Ukraine news: how Ukrainian children adjust to life outside a warzone

Sonya Sazonova may be far away from the constant sounds of explosions, screaming and gunfire that has become the grim norm over in Ukraine, but mentally, the 16-year-old still feels that sickening jolt of fear when she thinks of her homeland – and her loved ones who are still there.

‘It is a long and difficult process,’ the 16-year-old tells, as her mother, Tanya, serves as translator. ‘I think I am still adjusting. And it’s only physically that we’re not in Ukraine. We check the news daily. It is difficult as we don’t know how long we will be here, what will happen in the future.’

Sonya and Tanya are among the 5.2 million refugees who were forced to flee Ukraine after Russia invaded the country unexpectedly in February this year.

As lives were uprooted and torn apart in the brutality of warfare, some 104,000 people chose to resettle in the UK in a desperate bid to seek sanctuary as missiles and bombs rained down upon their homes.

While the horror, fear and displacement of war (particularly a conflict that no one thought could ever really happen) is exceedingly difficult to comprehend at any age, it can be especially traumatising on young people, who have had to leave behind almost everything they’ve ever known for a new, alien country.

The sudden and huge upheaval for children, particularly from such horrific conditions, can be hard for them to verbalise, explains Rachel Fairhurst, a psychologist and specialist in trauma and PTSD.

‘When a child or teenager is exposed to ongoing traumatic events, such as a war, it results in complex trauma,’ she explains. ‘Psychological and pathological changes occur to accommodate and assimilate their experience. Changes will occur on almost every level: emotionally, physically and psychologically.

5.2 million refugees who were forced to flee Ukraine after Russia invaded the country unexpectedly in February this year.(Picture: FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Children may not necessarily have access to the language framework to make cognitive sense of what’s going on, which means the trauma is stored in the body. There’s a physiological explanation of this: blood flow is directed to the right frontal lobe of the brain when a trauma response is activated. This is where strong emotions such as shame, range, guilt and fear are processed.

‘Children will have a high physical and emotional sense of this trauma, but they will not have the ability to put a cognitive framework around it. It results in lots of feelings of intensity.’

A child’s inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation they find themselves placed in, can often lead to difficulties adjusting to new environments.

‘If children are traumatised, they’re always on a high alert,’ Rachel continues. ‘They may find it very hard to engage in the classroom, maintain stable relationships, they could have trust issues.

‘It may get to a point where a child just struggles to feel safe, and may fail to make connections with those around them.’

These difficulties are something Laureen experienced when she was forced to move to the UK from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960, when she was just 12 years old.

After the DRC declared independence from Belgium, Laureen and her family, who were working and living in the area as missionaries, were warned that the government could no longer guarantee their safety.

Laureen and her mother were moved alongside her youngster brothers and sister, while they waited for their father to be evacuated a week later.

Laureen in the early 60s when she fled the Congo

Laureen, pictured bottom left with her siblings and her parents, was forced to flee the DRC when she was just 12 years old (Picture: Supplied)

‘We were given just four hours to leave,’ Laureen, now 74, recalls. ‘It was scary as I had been born in the bush. All I knew was Africa. My parents were originally from England, but I knew nothing about there.

‘It was incredibly tough because I kept hearing about friends and loved ones being massacred in the Congo. We lost a lot of friends.’

After stopping off at Ghana, Morocco and Belgium, Laureen and her family arrived in England after three weeks of travelling. She had mixed feelings about settling in west London.

‘At the time, there was a sense of relief that we were finally safe,’ she says. ‘But there was always an overhanging sense that I just didn’t belong.’

The feeling of isolation only worsened for Laureen when her family had to relocate to Leeds, which at the time, didn’t have the same levels of immigration or cultural diversity as the capital.

I was made to feel like a square peg in a round hole, that I just didn’t fit

‘There was an awful lot more ignorance,’ she says. ‘When I said I was born in Africa, people would turn around and ask why I wasn’t Black. It shocked me, the ignorance amongst white adults. It made me feel awkward and unwelcome.

‘I was made to feel like a square peg in a round hole, that I just didn’t fit. I didn’t have the same level of education as my peers. I didn’t have any arithmetic, I was fluent in French, the English I did speak had an American accent. It meant I was bullied a lot at school.

‘But having grown up in the Congo, I knew how to be tough and resilient.’

Even after nearly 60 years living in Britain, Laureen still doesn’t consider the UK her actual home.

‘I still to this day find I don’t belong,’ she says, with a glimmer of sadness in her voice. ‘It’s worse when people start reminiscing. When my husband talks with his family and they talk about growing up, it’s a conversation I can’t join in as my upbringing was so different. Conversations which are good fun for them are a reminder I just don’t fit here.’

Laureen now, in her 70s

Laureen still doesn’t consider England to be here actual home (Picture: Supplied)

Sonya feels similarly to Laureen. While she is grateful to be safe in Henley, a pretty town in Oxfordshire, it’s a far cry from the comforting familiarity of life she knew in pre-war Ukraine.

‘Of course, living in England is awesome,’ she says. ‘I thought of studying abroad after I finish school. But the circumstances are different. The people are different, the mentality here is different. Things are cool here. There’s great possibilities. But I feel sad sometimes like I do not belong here, I feel non-confident.

‘Comparing Ukraine and England is like asking to compare mom and Angelina Jolie. Of course, Angelina is so beautiful, but my mom is the best because she is my mom. Home is home.’

The language barrier and the significant gap of schooling is something Sonya is finding hard to adjust to.

‘I was learning English at school, so at least I feel more comfortable in this respect,’ Sonya says. ‘I’m speaking English every day with my hosts.

‘But last time I was studying properly was February. I was not able to do Ukrainian online schooling. I did not have laptop or anything else and I was moving from place to place. But I try and keep busy by drawing and painting. I used to dance hip-hop and street styles in Ukraine. Maybe I will find some dance classes here.’

However, with the situation being so precarious, and uncertainty about just how long they are going to stay in the UK, makes things more difficult for Sonya.

‘It is difficult to make plans,’ she says. ‘It has really impacted me. I had to leave home with nothing, literally nothing. Before, I lived my life, I made some plans, big ones like about my future and university, and little ones like saving money for some concert or ordering some present for the coming birthday of my friend. And it feels like somebody just stole all this.

‘It is not material things I miss. I miss my grandma and grandpa, my cat, my relatives, my friends, my normal life. Sometimes it just feels like I need to cry.

‘I understand I need to socialise with other people, especially of my age. But I feel like I need to be on my own.’

Rachel Fairtrust agrees that Sonya’s desire to be alone, and her struggles to process her emotions, are typical of children who have been through hugely traumatic events.

‘Children who have been traumatised may sometimes feel numb and avoidant,’ she says. ‘It’s important to work with the child so they’re not retraumatised by their new environment.’

epa10196288 People walk among debris after night shelling in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, 21 September 2022. Apartment blocks were hit in night shelling on Kholodnohirsky district, Mayor of Kharkiv Ihor Terekhov said on Telegram. Information about casualties was being assessed, he added. The Ukrainian army pushed Russian troops from occupied territory in the northeast of the country in a counterattack. Kharkiv and surrounding areas have been the target of heavy shelling since February 2022, when Russian troops entered Ukraine starting a conflict that has provoked destruction and a humanitarian crisis. EPA/OLEG PETRASYUK

Some cities in Ukraine have been decimated by Russian invaders (Picture: EPA)

Laureen still finds herself affected by her experiences even today, over 60 years later.

‘When we moved to England, people gave us bags of clothes and furniture – we were living off other people’s cast offs,’ she says. ‘Some was nice and some was grotty.

‘Even today, I cannot go into a charity or second hand shop and buy clothes. It’s important for me to choose something new. I think it’s still the trauma of that time. I never throw anything out, and I will wear clothes until they’re fallen apart. It’s something I’ve chosen for me and that I like.

‘I think the experiences I went through made me incredibly resilient. I had to build an inner core of resilience to be able to cope with everything, otherwise I just would have fallen to pieces.

‘If I’m honest, I think my experiences are what pushed me into nursing and working in end of life care. That line of work needs someone solid and strong – and I think people do develop that resilience when they’re put in these situations.’

But the trauma that some experience in these hugely troubling and uncertain scenarios needn’t be a ‘life sentence’, Rachel explains.

A Ukrainian soldier helps a wounded fellow soldier on the road in the freed territory in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Ukrainian troops retook a wide swath of territory from Russia on Monday, pushing all the way back to the northeastern border in some places, and claimed to have captured many Russian soldiers as part of a lightning advance that forced Moscow to make a hasty retreat. (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov)

Ukraine is a warzone, with millions of people fleeing the country (Picture: AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov)

‘If you’re hosting a Ukrainian family with a child who could be traumatised, it’s vital that they’re treated with absolute consistency,’ she says.

‘Having a routine, such as going to school every day, will really help. These children need to feel compassion, kindness, boundaries, warmth, safety and love in order for them to create a sense of stability. If they know the environment they’re in is consistent and safe, they’ll know their surroundings won’t retraumatise them.’

Over 10,000 school places have been offered to Ukrainian child refugees, with the efforts of local councils to ensure children have a safe and consistent environments being described as ‘herculean’ by former Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi.

School has been a lifeline for the studious Yeva Skalietska, who had been living in Kharkiv with her grandmother when the bombing began.

‘I’ve always liked to study,’ she explains. ‘School in this new country is so brilliant, and I love it so much.’

Yeva, who fled with her grandmother to Dublin, may only be 12 years old, but can speak clearly and articulately about the difficulties of the last few months. As she speaks on a Zoom call, she seems far wiser than your typical child in Year 8, factually recalling the grim warzone she ran from.

Yeva sits by a tree, writing in a diary

Yeva, 12, fled to Ireland with her grandmother when Kharkiv was invaded by Russian forces (Picture: Ger Holland)

‘Living in Kharkiv, we never thought this war would happen,’ she says, in accented English. ‘No one believed it would happen. In Kharkiv, we speak Russian. We were just so confused and scared.’

After taking shelter under the apartment she shares with her grandmother – with conditions so poor, they shared one toilet with 40 other people and slept on the dusty floor – Yeva had to trust her grandmother who said they needed to flee the country, heading towards Western Ukraine.

‘We got the train out of Kharkiv and it was full,’ Yeva explains. ‘There were 12 people per room in the coaches, when they usually only admit four. Things were so crowded, people were sleeping on the floor.

‘My grandmother could see explosions but she didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to be panicked. I didn’t want to speak, I was scared.’

Shortly after reaching a safer part of the country, Yeva and her grandmother were aided by journalists who offered to help them seek asylum elsewhere. Due to Yeva’s fluency in English, they decided to travel to the Republic of Ireland, which has taken in nearly 48,000 refugees. They are currently living with a teacher, who is hosting them until they’re given permanent accommodation.

‘Ireland is hard but it’s brilliant,’ Yeva says. ‘I am feeling more hopeful. I have studied English since I was four years old. I always wanted to study in London. And school has been a help since moving here.

Yeva holds up a copy of her book

Yeva has since written a book about her experiences fleeing Ukraine (Picture: Sally Beets)

‘My school is all girls. They made me feel so warm. They explained to me about how classes work and I’ve started making friends with them. I start chatting and I have very good friends. We spend a lot of time together. I really like my teachers. I like lessons but it’s very different from Ukraine. I’m passing all my tests well.’

That’s not to say Yeva’s life is plain sailing, with her grandmother struggling to access medical care upon arrival, and Yeva having to work as a translator.

‘We’re still waiting to receive accommodation and we don’t know how we will pay for it,’ Yeva says. ‘But I am hopeful.’

In an act of catharsis following her escape from Ukraine, Yeva has written a book titled You Don’t Know What War Is, explaining what a warzone was like from her mature, but still childlike, perspective.

Much like Sonya’s artwork, Yeva’s book is her emotional outlet.

‘We are so scared as we are children,’ she says. ‘We didn’t believe a big war would start. I want to keep this diary so in 10, 20 years, I can read it again and remind myself of everything we got through.’

But no amount of writing will ease the pain of Yeva having lost her old life in Ukraine, which she feels has been snatched.

‘We don’t think we can go back,’ she says sadly. ‘We still speak to people who stayed in Ukraine. Everything there is destroyed. We have nowhere to go in Ukraine. Russia has destroyed everything. There’s nothing there for us. It’s so hard to see Ukraine like this – a country so big and beautiful that I used to travel around with my grandmother. Every time I see what happened to my favourite, dear Kharkiv, it makes everything so hard.’

You Don’t Know What War Is (Sterling Publishing) is released in all good bookshops on 25th October.


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