Escaping war: What Ukraine’s children carry with them

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Escaping war: What Ukraine’s children carry with them

More than half of Ukraine’s children are now displaced from home.

According to UNICEF, of the country’s 7.5 million children, 2 million have crossed into neighbouring countries as refugees and 2.5 million are internally displaced.

They have left their homes, friends, families, and lives behind.

“War suspends the children’s childhood; it’s life-changing to leave everything you know and love and see things being shut up and [torn] to pieces,” says Ane Lemche, a child psychologist for Save The Children, speaking over video call from Denmark.

“Children sometimes flee with the clothes on their back in the middle of the night and they have lost many of the things that used to be normal things in their life,” Lemche says. “So, in the short term, some children will experience anxiety and stress, and definitely confusion, some of them loss of memory, loss of ability to concentrate and focus on things.”

“I know there is a war in Ukraine, but I am not sure what the word war means,” says 11-year-old Nastya who, together with her mother and aunt, escaped their home city in western Ukraine for neighbouring Romania, before they make their way to Turkey. “In Ternopil it was safe, we had prepared a backpack in advance in case we needed to leave urgently. One day my family decided it was time to leave Ukraine. I know people are killed,” she says.

The UN says that 90 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the war are women and children. The Ukrainian government does not allow most men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country, needing them to remain in Ukraine to fight.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled into Romania via the border crossing into Siret. Valerian, a 6-year-old from Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, arrived there with his mother and some friends after three days of travelling. They are on their way to Germany.

“I would love to be a soldier like my grandfather,” he adds, building a gun out of LEGO bricks he found while waiting after crossing the border. “I love to play with LEGO and build things, I did not take any toys with me so I was happy to find LEGO here and build this gun.”

Valerian spent two days in the basement of an apartment building with his family after their home was bombed and their neighbour’s daughter was killed. “In our city, it used to be a place like a refinery, I loved to play there, now it does not exist, the Russians bombed it,” he says.

Conflict, violence and insecurity can have major psychological effects on children. Unless appropriate support is provided, their distress can last well beyond the end of the conflict, psychologists say.

Lemche says that children who have just fled a war need more structure around them, a calm environment, and people who are kind – which will help them be more grounded in their feelings.

“They will also need to have something that they can touch as toys or something to hold up, as they will feel that there is something that they can control or they can understand,” she adds.

Many of the families who escaped Ukraine packed only their most essential things, some forgetting the toys and other items belonging to their children. Those children who managed to escape with their most precious item embrace it as if their life is inside their favourite toy, book or object. That item represents what they loved so much and left behind. Those who were not able to bring something with them, embrace the first toy offered to them by the volunteers who greet them after crossing the border.

“Children use toys and other items for different reasons when they are fleeing from war,” says Lemche. “One way they help is by giving them a sense of grounding and coherence, it shakes their mind of what they have experienced, it puts them in a situation where they can focus on something else, alleviating the stress for a while. Also, they remind them of someone that they care about but who is not with them, this could be a way to feel connected or close to someone that they need to have close by and they don’t.”

In Suceava, Romania, Al Jazeera met children fleeing Ukraine’s war and spoke to them about the treasured items they carry with them and their memories of the things they left behind.