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Traumatised, homeless and alone: the harrowing journey of Ukraine’s refugee children

An estimated 40% of the five million people who have fled Ukraine are children — many of whom arrive in neighbouring countries unaccompanied and afraid

Karina said her baby has been having nightmares and struggles to sleep. Photo: Amber Schultz/Private Media

In the span of just one month, more than 500 children crossed the border out of Ukraine alone at a single border crossing in Siret, Romania. It’s one of the lesser-used border crossings across Europe — just 740,000 refugees have crossed into the country since February 24, compared to more than 2.8 million who have entered Poland. 

It’s estimated children make up 40% of Ukraine’s refugees, though at the start of the crisis that proportion was much higher as parents sent their kids to safety. Some make the tough decision to send their kids across the border alone, forced to stay behind to work, fight or look after family members. Other children have no legal guardians — either orphaned or surrendered by their parents. 

Getting unaccompanied children out of Ukraine is a bureaucratic nightmare. There’s identification and power of attorneys that need to be in place, and the people children go on to stay with have to be vetted. Dozens, if not hundreds, of children crossed the border alone and travelled onwards before social services in host countries could reach them. Others are shuttled into children’s homes, while international NGOs rush to find accommodation for entire orphanages of children.

Those who can leave are often the lucky ones. 

A small child waves a Ukrainian flag as he prepares to make his way to Spain. Photo: Amber Schultz/Private Media

Emergency shelter in Ukraine becomes a home for displaced children

In 2018 there were 12 million children in Ukraine –- 7.8 million of those were aged under 10. As of 2020, there were more than 100,000 orphans across 650 institutions in Ukraine. An estimated 250 are placed into care every day due to abuse, abandonment and impoverished living conditions.  

At least 20 of these surrendered or orphaned children now live at a shelter in western Ukraine, some 50 kilometres from the border of Romania.

The shelter existed before the invasion but is now nearly at capacity as young Ukrainians seek refuge. They’re welcome to stay as long as they like or need. For now, they’re safe: the city has been spared from attacks and no Russian soldiers have gained entry. But for many of the orphans, fleeing isn’t possible, staff say. The kids don’t have any documentation to get across the border. 

There are around 100 residents, more than half of whom are children. The centre focuses on helping those most at-risk — pregnant women, children with disabilities, and families fleeing both domestic violence and war. For security purposes, its location must remain secret.

It’s cheery — there’s a vibrant mural painted on the side of the building. Books line the common areas and a dedicated children’s playroom features bright foam tiles and colourful toys. Babies wail from their bouncers, toddlers with heavy nappies throw plastic balls at one another and mothers give tight smiles, several absentmindedly rubbing their pregnant bellies.

But the colour can’t completely mask the war that rages a few hundred kilometres east. Sandbags line the stairwell window. The day before I visit, the residents spent hours in the basement bunker as nationwide air-raid sirens rang around them. 

Most residents are afraid. Many have mobility issues, young children or are heavily pregnant, and even with the proper documentation fleeing isn’t easy. “I’m really scared for my life,” a 14-year-old girl tells me. She fled with her family and has been at the centre for more than a month, but wants to stay close to her home near Kyiv. “My mother won’t stop crying.” 

Play therapy in Moldova (Image: Amber Schultz/Private Media)Play therapy in Moldova (Image: Amber Schultz/Private Media)
Play therapy in Moldova. Photo: Amber Schultz/Private Media.

A bureaucratic nightmare

Serving Orphans Worldwide organiser Coleman Bailey has been working tirelessly for over a month to get a group of children out of Ukraine. Kids in the east of Ukraine were initially his biggest concern — the second the war broke out, those in the besieged city of Mariupol were transported to accommodation in safer cities.

“They were evacuated at 4am when the invasion began — all they have is a backpack,” he said. He’s still working to organise the documentation, consisting of birth certificates, travel documents and proof of social security to get them out of the country.

The war has been raging for six weeks when I speak to him, and he wishes things could move faster. For the kids who have been taken out of their parents’ custody, each family has to be consulted about where the child will be sent. 

For now, he has a group of 22 kids. They’re crossing by foot across the busiest border crossing in Europe, in Medyka, Poland, where charter buses wait to take the children to accommodation organised by a church in Spain. He’s helped by a Ukrainian volunteer, Olga, who said the kids can stay in Spain as long as necessary.

“They will say altogether. They will not go to different families,” she said. The youngest is three and the eldest is 17. They travel from Ivano-Frankivsk, around 130 kilometres south of Lviv. They haven’t seen fighting — the organisation wanted to get them out before it became too much of a risk.

Organising children’s paperwork has become a large part of Nadia Cretuleac’s day. As the executive director of children protection and social services of the Suceava region of Romania, she’s worked to the bone assisting hundreds of refugee children, on top of her regular job.

Of the 512 unaccompanied children who in March crossed into Siret, Romania, 34 arrived without the necessary documentation to continue their journeys. They were transported to children’s homes for paperwork to be finalised. Their parents have to sign over a power of attorney to the host family or relative, and host families have to be vetted. Five kids are currently still living in nearby children’s homes. 

“We are taking care for the kids to be fed, to have counselling — but the most important thing is for them to be safe,” she said.

Art is seen as an important outlet for refugee children at a community centre in a small village in Moldova. Here, counsellors draw with children and talk them through any feelings or thoughts that come up. 

Most of the art is cute — cats and dogs, love hearts and dinner plates, and a lot of it features religious symbols like crosses. Others draw pictures of Ukrainian flags.

But some art is concerning, consisting of heavy scribbles, a cross on a mound, and names of relatives left behind. Counsellor Elana Cretu from the Moldova Project said many of the kids were incredibly traumatised. 

“Some kids have left Ukraine, gone back then fled again — it gives the impression nothing is safe and they don’t feel secure,” she said.

Nightmares are common, Cretu said — even for babies. One mother Karina tells me her seven-month-old isn’t sleeping; she’s been having nightmares since the war began. 

Cretu lets children guide the therapy sessions. “Sometimes we start to draw and she will see a strange element in the picture and then that will spark a conversation,” she said. Sometimes she asks them to draw their families to assess their relationship or trauma and other times, the kids just draw and play — happy for the distraction.

This piece was originally published by Crikey.

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