Psychological support and integration activities in Lukavtsi shelter child space in the Chernivtsi region.
In our previous publication, we told about creating child-friendly spaces (CFS) in Kolomyya, Vorokhta, Burshtyn, and Nadvirna in the Ivano-Frankivsk region and the village of Lukavtsi in the Chernivtsi region. CFSs are places where children can study, entertain themselves, and just have a good time. Here, taking an example of a child space in Lukavtsi, we will tell about the role of such spaces in the psychological support and integration of internally displaced children.
Lukavtsi is a village in the Chernivtsi region, nearby Vyzhnytsia town. Many internally displaced people have come here since the full-scale invasion started. It’s close to the Carpathian Mountains, and not far from the border with Romania.
There were not enough housing options to accommodate all the people, who kept arriving. Kateryna Stazhyr, a local civic activist and a head of an Active Community NGO together with other volunteers was looking for a place that could host IDPs. They went to an owner of former Soviet administrative premises “The House of Cattle Breeder”. It is a two-storey building with an area of 800 square meters on the edge of the village. There is a lake and a river nearby, and for the past few years, the building has been vacant.
The owner willingly accepted the idea to transform an unused house into a shelter. He was also helping when needed with furnishing the space. The first residents moved in on April 4th, 2022.
Living rooms were arranged on the second floor. The kitchen, laundry, and utility rooms are on the first floor. A children’s room was made on the first floor too.
“It was a smart decision at the moment because we had many children, and they could do whatever they wanted in that room, to draw on the walls, etc. It was their space. At the same time, we understood we needed to make them busy somehow. It was summer and there were no classes at school. And the idea to create something more than a children’s room was born”, says Kateryna Stazhyr who administers the shelter.
Meanwhile, STAN NGO started supporting a shelter in Lukavtsi, providing food and household items for the residents. The organization helped to install a boiler and to repair a heating system. The STAN team saw an opportunity to create a CFS space in the shelter (under the “Response to the crisis in Ukraine – 2022” project that STAN implements in partnership with a Czech humanitarian organization People in Need with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Canada). There were several predispositions for that: a comfortable building, and a strong local team. And the main thing was that the child-friendly space was already emerging. STAN only needed to enhance the initiative.
The CFS team started working in Lukavtsi in October 2022. They did not wait until the renovations finished or the equipment arrived. They started in the conditions they had.
“Children can do their homework here, read, draw, do other creative things. A facilitator comes at 4 p.m. She is a professional art teacher. Children draw with sand and participate in art therapy sessions. There is another facilitator who is professionally working with the performing arts and performance staging. Before Russia’s invasion, some of the children attended theater or dancing studios. Facilitators try to make current activities correspond with what children have had before. And there are also group sessions with a psychologist”, says Kateryna Stazhyr.
The space had gradually become a magnet for children. Not only IDPs spend time here but also their local peers from the village. They study together and do diverse activities together. It worked remarkably well during the winter festivities.
What we mean when we talk about the integration of the IDPs in the local communities is communication and mutual support. An understanding that people could be mutually interested in each other and be needed for each other. And this goes for adults as well as for kids.
The thing is not only in organizing common events. It is about overcoming difficult barriers. Svitlana Mendryshora, a psychologist of the project, explains how such barriers were emerging between the locals and IDPs (the situation is typical for many villages and towns).
“Many local men are fighting, and the community is small. When IDPs started to come, all the anger was directed at them. New people appeared in our house and we had to learn to coexist, get to know each other and not blame each other. The same is with children (I also work at school). IDPs’ children are often Russian speakers and local kids are tempted to bully them because of the language. This is called releasing anger. There is anger and there is no one to blame. Meanwhile, the IDPs are arriving”, says Svitlana Mendryshora.
Thus, St. Nicholas day or a common Christmas celebration is not only a holiday and not only an event. It is a chance to get to know each other. To worry together and to prepare together. “Kids start to see just their peers in each other, just children they can organize common events, to laugh, to play, to argue and to reconcile with”, Svitlana Mendryshora adds.
Natalia Marchuk, the facilitator, is organizing the events. Starting her job, she took advice from parents about her responsibilities. She suggested that the topic of the events would be the local Bukovynian traditions. And so they agreed. People come from diverse regions, but now they are in the village of Lukavtsi and this is a chance for them to get to know about Lukavtsi and to better understand the region of Bukovyna. On the other hand, this is a good ground to share cultures that IDPs have brought, to talk about the traditions of other Ukrainian regions.
In the CFS, kids did fortune-telling which was a tradition on St.Andrew’s Day. They celebrated St.Nicholas Day, Christmas and Epiphany together. They had a sports competition dedicated to Ukrainian Armed Forces Day. What’s important is that these events are never limited to the scenario. There is a space to communicate at every event.
“We try to make it something more than just reciting a poem or singing a song, but to make children gather at the common table after the event. Take for example Misha. He rarely prepares any poems or participates in singing songs, but he would bake amazing angel-shaped cookies”, says Mendryshora.
Mykhailo is 13 and his dream is to become a famous confectioner. He is from the Odesa region, and his mother Iryna Domashevska is working as a facilitator in a child space now. She used to work as a kindergarten teacher in the town of Yuzhnyi. “I used to come home from work but still had many things to do. And Misha likes sweets. So I told him I was busy and could just tell him how to cook so that he would cook by himself”, says Iryna Domashevska.
This is how Mykhailo learned it. He started with cookies, then moved to sponge cakes, Napoleon cake and other complicated cakes. In Lukavtsi, he continues with his hobby which is growing into his first business, his first step toward his dream. Misha used to bake sweets and treated people with them, and slowly he started getting his first orders. He cooks in the shelter’s kitchen.
It’s important for both the children and adults to be engaged in community life. They need to have an opportunity to do something for themselves, and for others. Here is one example. Recently, an overhaul has started in the child space, and CFS was relocated to the second floor of the shelter. It hasn’t happened by magic. The things had to be moved, and a new room furnished. Children did all that, and they did it better than anyone else could do for them.
“I thought this could be group therapy. The children organized themselves and put all the things in order in the new room. They checked the toys and decided which of them were the most interesting, which they wanted to leave on a sofa. They have a nicely furnished room now. Everything is accessible: books, board games, paints, and brushes. Now they play and spend time there”, says Svitlana Mendryshora.
Between that time when there was a children’s room in the shelter and the current state of affairs, a huge shift occurred. Instead of chaos, there is organized leisure time now. Svitlana Mendryshora explains this is good to reduce kids’ anxiety.
“They used to do whatever they wanted, there were no rules. Such a situation undermines the child’s psyche. Children don’t understand what they can rely on. And here we go, after several months it has changed, and they already know they have to clean after them, or when they leave the room they don’t leave the door wide open, because the class is ongoing. Setting boundaries is important. Children became calmer”, says the psychologist.
This is also a result of communication, of building relationships and of the work of CFCs team. And this doesn’t come overnight. The development of the CFS, like the development of any business or a personality, is a gradual process. During five months of their work, the CFS team observed that more and more children are attending the events and psychological sessions. The barriers are getting lower, and the trust increases.
This is the most crucial, the main task – to give children a feeling of safety, to fill a space with meaning, with friendly communication. The next steps are to finish the renovations, to provide the equipment that would help children to study. This will happen soon and will be told in the following publications.