How You Can Help as Ukraine's Traumatized Children Face the "Back to School" Season on the Run
Millions of dislocated Ukrainian students and their teachers need help fast if educational momentum is to be sustained.
📚 🌻 🎒 🇺🇦 📐 📃 🌻 📙 📓 🇺🇦 ✏️.
Almost everywhere around the Northern Hemisphere, particularly with pandemic shutdowns mostly a memory, August is bringing "back to school" stirrings.
That's no different in western Ukraine and countries like Poland where millions of Ukrainian children who have been internally dislocated or fled as refugees have settled, increasingly for the long haul, as Russia's attacks continue.
These images tweeted recently by Unicef show the determination of Ukrainian youth to thrive amid devastation.
Girls and boys amid the scars from Russia's invasion of Ukraine (Unicef via Twitter)
But with September nigh, when teachers will face classrooms crowded with newcomers, there is an urgent need to bolster the capacity to recognize and respond to emotional trauma, overcome language barriers and rekindle learning journeys in children so that, once the war is over, Ukraine can have a generation capable of taking on the enormous task of rebuilding.
In a recent pop-up Sustain What conversation, I spoke with two determined practitioners working to fill gaps and make this war-torn generation "future ready." They are Irwin Redlener and Karen Redlener, an American pediatrician and Columbia University disaster-policy expert and a public-health professional who, together for 51 years, have focused on helping children in distress, starting in eastern Arkansas in 1971 and never stopping.
Since February, they have been working with partners to build an initiative providing mental health and educational support to Ukrainian children who are either refugees in Warsaw, Poland, or internally displaced to Lviv. One focus is setting up training for Polish and Ukrainian educators in how to screen for conditions in students that could hinder learning.
I caught up with the Redleners virtually in Warsaw after their latest visit to Lviv. Click to learn much more about their Ukraine Children's Action Project.
Their effort is just one of dozens of projects being pursued or supported by thousands of people to boost the welfare of Ukrainian families. But it's worth a deeper look because they bring so much experience to this arena. You'll learn more about their backgrounds in the transcribed conversation below, which I've edited for length and clarity.
Before diving in, it's worth noting three things:
These impacts on children's wellbeing come atop more brutal direct harms; Unicef recently estimated two children are being killed each day in the onslaught and fighting.
Russia's invasion is also worsening food and energy insecurity in tens of millions of low-income households around the world. The first shipment of grain from Ukraine's blockaded ports is en route to Lebanon but the food gap from the war is enormous.
For hundreds of thousands of children from eastern Ukraine, the invasion simplify amplified and intensified wartime impacts they've been enduring for many years, as this Unicef report from 2017 shows:
© UNICEF/UN053119/Zmey | On 13 February 2017, first-grade students in eastern Ukraine, including 6-year-old Sasha (in red sweater), participate in a drill to prepare for shelling.
Here's my conversation with the Redleners on YouTube, but you can also watch and (as important!) share it on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter:
And here's a transcribed portion of the conversation, with some tweaking for continuity and length:
Andy Revkin - Just give a little sense for those who don't know you of what you do and why you do it. What got you into this?
Irwin Redlener - We started working working together in 1971, when I was the medical director of a clinic in Arkansas, the sixth poorest county in America at that point, and Karen was a Vista volunteer and a developer of social service programs.
We've lived in a world of drops in the bucket and failure to meet scale on all of the issues that we're dealing with.
Along with Paul Simon in 1987 - the three of us were partners - we developed the Children's Health Fund, which has been going for 35 years now. It's a national health-care program that started with health care for very medically underserved children and homeless children and so on - very, very disadvantaged kids and families. And we have 50-plus mobile pediatric clinics, fully self-contained medical clinics on wheels. Karen actually designed the first one in 1986. And then I founded the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia.
This is another catastrophe for children like so many natural disasters turn out to be, like other wars. I've worked with other refugee populations, the Syrian refugees in Greece and so on. So we we were just moved by the whole thing and put together a month later a foundation called the Ukraine Children's Action Project. And that's what we're doing.
Andy Revkin - Why is it so important to center children, whether it's after an earthquake or flood, or in this case, an invasion?
"We actually just can no longer afford to have children that don't reach their full potential"
Irwin Redlener - You know, it's a cliche, but this notion of children being the future is absolutely true. I think the planet has got enormous problems across the board. We actually just can no longer afford to have children that don't reach their full potential. And when children are enmeshed in these kinds of large-scale meta tragedies, we can see their potential eroding before our eyes. And Karen could say a bit about the two issues that we're particularly concerned about and why they represent a threat to the future of children, but also a future of Ukraine and in some ways the planet.
Karen Redlener - Our history has been working with children living under great adversity. After the first trip that we took here to Warsaw in Poland - where really hundreds of thousands, over a million, Ukrainian kids were were living immediately after the war - it was just an overwhelming impact on this country, but one that Poland responded to so positively and in such a welcoming way.
Families were taken in and humanitarian needs were were met relatively quickly and with a huge response. But our experience working with children in great need is that their long-term trajectory is really impacted so quickly when dealing with such adversity. Two thirds of Ukrainian children have been displaced. There are 7.5 million children in Ukraine and at this point, nearly 5 million children are either in host countries like Poland - Poland has the largest number but many other countries have taken in the refugees - or they have been displaced from the east and south of Ukraine to the western part of of Ukraine, near Lviv, where we visited.
Knowing the trauma that the kids have gone through and the disruptions that they experienced, we knew that, looking toward the future for them, it's very important to figure out how to help stabilize their educational continuity and begin to address the trauma that they've experienced. So that's where we're focusing.
Andy Revkin - Maybe you can break down some of the specifics on educational continuity. There are so many people on the move for so many reasons now, whether it's moving dislocated by climate impacts or other factors. The education component - consistency, a classroom, a relationship with a teacher - that all kind of goes away. So what are the options? How do you fill that gap?
Irwin Redlener - Ideally, we'd like children in regular classrooms learning in Ukraine like all other children - in a classroom with a teacher who speaks their language. This has broken that possibility for many children. So what are the options?
First of all, it's really two different groups of kids. [There are] the kids that were displaced within Ukraine itself and are living many, many miles from where they had grown up, but those communities were destroyed and they're coming to western Ukraine. School starts on September 1st in Ukraine and Poland and [we're hoping that] the kids that are in Ukraine, in their own country, are at least going to not have a barrier of teachers and schools functioning in a different language.
But we still have to answer this question: Where are those couple of million children who are internally displaced going to go to school? The schools are already filled. They have their regular students there. And for many of them, they're going to be accommodated. So classrooms that may have had 25 kids will go to 35 or 40 kids in them. Many kids won't even be able to get that. So they will be presumably learning online. And that's not not necessarily that easy. They need hardware. They need broadband access. They need a supervised learning environment, even if they're learning online and not in a classroom.
[That's] very difficult, as we found out during the pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. You know, there were 1.1 million children in the New York City public school system - 700,000 of them were at or near the poverty line. And they did not do well accommodating to online learning. And that is a problem that's going to be faced here as well.
Ukrainian children in Warsaw (Karen Redlener)
And for the kids that were displaced to Poland and the other countries, now the host countries have the additional problem of having significant language barriers. There's a lot of similarities between Ukrainian and Polish, but the fact of the matter is it's not the same. And kids have to be assimilated in classrooms and in social relationships. And, as Karen was saying before, they're still suffering from unspeakable psychological trauma. All of this makes learning in Poland particularly challenging. So we're developing programs for teachers, how to handle a classroom full of non-Polish-speaking children who have experienced severe psychological trauma. There's a lot of well-meaning people and very capable Polish and Ukrainian agencies and government officials dealing with this. We're helping them figure out some innovative ways to accomplish this goal of getting the kids back on the educational trajectory.
Karen Redlener - The other thing I think we should mention is that when Ukrainian families originally fled for their safety and came to host countries, they really didn't know how long they were going to be displaced. They didn't know how long the war was going to last. There was a certain feeling that they were in a new country on a temporary basis. So maybe 20 percent of the children were enrolled in an actual school in Poland, in Warsaw. But the rest of the 80 percent tried to find places and ways to learn online or maybe didn't even go to school.
So here we are in the end of summer, and the feeling is that within a month's time, by September 1st, families will have to make a decision about whether they're going back for school in the western part of Ukraine, or whether they're staying in the host country. And there's a lot of uncertainty about what the numbers will be. Schools are knowing that they'll have to accommodate, but not knowing what is the number of children that will be remaining in their cities and in different countries. So there is this waiting game right now to see how many will enroll in school and what the accommodations will need to be.
Just to follow up on what Irwin was saying, our focus in schools is really on trauma and helping teachers learn more about how trauma shows up in children's behavior, what they can do in a classroom to support that and prevent additional occurrences that are so challenging, and really working with the teachers here in Warsaw and in Lviv to develop an online virtual training program that will be helpful for all teachers working with kids.
Andy Revkin - Part of your project is under the title Future Ready. I'd like to hear a little bit more about what that thinking is. [Given all of] our needs to be adaptive and resilient and deal with uncertainty, is there something in the educational design you're working on here that can actually spill forward and become more normalized?
Irwin Redlener - We've had a lot of experience with this concept and in children we've taken care of over many years now in the United States, children who've lived in severe adversity and extreme poverty. The goal is to have every child in those situations in the U.S., and every child who's been so affected by war, be able basically to finish school, be ready for the next step, be mentally resilient, educated and ready to take take their place in society.
And the program that we had in the States is called Healthy and Ready to Learn. It's the same idea: let's make sure that kids successfully get through school and become functioning happy members of their society. To the extent that we're not successful there, we've created a lot of children who end up being liabilities, who need remediation, as opposed to children who at age 18 are ready to go to the university or get jobs or see themselves as part of a recovering Ukraine, which eventually it's going to have to do.
So Future Ready is really very literal. It means are these kids going to be ready for the future? And we can't wait till they're 18. For the younger children, that has to start right now. Kids that are not reading at grade level in third grade or fifth grade, it's extremely difficult for them to catch up. I don't care where these children are, but it's kind of now or never. We're trying to also instill the sense of urgency. We can't let the kids languish to the extent possible. They've got to be ready for the future, which is what that title is about.
Andy Revkin - That also reinforces my first question: What's the importance of focusing on children? Because they're at this critical developmental stage - all the way through from toddler to teen.
Karen Redlener - Exactly. And I think there's a greater awareness now in the educational system, you know, in the States. And now we're seeing here, you know, in Poland and Ukraine, that children have experienced such stress over the last couple of years because of the pandemic in isolation and just detachment from education and normal activities that teachers, the educational system, is really receptive to and understanding the need to address the mental health issues that kids bring to the classroom and knowing that if they don't, it's impossible for them to learn.
You know, if children are feeling depressed or anxious or afraid, it's really hard for them to learn. If they're feeling hungry, it's hard for them to learn. If they don't have their glasses. And there are certain barriers that are very specific to learning, they will not be able to take advantage of the classroom. The integration of health and education for kids is really important no matter what country you're in. But it's especially hard here as we talk about the mental health and traumatic experiences that the Ukrainian kids have had. It's urgent.
With children, there's a developmental urgency which is unavoidable. It's now or never.
Irwin Redlener - And I don't want the adults to get offended by this, but adults can tolerate a lot of adversity and will be just fine. People have survived horrendous situations that lasted years and recover and do their lives. With children, there's a developmental urgency which is unavoidable. It's now or never.
We can't wait a few years and then see what happens because we won't be able to recover that lost time, those lost developmental landmarks which must be understood and attended to as they come up.
You know, I saw kids in among Syrian refugees in horrible, isolated refugee camps in Greece a few years ago. These children, I asked one adorable 10-year-old girl what she wanted to be when she grew up as a Syrian kid from Damascus. And she said, I want to be a doctor, a very smily and happy child.
But she hadn't been to school in three years. She was way behind in everything. And, you know, I looked at her... You know, I have a granddaughter that exact same age, who wants to be a doctor, who's got every shot at becoming that. These children, if we neglect them now, will be robbed of their opportunity to grow up successful, productive, happy. And that's unconscionable, as far as we're concerned.
Karen Redlener - And Ukraine will need them. Ukraine will need them in the future. So it's about planning for the future as well, for the recovery.
You can read the full rough transcript here
There's another reason for urgency. As Robyn Dixon reported last month in the Washington Post, Vladimir Putin's administration is working to fill the teaching gap in a far darker way: "Russia sending teachers to Ukraine to control what students learn."
What programs have you found that are helping with kids or families or other vital work in this war zone, or others? Please post them in the comment thread and I'll add them here.
Back in February, one of my favorite journalists on the disinformation beat, Jane Lytvynenko, posted an excellent resource hub that's still useful.
Related reading and viewing
A March Sustain What post: As Russian Attacks on Civilians Mount, a Look at Pathways Toward, and Away from, Atrocity
The Notes From Poland website has good coverage of challenges related to the surge of students from Ukraine. Here's one: 200,000 Ukrainian refugee children face a steep learning curve at Polish schools.
Here's my Sustain What conversation on the impact of Russia's invasion on food security, both within Ukraine and the many countries relying on its productive farms: From Breadbasket to Battleground – Russia’s Attack on Food Security.
In October 2020, in the pre-vaccine days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spoke with Irwin Redlener about another epic disruption of lives in critical early years:
Sustain What: A Disaster-Focused Pediatrician on Childhood Dreams Denied
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Here's the full image from the banner at the top of the post, taken on April 4 at a shelter for displaced victims of the invasion in Ukraine (© UNICEF/UN0623915/Modola).