With its large windows, piles of textbooks and photos on the wall, classroom 10A at #10 Toretsk secondary school looks like any other in Ukraine. However, just two years ago, the bell here rang not only for classes but for immediate evacuation to a bomb shelter. In the space of just one year, between 2014 and 2015, the school was damaged by shelling at least four times. Now, workshops organised by UNICEF with the support of the Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations are helping students at Toretsk – located just kilometres from the contact line – to overcome the daily trauma.
"I remember very well what children were like in the beginning of the war," says 10A’s teacher Natalia Tsenkova. "They were like mice – quiet and withdrawn, with fear always in their eyes. All of us, both the children and the teachers, were living day to day."
Natalia often had to calm the children down as she helped them into the school bomb shelter. But teachers were also afraid, especially during the first year of the conflict when their school was damaged by shelling and the impact shattered the windows. _"The first times the shelling happened, it was a shock for us,"_ she recalls._ "I needed to try as hard as I can not to show them that I am afraid as well, and to smile when we were going down to the basement."_
Learning to Live Together
"All homeroom teachers from our school took part in a UNICEF workshop called ‘Learning to Live Together’" she says. "We learned to help children deal with stress, help them talk it out, not withdraw from the others. Now, we always play and have competitions. I tell them funny stories, so that they would forget about the war."
She even turned one of her classes into a tea party. "Children love my shortcrust pastry pie," she says, smiling. _"And they always ask me whether I’m bringing it for the tea party again. And every time I stay up late making it for them. It has already become a tradition."_
"We had an interesting workshop," says Mykyta. "We needed to choose one image out of many and talk about our associations with it. Trainers helped us open up, and everybody was speaking about their dreams and feelings. It was really touching. Many of us were crying." Mykyta Kondratenko, 16, was among those transferred to a different class after 367 of his peers left as a result of the conflict. He says it was easy for him to become a part of 10A and make new friends, thanks to a UNICEF workshop on life skills.
Psychosocial distress stemming from the conflict continues to impact children, their parents and educators, and psychosocial support remains a critical need.
In 2017, ten teachers from #10 Toretsk school received UNICEF's 'Learning to Live Together' life skills training. These workshops helped to reduce aggression and anxiety in students, through teaching and learning methods that were learner-centred, active, participatory and varied. The games and activities helped both students and teachers to relax, and resulted in greater openness, confidence, tolerance and team spirit among children.
These workshops are part of a bigger programme being rolled out in 66 educational institutions across eastern Ukraine by UNICEF, with European humanitarian aid support, that help to strengthen the resilience of over 13 800 children and adolescents living on both sides of the contact line.
Mykyta still worries about the conflict in Ukraine and his family, especially his younger brother. _"My brother Glib is only nine, we go to school together. We are very close. That’s why, during shelling, I am most worried about him. I even think that it was easier for Glib to spend nights in the shelter, because I was always worried about my family and relatives. And he was younger, so he didn’t quite understand what was going on."_
For him, like hundreds of other children, the workshops have offered structure, stability and hope for the future. _"After you talk it out, it gets better,"_ he says, firmly.