30 August 2017

Ukraine: Working on both sides of a conflict

SOS Children’s Villages supports families ‘in places where pharmacies closed, where there are no jobs’

SOS Children’s Villages offers activities as well as social and emotional care for children. Photographer: Katarina Ilievksa

Since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, SOS Children’s Villages has played a vital role in helping vulnerable children and is one of the few organisations offering comprehensive support for families.

SOS Ukraine’s emergency programme works in the eastern city of Luhansk, which is under independent control, as well as in the Starobilsk and Sievierodonetsk in the area of Luhansk province that remains under Ukrainian administration. It also assists families who have fled conflict zones and are now living near Kiev.
 
The emergency programme provides emotional and health care, family strengthening, humanitarian help, educational support, and activities for children.
 
In an interview, four SOS Ukraine colleagues talk about their work under challenging circumstances.

Inna Zmaga is an SOS Children’s Villages social worker in Starobilsk. She spends part of her time as a member of a mobile team operating in areas of the Luhansk region that are under Ukrainian control.

What are your main responsibilities as a member of the mobile team?

Several times a month we conduct field visits. There are seven people in the mobile team: one psychologist, four social workers, a teacher and a driver. As a team we develop and implement a comprehensive set of activities for families that need social support and assistance. We bring vital social services to remote settlements. While in the field, the team provides recreational services for children; conducts group and individual therapy sessions; and provides humanitarian aid when needed.

How important are these mobile team visits?

We provide assistance in places where pharmacies closed; in places where businesses are destroyed; in places where there are no jobs or any specialists. People thank us for the help. Children and adults are especially enthusiastic about recreational activities.
 
I would like to share a story about the plight of one family that had to flee their home in 2014 because of conflict. Let's call them the Kurylenkos.
 
Misfortune followed the Kurylenkos. On her way to kindergarten one day, the Kurylenkos’ 4-year-old daughter collapsed and appeared to be having an epileptic attack. She was rushed to the regional children's hospital. The doctors found a scar on her head and discovered a tumour on the left side of her brain. Her rehabilitation has been long and exhausting.
 
The girl's illness, the war, limited medical care, the father's unemployment … all this affected the emotional state of all family members. Mother Kurylenko was in a state of acute stress; the girl had increased anxiety; the family was under extreme pressure.
 
We did an assessment and planned further work with them. The individual psychological consultations stabilised the emotional state of all family members and decreased the level of anxiety. The intra-family relations also stabilised. Around this time, the Kurylenkos had a second child. The elder sister became healthier and found new friends.
 
Through our partnership with a Vatican-funded project, we were able to register the father in a regional employment centre. Mother Kurylenko took on an active role in the SOS Children’s Villages Parents' Club. We have also been able to help the family Kurylenko with in-kind help to meet the basic needs of the children, such as food and hygiene packages, children's shoes, clothes, baby food, school supplies, vitamins and medical examinations. They say their life took a turn for the better thanks to SOS Children's Villages.
 
SOS Children's Villages provides mobile services for children in remote communities. Photos by Katarina Ilievska

Maria* is an SOS Children’s Villages psychologist in Luhansk, in an area outside Ukrainian government control.

How important is the work of SOS Children's Villages in these communities?

The work of the SOS Children's Village in the non-government controlled area cannot be appreciated enough. Amidst general depression, unemployment, rise of alcoholism in the society, we are the only organisation that provides a whole range of free psychological and social services for families, social and pedagogical assistance, humanitarian assistance, specialists like speech therapists and psychotherapists, and children's leisure activities like our Playbus activity for children up to 14.

In general, what are the biggest needs of the children and their families in the non-government controlled area?

The biggest needs of families are the most basic ones like food, clothing, and safety. This is all due to the difficult economic situation.

How do you assist children and their families?

At the moment, we are helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder, aggression, fears, and insecurity. We work with them both in groups and individually, depending on the specific need.

Alexey Gelyukh is a psychologist in the Sievierodonetsk office of SOS Children's Villages.

What are the biggest needs of the children and parents you see?

The needs are different. Common for both adults and children are the effects of trauma and the impact of prolonged stress, dealing with grief over loved ones who died in the conflict, loss of homes, of friends, and of a safe and familiar environment left behind when they fled fighting.
 
Many of the parents need help to live through their past and present emotions and traumas. They need to gain stability and confidence in the future. An important issue for many parents is how to raise their children taking into account not only the age and individual characteristics of the child, but also the external factors that come from living in a conflict area.
 
We see a lot of children who have disruptions in their behaviour and communication, manifest aggression and have increased anxiety. Many children experience a decline in their academic performance due to the specific impact of trauma on the cognitive processes. Many began to manifest fears and phobias. Work with children with special needs is a separate important area because in the current situation, their condition has worsened and they need constant help.

You and some of your SOS Children's Villages colleagues were displaced by the conflict. How do you personally cope with the situation?

For me and for my colleagues a great source of therapy is the result of our work, the demand [for our help], the opportunity for professional growth, training opportunities, as well as the chance to take part in events organised by partners. Our families, the team we work with, hobbies – these are all extremely important.
 
SOS Children's Villages has worked throughout the conflict in Ukraine to provide care and protection for children and to support families in need.

Kateryna* is a social worker on an SOS Children's Villages mobile team in the city of Luhansk, outside the control of the Ukrainian government.

How do people react to the support you offer?

Some people are wary and reluctant to make contact. Representatives of international organisations are perceived as unfriendly by some people. But many respond kindly. They thank us for the help in providing information, counselling, or classes for children. Children enjoy the opportunity to relax, to play and get small gifts.

What are the biggest challenges in your work when it comes to reaching out to the children and families in need?

The biggest problem in the work of the mobile team is finding a place for organising activities and ensuring formal arrangements with the host authorities for working with children in schools. All work is built on personal contacts and informal arrangements, which affects the self-awareness of team members, causes feelings of anxiety, stress and uncertainty.
 
* The name was changed to protect the identity of the individual.