A safe space for displaced children

Made up by containers, the shelter “modular city” in Lviv, Western Ukraine has become a safe haven for about 1,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war in the east. The neat and modern shelter is also home to many kids – which can be immediately noticed upon entering its courtyard and playground area. Children on rollerblades, bicycles and scooters ride past the Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) monitoring team, while Victor, the administrator of the town, conducts a small tour for the representatives. In the modular city, HIA has implemented 3 different microprojects as part of its SCLR (Survivor and Community-Led Response) programme, one of them being the equipment of a kindergarten room for the smallest residents.

In the kindergarten room, about 10 children are playing in groups. Some kids are shy of the new visitors and start playing hide and seek in the playhouse, peeking out and smiling at the camera. One girl is putting together a puzzle picture from her favorite cartoon, Frozen. Three other children are playing with dinosaurs, sitting on a soft and colorful carpet that covers the entire floor of the play area. The teacher asks the monitoring team to take off their shoes: “‘This is so that children can run barefoot on a clean surface”

The kindergarten was born out of necessity. The first challenge faced by displaced parents of little children is the question of where and how to leave their children while they recover lost documents or find work. Back home, they could rely on existing social infrastructure, friends, grandparents: now they are several hundred kilometres away from them. A grass-root initiative followed, organising affected mothers into a group.

In the beginning, all they had was a few toys and an empty room – but today the children’s space is stuffed with various toys and games. Hanna, the kindergarten teacher welcomes the change brought by the project. “Many other things, I could list all day long, everything you see in front of you in this room, was made possible by the SCLR programme. We didn’t have any of this. Now the room is fully furnished for children’s education and development.”

She has been with the group since its formation. “At first, the mothers gathered together and arranged for someone to sit with their children while the others went out on errands. I was also volunteering.”  As more and more children came to the group, they asked for help, eventually becoming a part of a Lviv kindergarten. “Since I have a degree in psychology and worked as a kindergarten teacher for 12 years before the war started in my hometown of Lysychansk, I decided to try to organize the kindergarten group. Now we officially belong to a children’s educational institution, and their physical education teacher, a music teacher, a psychologist – they hold classes here twice a week. In this kindergarten, children learn by playing” – Hanna says proudly.

According to Hanna, the number of children attending kindergarten sessions fluctuates, but the importance of the children’s space remains unchanged. “We have a certain migration of children here – parents move or return to their hometowns. That is why the number of children increases and decreases. As soon as families with children come to the modular city, we immediately inform them that there is such an unusual group that opened on an experimental basis.”

Currently, the kindergarten is attended by 8 to 17 children at a time. “In general, you can never have too many children’s supplies. Because children are active. One minute they want to play with a teddy bear. And the next second they are already running and jumping. Therefore, it is impossible to limit yourself to three toys and 1 chair. We try to create an educational programme that is able to entertain both 2-year-olds and 6-year-olds.”

Kids not only play, they also learn a lot about the world with the help of the kindergarten teachers and the community volunteers.“The modular city has a large territory with modern playgrounds, where we not only play, but also grow flowers, our own herbs and vegetables, actively involving older children in the gardening process. We have already eaten a salad from the garden. And soon we are waiting for the harvest of cherry tomatoes and pumpkins in the fall – we will cook sweet oatmeal with pumpkin for the children.”

While interviewing Hanna, Anastasia (4) asked for help to put together a puzzle. That was no distraction for Hanna however, who helped her right away, and continued with the interview afterwards. ” I am personally very grateful that I can continue to do what I love. To take care of my own and other children. This space created by HIA is a real happiness and relief for parents in our challenging times. Despite what is happening in the adult world, these children still have their childhood and can play in the kindergarten room, grow up and learn about the world in safety.”

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