Every time 10-year-old Zakhar heard the school fire alarm, he hid under his desk… But now, like hundreds of other war-scarred Ukrainian child refugees here in the UK, he’s being taught how to cope with his terrifying memories
When Illya arrived in London last year, after fleeing his home in Ukraine, he could barely understand a word of English. But now the nine-year-old speaks eloquently about how he copes with the horrors he witnessed.
‘We call it “the box”,’ he says. ‘You imagine it, and you put your worst memories in the box, and then you put the box on the rails and a train will smash it.’
This is how Illya creates a ‘safe place’ in his head — ‘where no one wants to kill you’.
Illya is among the 49,000 Ukrainian children wrenched from their homes amid the chaos of Vladimir Putin’s war, evacuated by their desperate families to Britain and still trying to make sense of new lives here.
Many of the youngsters remain traumatised by the conflict. Four-year-old Maria ‘sobbed and sobbed’, while Zakhar, ten, could barely sleep for five months.
When Illya (pictured with his father Dmytro Sychov) arrived in London last year, after fleeing his home in Ukraine, he could barely understand a word of English. But now the nine-year-old speaks eloquently about how he copes with the horrors he witnessed
Many of the youngsters remain traumatised by the conflict. Four-year-old Maria ‘sobbed and sobbed’, while Zakhar, ten, (pictured with his mother Olena Gumenny) could barely sleep for five months
But help is at hand — thanks to you. Generous readers who donated to our Mail Force Ukraine Appeal are now supporting hundreds of Ukrainian children in British schools. And as the new school year begins, your assistance is proving a vital lifeline.
Funded by a £1 million donation from Mail Force, a pilot scheme set up at Easter has arranged for bilingual Ukrainian teachers to work alongside the youngsters, helping them to settle in their new surroundings.
It has not been easy for the teachers tasked with integrating these war-scarred children into their classes.
But the scheme has already proved a great success and is now set to expand. Some pupils, who have been taught ‘trauma management’ techniques, meet every Saturday at St Mary’s Ukrainian School in West London, where a psychologist and bilingual teachers guide them in confronting their fears.
Zakhar Gumennyy and his mother fled Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine as Putin’s forces battered the city in the opening days of the invasion in February last year.
The shock of his experiences seemed to have left him a different child entirely. But with the help of Mail Force translators, he has been taught how to practise the ‘screen technique’.
But help is at hand — thanks to you. Generous readers who donated to our Mail Force Ukraine Appeal are now supporting hundreds of Ukrainian children in British schools (clockwise from left): Amelia, nine; Yana, seven; Alika, nine; Chloe, ten; Myron, ten; Misha, 11; Michelle, six; Nicholas, 11; Alisa, five; Maria, four; Zanthi, five; and Amelia, five, at St Peter’s Eaton Square C of E school in Belgravia, Central London)
‘You think of the bad memory. You can ‘pause’ it, or ‘switch off’ the screen in your mind,’ he says. ‘Or you make it go black and white so it feels less real.’
Like Zakhar, most of the Ukrainian children granted refuge in Britain left behind their fathers, who were not allowed to leave, instead staying to fight the Russians or do vital work to keep Ukraine’s economy running.
READ MORE: Ukrainian child refugees who have fled Putin’s war are shocked to be taught Russian in British primary school
Zakhar’s mother Olena, a solicitor from Kyiv, tells me that for the little boy ‘the hardest struggle was not the war but the fact his father is still there — and the anxiety of the evacuation which means every time he hears a fire alarm in school, he goes under the desk’.
Zakhar tells me proudly, in near-flawless English, how much better he is at learning the language than his mother. She affectionately agrees.
Thanks to the coping techniques he has learned, the ten-year-old can now sleep through the night.
At St Peter’s Eaton Square Church of England Primary School in Belgravia, Central London, four-year-old Maria is one of six Ukrainian pupils who are also thriving. When she arrived last year, Maria was ‘in sobs of tears every morning’, recalled deputy headteacher Taljeet Sidhu-Pepper.
‘We didn’t know what the problem was. She didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Ukrainian. She was just very sad. We tried all the usual techniques, like getting her some colouring pens to express herself, but nothing worked.’
To the rescue came Tanya Humberstone, a bilingual teacher living in London. ‘Just to be able to speak in her own language to someone was like magic,’ says Mrs Sidhu-Pepper. ‘And all Maria said was, ‘Am I going to see my mummy again?’ before bursting into tears. That was her big worry. She just needed a kind adult to explain the school day to her. And look at her now!’
Zakhar (left, pictured with Alex Bykoriz, 9) tells me proudly, in near-flawless English, how much better he is at learning the language than his mother. She affectionately agrees. Thanks to the coping techniques he has learned, the ten-year-old can now sleep through the night
At St Peter’s Eaton Square Church of England Primary School in Belgravia, Central London, four-year-old Maria is one of six Ukrainian pupils who are also thriving. When she arrived last year, Maria was ‘in sobs of tears every morning’, recalled deputy headteacher Taljeet Sidhu-Pepper. To the rescue came Tanya Humberstone (pictured with Yana Nasrova, 7)
Maria and her new best friend, British-born Alisa, five, are beaming and holding hands as they spin in a circle in the school playground.
Ms Humberstone is a senior education support worker helping on the Mail Force schools project, alongside four others who had been English teachers in Ukraine before the war.
The group tours 60 primary and secondary schools in London, each of which has at least one Ukrainian child refugee battling to continue their education in a foreign land. It means they can spend a couple of hours a week with a child, helping them with vocabulary for the lessons and explaining to teachers how best to help.
Best of all, this is just the beginning. The pilot project in London has gone so well that there are plans to roll out the scheme to tens of thousands of Ukrainian children across the UK.
Another St Peter’s pupil, Misha, 11, who was evacuated with his mother, big brother and little sister, finished Year 6 in July as a hero of his adoptive school, having won a schools chess tournament. He carries the honour with pride, feeling he has given something back to the country that took him in.
One of the four education support workers on the Mail Force team, Nadiia Kondria (pictured on the right wearing a white top), 36, escaped with her three-year-old son from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine in April last year. She now helps 25 children cope with life in British schools
Artwork by students at the Ukrainian school in Holland Park, where educational support workers have been helping children traumatised by the war
His friend Myron, ten, says: ‘In Kyiv, we could not sleep in our beds. We had to keep away from windows. Then my dad drove us to the border, but we were stuck on the road because so many people were trying to get out. Everyone was hooting their horns and shouting. It was so scary. No one knew where the Russians were.
‘When I started school [in London], I understood nothing. I had to make new friends again. But the other children were so happy to see me. I was surprised. They came and talked to me.’
One of the four education support workers on the Mail Force team, Nadiia Kondria, 36, escaped with her three-year-old son from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine in April last year. She now helps 25 children cope with life in British schools.
‘I have one girl, aged 17, from Kharkiv, and she told me about the bomb that blew up her school,’ says Nadiia. ‘Some of her friends were killed, some were injured. Then the Russians wouldn’t let them leave.
‘She has nightmares about it. She is a very clever girl, but is so stressed she says she doesn’t want to plan for a future. We just have to keep these children focused on not giving up.’
She adds: ‘All the children talk about their fathers and older brothers who are in Ukraine. Many have to fight. They think about them all the time.’
Inna Hryhorovych (centre) has a relentless determination to help the families who have arrived here. Her efforts have been recognised with an MBE in the King’s Birthday Honours (also pictured: Tanya Humberstone, left, and Orysya Novetska, right)
Orysya Novetska, recruited as chief operations officer for the scheme, says: ‘About 80 per cent have anxiety and depression, and suffer flashbacks. We had a 15-year-old girl, an A-star student in Ukraine, now doing GCSEs here, but she is not going to get the same grades.
‘She has been hiding in the toilet with anxiety. She couldn’t verbalise her fears in English, she wanted to talk to someone in Ukrainian.’
FREAD MORE: Natalia and her daughter came to the UK via the Homes For Ukraine scheme… Eight months later they are homeless: SALLY WILLIAMS investigates what happens when the goodwill of British hosts runs out
Mail readers and other donors raised an incredible £12 million through Mail Force for refugees after the war broke out. And the charity’s trustees agreed to fund the schools scheme after meeting Inna Hryhorovych, the headteacher of St Mary’s Ukrainian School in London and the brains behind the project.
Ms Hryhorovych has a relentless determination to help the families who have arrived here. Her efforts have been recognised with an MBE in the King’s Birthday Honours.
‘This project is so important,’ she says. ‘On some level, all the children suffer from the war, whether they experienced it directly or are struggling with suddenly being uprooted to a new country with new people and a different language.’
Often, the children are reluctant to speak at all. ‘We need to ask, ‘How are you?’ at least three times before they start to open up. If you can provide them with a routine, a structure and some leisure, then 90 per cent of the problems just sort themselves out.’
All the education support workers are trained to identify trauma issues and can refer troubled youngsters to NHS child and adolescent mental health services.
‘There are cases of children showing unusual aggression, having panic attacks, constant anxieties — but there’s a reason, people they know have been murdered or raped, there are constant fears, suicidal thoughts… it’s just horrible,’ says Ms Humberstone.
‘We work with an NHS team, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, speech and language therapists, and we are making a difference.’
All the education support workers are trained to identify trauma issues and can refer troubled youngsters to NHS child and adolescent mental health services
According to the latest data, on average local authorities in the UK have 245 Ukrainian refugees in their area, with London boroughs welcoming almost double that, at 458 each.
Often, there are only one or two Ukrainian children at any school, leaving them socially isolated.
The pilot stage of the Mail Force project, operating in Kensington and Westminster, the areas that have the most Ukrainian refugees, has been a resounding success.
Every penny of the £1 million Mail Force donation is carefully accounted for, and it covers the salaries of four separate teams of five support workers, who have all been recruited on typical salaries, plus a core management team.
It is obvious that these children have been given enough confidence and stability to tackle their classwork, forge friendships and even have fun.
Now, the challenge is to extend the same help to war children all across Britain.
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