March 7 2014

Stress brings back old fears in Ukraine

“It wasn't easy to explain the situation to the children, because they saw my eyes and they saw the eyes of the people on TV,” says SOS mother Valya from Ukraine.

For more than two months the political situation in Ukraine has been unstable. The insecurity has cascaded down to each and every family in Ukraine. “It's tense; you can feel the instability in the air. Everybody’s emotional situation is unstable,” says SOS mother Valya from SOS Children's Village Brovary, less than 20 kilometres from Kiev, where the instability started.

Girl at SOS Children's Village Brovary, Archive 2013.
Inevitably the news hit the village in Brovary like a lightning bolt. “Children do not live in a vacuum - they go to school and they watch TV and they hear about the situation in Kiev. They asked why people are being killed,” Valya says. “We explained as well as we could and our main aim was to keep the youngsters in the village; otherwise they would have gone there, to the Maidan Square” [the epicentre of anti-government protests in Kiev].
Due to the incidents on Maidan Square, Ukrainians are suffering from all the feelings associated with concern about an insecure future. Children are particularly vulnerable to such emotions – especially children with bad experiences in the past.
Appalled mothers
“Elderly people suffer from high blood pressure, there are many heart attacks nowadays,” says the SOS Children’s Village director, Olena Bilyk. “It's impossible to find vitamins or tranquilizers at the pharmacy.”
Everybody experiences stress and sleepless nights.
The village director adds: “Children notice such events. How can they avoid that? To go to school they have to pass the centre of Brovary, where there were also meetings and violence.
As the violence spread, life stopped - the roads to and from Kiev were blocked, families limited their outdoor activities, children stopped going to hobby groups.
Witnessing the whole situation is affecting children quite severely. “My own 5-year-old son doesn't sleep anymore and cries a lot more,” says Bilyk. “We can only imagine how the children who have witnessed violence in their own family feel when they hear about the deaths and see an appalled mother or a co-worker.”
Old fears come back
“In a stressful situation old memories come back to them, in one word: fear,” says SOS mother Valya. “I can say that all my children - no matter what age - are stressed out, they have problems sleeping and when we asked them to draw themselves they draw themselves as tiny children; it's like they are trying to hide.”
The village tried not to hide from the situation and organised more activities and therapies; especially for children, who were becoming aggressive.
“The security of the village was tightened so we would know every minute what is happening on our territory,” says Bilyk. “Mothers forbid children to go outside of the village territory; our students didn’t go to universities and schools in Kiev.”
The children stayed more at home and needed more support than usual. “Every day I had to talk about what’s going on and calm them down, lift their spirits,” says Valya. “The topic still arises, even when we are doing homework together. I talked to each and every child in a way that they would understand. It wasn’t easy because the children saw my eyes and they saw people’s eyes on Maidan, on TV.”
Fear of war
It doesn’t appear as though the situation has calmed down or that the instability in the country is going to end soon. According to some people the police is not functioning. “You could say that there is a feeling of impunity in Ukraine right now,” says Olena Bilyk.
Instability causes panicking; everybody wants to secure their future. Not just by the week, but by the day, prices are changing; money loses its value in hours, gas prices have gone up at least 30%; for some food articles the price has even doubled.
For a country where 8% of the population is without a job and the unemployed get support of less than €100 per month, the situation is difficult to swallow. Prices going up quickly could increase the number of people living below the poverty line – it’s 35% at the moment; just one percent less than in Afghanistan. An increase in poverty seems likely, especially when considering that the average salary doesn't exceed €250, while the costs of living are comparable to those in Western countries.
“It's the fear of war that people feel,” says Olena Bilyk. “It's very difficult to buy bread from a shop - people buy for spare, because they see the prices are going up; many still remember the war and the hunger. People also buy sugar and wheat products in large quantities,” she says, adding that the village has managed to make arrangements so they get bread.
Peaceful country, peaceful family
But the stress is still there; the whole country is waiting to see what will happen. A few weeks ago demonstrations and meetings happened in Kiev, and the eastern part of the country was calm.  Now it is the other way around.
As usual in those circumstances there are numerous rumours spreading. Last month the pensions and child subsidies were delayed for 10 days; now the rumour is that it’s not impossible that the pay-outs will be cancelled.
SOS mothers in the village have gathered food in reserve and they look after each other more than they used to. “We were friends before all of this happened, but now we are much closer,” says SOS mother Valya. “The children have become more mature in the last month. We hope for the best. If everything is peaceful in the country, it means it’s peaceful also in my family. We are alive and we continue raising the children.”