintaining hope and positivity for the children. It’s a colourful place, and it was amazing to see the results of the art therapy sessions on the walls — with messages like “I want to be back home” and “we dream about sun without clouds, and peace”.
It’s clear that the children long for their homes and that the safety and security of the centre is enabling them to dream of a more positive future. But watching so many children flinch as the air raid sirens went off, I was reminded just how much they will need to overcome as they start to heal and, rebuild their lives.
On the same trip we visited a centre in Budapest that currently sits in sharp contrast to the centre we visited in Ukraine. It hasn’t had the funding over the last year that it needs to adequately support the 100 residents occupying the building, though I am relieved to learn it will soon benefit from War Child’s support.
The gravity of the situation felt heavy here. These children and their parents are traumatised and unable to access the help they need to begin to process what they have been through. Mothers shared their concerns over the poor health of their children due to living conditions, as well as the other behavioural issues they are seeing unfold in their young ones.
We heard from one mother that her four-year-old boy is showing signs of depression and has stopped eating or sleeping. Another told us that her six-year-old is now traumatised by crowds and has a phobia of being around groups of people, meaning she finds going to school impossible. The common theme all the mothers we spoke to mentioned was the stress of the past year, and the unseen effects this had on their children.
I recall one little girl who clung to me for the last hour we were there — she was overflowing with energy like she had everything that had happened in the last year bottled up with nowhere to put it. I thought she was about four years old, but I was told she was actually seven. In that moment, I realised that her behaviour and demeanour was showing me the true and damaging effect of her experiences.
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