The now year-long violent slog of war in Ukraine has taken an enormous toll on the country. And there is no end in sight to the fighting. No one questions the fact that stopping the Russian aggression and ending the killing is Ukraine’s – and the world’s- top priority.
That said, we are also deeply concerned that the impact of the war on Ukraine’s children is already posing a serious threat to the country’s future. A devastating combination of widespread psychological trauma and educational disruption among Ukraine’s youngest citizens bodes poorly for them and for the future of Ukraine more broadly.
It’s difficult to overstate how traumatic this past year has been for Ukraine’s kids.
Within days of the invasion, Russian troops had occupied large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine. Millions of civilians were fleeing for safety in the face of unhinged Russian brutality. Attacks on civilian targets and unrestrained murdering of non-combatants were seemingly a central element of the Russian fighting agenda.
At least 1,200 children have been killed or injured already, and far too many witnessed violence no child should ever see. While Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60 were prohibited from leaving the country, mothers and children headed for safety, either to the west of Ukraine or outside the country as refugees.
In short order, some 5 million of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children were displaced. That’s 2 out of every 3 children who had to urgently leave their homes, communities, schools, playgrounds, and friends. Almost all of them fled with mothers or grandparents and siblings; dads were mostly conscripted into the military or working in humanitarian relief efforts.
We heard horror stories from many mothers recounting their personal experiences of getting their families to safety. One Mom from Mariupol told us she was awakened by a late-night missile attack on her apartment building shortly after the war began. She woke her two children, packed Two small roller suitcases, and raced for their car. Leaving the city, another missile struck the car in front of theirs, killing the family inside – their neighbors.
A survey of 2,000 mothers from across Ukraine just released by our own organization, the Ukraine Children’s Action Project, revealed that since last year, many mothers have observed their children experiencing significant increases in psychological symptoms and more problems in school.
In October of last year, following attacks on the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, presumably carried out by Ukraine military forces, Russia dropped any pretense of a conventional war, and the conflict devolved into a terror campaign, leaving no truly safe haven in the country. Energy infrastructure and civilian targets in Kyiv and western Ukraine became subject to regular missile and drone attacks.
There was no escaping the stress and trauma for Ukraine’s children. Now, everywhere in the country, no school may be open that does not have an adequate bomb shelter. And lack of electricity and/or heat makes sustained continuity of learning a major challenge at all grade levels. Children not enrolled in local schools can learn remotely, but many need appropriate technology, and all need reliable broadband access.
Then there are the children of the Ukraine diaspora. Current estimates suggest that there are at least 2 million Ukrainian children now living, with their mothers or other relatives, outside their country.
The generosity and benevolence of the host countries have been absolutely extraordinary, even unprecedented. Poland has been particularly notable, offering a heartfelt national welcome and material support to their neighbors seeking refuge. Germany, the Czech Republic, and the other host countries have opened their arms to Ukrainians who have sought presumably temporary refuge within their borders.
But it’s fair to ask: so, after a year of living in their adopted countries, how are the children doing in the respite and safety of an unfamiliar country where Ukrainian isn’t spoken, and the school systems must stretch and sacrifice to accommodate the children from Ukraine? It turns out not so well, and it’s not hard to understand why – and how difficult it will be to meet this challenge.
Take Poland, where as many as 800,000 Ukraine children have settled with at least one family member. According to UNICEF, no more than 200,000 of those children are attending Polish schools. So are the remaining half million or so Ukrainian kids continuing their education? Nobody knows. Not UNICEF and not Polish officials.
Theoretically, some number of these children are learning online in the Ukrainian language with a Ukrainian curriculum. Our experience speaking with many people, including representatives of the Polish and Ukrainian teachers’ unions and refugee parents, suggests that the education of many children has been profoundly disrupted. (And it should be noted that well before the invasion, Ukraine had closed schools for at least a year during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, although some number of children did learn online).
Polish officials are well aware of this situation and have made it clear that every refugee child is welcome into the Polish public school system. That’s good, but the government is clearly not interested in assuring that Ukrainian children can be taught in their native language. Germany actually requires every refugee school child to attend a German school, with Ukrainian students required to learn German culture and history – in German.
Underlying all of this is a fundamental challenge that goes well beyond the details of access to schools and language familiarity.
Poland and Germany are, in essence, saying that we are accommodating Ukrainian children as best we can, and they must accommodate our educational system realities. But Ukraine says this is contrary to our national priorities and goals. Our children are temporarily displaced, but we expect to prevail against Russia and want our kids and their families returned to Ukraine. We’ll need them to replenish and rebuild our country.
As one former senior Ukrainian official put it to me, “If our children don’t retain a Ukrainian identity and plan to return to Ukraine when the war is over, what are we fighting for?” This fundamental conflict between Ukraine and every host country around the education of Ukraine’s children in the diaspora is not easily resolvable and has resulted in a terrible stalemate with millions of students falling farther and farther behind.
But this crisis is far too important to ignore. At the very least, we suggest an emergency convening of education officials from Ukraine and their counterparts in every major refugee host nation. This can be done under the auspices of any one of several possible international organizations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) would be two good options.
No matter what organization convenes these urgent, solution-oriented sessions, all parties should understand that while stopping the fighting is the first priority, making sure that Ukrainian’s vulnerable children don’t become the world’s largest lost generation is of extraordinary importance, too.
(right) Irwin Redlener is a pediatrician and co-founder, with Karen, of the Ukraine Children’s Action Project (UkraineCAP.org). He is also co-founder with Karen – and singer/ songwriter Paul Simon – of the U.S. – based Children’s Health Fund. Dr. Redlener is the founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
(left) Karen Redlener is co-founder with Irwin of the Ukraine Children’s Action Project and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund. Karen was director of Children’s Health Fund’s Healthy and Ready to Learn project.