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A safe place for Oleksiy: a Ukraine story

Ten-year-old Oleksiy survived days of intense shelling in a basement and then lost his mother. This is his story.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 19 Jun 2024

A classroom full of young children sit on the carpet while their teacher gives them a lesson from the front.

Many children in Ukraine have been out of school for the last two years. Our local partner is helping fill the practical and emotional gaps by providing learning opportunities and mental health support. Credit: Tearfund

When Tearfund’s local partner started its work in eastern Ukraine in 2018, its goal was to bring together local authorities, the community and the church to meet the needs of people who live in the area. Since the war intensified in Ukraine over two years ago, the needs have become greater and the organisation has proved even more vital.

Food, clothing and a warm bath

As life has been overturned for so many people in so many ways, the organisation has been there to provide crucial things that are now missing from people’s lives – everything from food and a warm bath to school for children like ten-year-old Oleksiy* and his sister Kateryna (who is 14).

Oleksiy’s family came to the city where Tearfund’s partner is based after ten days of intense shelling on their home city saw him, his mother and sister and 500 other people crammed together in fear in a basement shelter designed for 50. There wasn’t enough space to sit down properly, there was nothing to eat and nowhere to use the toilet. Oleksiy tells us that the sounds of destruction outside were terrifying and when they boarded the buses to evacuate the city after they left the shelter, he was afraid that the buses would explode too.

‘As life has been overturned for so many people in so many ways, the organisation has been there to provide crucial things that are now missing – everything from food and a warm bath to school for children like ten-year-old Oleksiy’

Grief and loss

Not long after the family left, Oleksiy’s mother died. She’d already been ill and the stress and hardship – especially during the time in the basement – were too much. Oleksiy’s father, David, was left alone to face his grief and care for the children amid extreme trauma and the loss of their home. A few weeks later, David's parents also died.

By the time David, Oleksiy and Kateryna arrived at the centre run by Tearfund’s local partner, the entire family was in a deep depression. Oleksiy could not smile. He avoided contact with everyone. The staff described him at the time as ‘closed off, and deeply missing his mother’. Kateryna was in shock, not interacting at all, not communicating with anyone, angry at the world and blaming her father for everything that happened to them.

Before the move, David had a job in the Donetsk region. He was put on leave until the end of the crisis and now receives minimal pay. The family also receives some money from the state because of being displaced. Altogether, it gives the family around £250 per month to live on.

School, art, therapy and dancing

Tearfund’s partner has been able to be there for the family in a number of ways. Oleksiy attends the Christian school they’ve set up and regularly participates in group art therapy sessions. Over the summer, he was given extra counselling support and, slowly, he has started to interact with people again – talking, taking part in dancing and even hugging some of the other children. Now Oleksiy says he enjoys the learning and feels like the centre is a good place to be. He’s managed to get excellent marks – which he speaks about with pride – and he says he would like to tell God he is grateful that he can play with his friends.

Intensive recovery work is also being carried out with his sister. As a result, she too has become more open, gradually letting people in, and starting to participate more actively in the counselling group, and she and Oleksiy have been attending the local church.

Seeing his children emerging from depression has helped David too and he’s started to engage with the volunteers at the centre. In the summer, they invited him to help at the summer camp to get him involved and build a relationship with him and they continue to offer other practical support to the family (such as clothing and provision for other basic needs).

‘Now Oleksiy says he enjoys the learning and feels like the centre is a good place to be. He’s managed to get excellent marks and he says he would like to tell God he is grateful that he can play with his friends.’

Emotional and practical support for the whole community

Tearfund’s local partner has helped many more people like Oleksiy’s family. For some, the centre is a place to receive food and perhaps a warm bath and clean clothes as they pass through the town searching for safety.

For people in the local community, many of whom have come here to escape the conflict in other parts of the country, the centre provides a place to find emotional and practical support. With most of the schools in the region no longer functioning (or destroyed), the organisation has set up a Christian school where children can come every day. Here, they can get help to do their homework, have time with a psychologist, learn to play the piano or guitar, learn folk dances, and work with an art therapist. At the school, the children are fed three times during the day, and in the evening, they are joined by more children from the surrounding area who come to take part in various clubs aimed at child development. These include subjects such as gardening, carpentry, construction, baking, animal care and IT.

Alongside this, the centre runs weekend classes for mothers with children between two and four years old, where a psychologist, speech therapist and an early years teacher work with the mums and their children. Twice a week, there is a cafe-school for teenagers which facilitates discussions on useful life topics such as: self-esteem; emotional intelligence; how to negotiate; how to set up a business; and how to understand your gifts and talents and apply them.

There is a weekly parenting course, a variety of classes for pensioners and a social bakery which provides 500 free loaves of bread each day for people in need. The centre also has a bathhouse and a laundry for those who don’t have hot water or electricity at home.

Each month, the staff and volunteers at the centre serve around 450–500 children and 400-500 adults, bringing some sense of home and support to thousands of people over the year.

Please join us in prayer for Ukraine and if you would like to give to help ensure that Tearfund can continue to enable work like this, please do so here.

*Names have been changed for protection.

Pray for Ukraine

    • Pray for all those who have lost loved ones and who have been forced to flee their homes. Ask God to comfort them and bring them peace that is beyond understanding.
    • Lift up all those in Ukraine working to ease the lives of the people around them. Pray for continued encouragement and for provision of all the resources they need.
    • Pray for peace and an end to conflict, and that people would be able to return home and rebuild their lives.

Written by

Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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