“For one of the classes, this year is the very first time they have come to school in their life. They have been studying online from their first day of school until this day"
In a show of resilience and determination, Ukrainian children are returning to school as the country struggles to cope with the ongoing conflict that has devastated their lives for nearly two years. Throughout the conflict, education has often been a casualty: schools have been damaged, turned into makeshift shelters, or completely abandoned. The return to school is not just about acquiring knowledge, it’s a step toward reclaiming a sense of normalcy and hope for a brighter future. To this end, Finn Church Aid (FCA) and Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) have joined forces to allow children resume their education in the halls of learning in 8 locations in the north of the country.
Thousands of children have been deprived of access to quality education for years, and countless have not been able to gather experiences most important for a healthy childhood. The first issue was COVID, then came the army of the Russian Federation. “For one of the classes, this year is the very first time they have come to school in their life. They have been studying online from their first day of school until this day,” says Tatiana, the principal of the high school renovated with the help of HIA and FCA in Bobryk village, Kyiv region.
This small community school in the quiet village has faced challenges that go beyond the ordinary call for renovations and the establishment of a bomb shelter. “Even nature opposes war,” says the school principal, pointing to the damaged pine tree that has already withered but hasn’t been cut down yet. Instead, it has become the shield that helped the school withstand a direct missile hit in the schoolyard. “The walls of our school were miraculously not completely destroyed, but rather severely damaged, and, of course, not a single window remained intact”, explains Tatiana as she continues her tour, stressing the work that went into reopening the school by the entire community. Last winter, when the village saw heavy fighting, the school was used as a shelter – but now it stands as a beacon of hope for all parents.
In Bobryk and seven other settlements in Chernihiv and Kyiv oblasts the reopening of schools is the result of the common effort of HIA & FCA as well as the local communities. The main requirement of the Ukrainian government and a challenge for schools was to provide bomb shelters of a high standard – without a qualified shelter, no school can provide education on the premises. To facilitate the return of offline education, Hungarian Interchurch Aid has constructed and furnished modern bomb shelters, where children can not only hide from life-threatening danger, but also continue their classes when air raid sirens go off.
While the return to school is a cause for celebration, challenges remain. The war has left deep psychological scars on these young minds. Many children have witnessed violence and loss that will stay with them for a lifetime. Schools are implementing counselling services to help students cope with trauma and anxiety. “Before the start of the academic year, the entire teaching staff underwent extensive training on psychological support and mental health from international organizations” – says Tatiana.
She also wants to create an environment better suited to the need of the times. A small sign of the winds of change is that even for the children she goes by her first name, without the usual formal patronymic and surname. Their goal is to create a friendly atmosphere and a place where all of the 200 children of the school feel welcome. Where they can even take a selfie with the principal or hug their teacher because they’ve missed them.
The pandemic marked the beginning of a difficult time for the nation, and the full-scale war has left an indelible mark on the nation. But parents, teachers, and children alike are happy to see a glimpse of normalcy as the school gates reopen.
Natalia, who is the mother of a fifth grader is also excited. “For years, our children were deprived of the opportunity to attend school due to COVID, and now the war has forced them to interrupt their education and hide from bombs. But we are very happy that the new school year will begin in our village, and that our son will be in the safe company of friends and caring teachers. This gives me even more hope for a bright future” she says cheerfully at the Knowledge Day celebration [first schoolday] at Peremoha’s village school, where 90 kids will continue their studies.
The war in Ukraine may continue to cast its shadow, but the pupils’ return to school marks a small but significant step towards a better tomorrow in the war-torn country. Thanks to HIA’s renovation and development projects, schoolchildren will resume their education offline in 19 schools throughout Ukraine in total.