On a frigid January morning, six-year-old Sasha, and her mother rush through the doorway of the pale-colored room. The contrast between the air outside and within the heated indoor space is instantly felt.
She leaves her bright red boots beside the metal door and rushes into the room, which is crammed with colorful wooden tables, massive soft cushions, toys, and board games.
At first her eyes evoke uncertainty and hesitation. She glances wistfully at the pile of boxes containing puzzles, books, and a few Lego pieces before turning her gaze to the brightly colored bricks.
She’s going to build a multi-story residential house, just like the one she left behind in Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine.
Every night, she thinks of the apartment on the first floor, where she used to drink cocoa and milk before going to kindergarten, and where her mother read her fairytales before bed.
For almost two years, the image has been slowly fading. But there is one set of memories she can never forget. They seem so real and vivid in her mind: the basement, the shelling, the loud noises, and the rubble, too much rubble.
“I hope to return home someday,” says Sasha, almost whispering.
Recently, she started visiting the child-friendly space (CFS) in Dnipro managed by NGO Girls, World Vision’s local partner in Ukraine. “We fell in love with the place right away. There is an abundance of warmth, comfort, and care here,” shares Oksana, Sasha’s mother.
As Sasha advances brick by brick, she hears a shrill sound coming from the lobby of the building – someone has closed the massive front door. She flinches instantly, and an overwhelming fear sweeps over her eyes.
“Once she started witnessing the attacks, she became more irritable and nervous. She could start crying from minor triggers,” explains her mother.
“Her paintings did not define precise things, but with frequent attendance at the center, she now paints much more clearly and colorfully,” she adds.
The child-friendly space, which is supported by Aktion Deutschland Hilft, provides daily activities for Ukrainian children such as sports, arts and crafts, theatrical performances, and early development activities.
While internally displaced children like Sasha engage in social and cognitive developmental activities directed by facilitators, parents can attend individual psychosocial sessions. The sessions, whether in a group or individually, are also available to children and their families.
“I didn’t know anyone in the city since we moved from our house in Lyman, which is now gone. Here, I was able to make close friends,” shares Sasha.
She goes on, “There are countless toys and board games. I do not have any of these at home.”
“I often lack the resources to spend on her education and well-being,” explains her mother.
“Here, she is effectively guided while doing self-development and cognitive tasks. She learns how to interact in groups, communicate, and process her emotions,” she continues.
The underground life
On May 16, 2022, Oksana and her family fled Lyman in haste and complete numbness.
The city was occupied precisely one week after they left, but what she recalls from before their departure might be defined as the “underground life.”
“When the cities around us started to be occupied one by one, we stored some processed food, but we prayed we’d never need it,” recalls Oksana.
Since we didn’t have a makeshift mattresses for everyone, we slept in shifts.
All the stores were closed and the essential service providers were not working, they improvised. The entire city lacked electricity, heating, and hot water.
She gathered small branches and twigs from their tiny yard, built a fire, and used the items she had stored to build a makeshift kitchen. She stockpiled two to three crates of potatoes, jars of honey, and mostly relied on the cans stored the previous summer.
She rushed up to cook in the yard as soon as the shelling, even for a brief while, missed their neighborhood. But she always seemed to be on a timer.
“Just when you thought the attacks would stop for a few minutes and you went outside to heat water, that’s when you heard the loudest explosion,” recalls Oksana.
She goes on, “Like a giant boulder had fallen a few feet away from you.”
Surviving war-torn Lyman
Showers became a luxury that one could only afford once a month. Sasha and her 17-year-old brother Maksym slept on anything that could’ve taken the place of a mattress.
Their mother improvised a mattress from a piece of an old wooden door and a pile of winter coats. “Since we didn’t have a makeshift mattress for everyone, we slept in shifts,” shares Oksana.
Six people sheltered from the massive shelling of the city within the few square meters surrounded by mildew and damp air, where daylight became an illusion: Oksana, her two children, her 75-year-old mother, and two other friends who had lost their homes.
“Darkness, cold, and fear,” recalls Oksana of those days, tears trickling down from her dark blue eyes.
Even in the most inhumane times, you must be supportive of others. That’s what kept us all alive - hope and unity.
Before their neighborhood was reduced to rubble, Oksana bought nine loaves of bread and saved them in the freezer for the “worst days.” But it never crossed her mind even for a second that they wouldn’t have electricity. To prevent wasting the loaves of bread, she distributed them to her neighbors.
“Even in the most inhumane times, you must be supportive of others. That’s what kept us all alive. Hope and unity,” she says.
Even during those dismal days, when a downpour of fire and steel had reduced Lyman’s buildings to ashes and debris, Oksana never considered leaving. She was hoping it wouldn’t last for too long. They all hoped.
A shared dream
As this dream was fading away with each passing day, Oksana was helped by a group of volunteers to escape the city.
“Where do you go next?” asked a volunteer, when they arrived at the Dnipro railway station for the first time. But she didn’t have the smallest clue. All she knew was that she would not leave her country.
“I’d rather die than know I’d never get a chance to come back home one day,” Oksana whispered, bursting into tears. “I hope to see again the city I once called home,” she added.
The family stayed at a church in Dnipro for a few days until being informed they had to leave. Thousands of more eastern Ukrainians were on their way. “Physically, there was no longer room or resources for all of us, the displaced,” shares Oksana.
After Dnipro, they moved to Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, but when she heard there was an available room in a communal house in Dnipro, they returned. Now only 300 km keeps them away from Lyman.
Life started from scratch for the third time in less than two years. The frequency of the alarms and explosions still reminds them of the “underground life.”
“I miss my old life,” shares Sasha. She adds with a glimmer in her blue eyes, “When I grow up, I want to become a policewoman for maintaining peace and safety in my country.”
To date, World Vision has reached more than 1 million people inside Ukraine, of which more than 497,000 are children. They were supported through basic needs assistance, mental health, protection, education, shelter, livelihoods, and cash and voucher programs.
The ADH-funded project targets more than 13,000 people, providing protection and mental health services to the most vulnerable, including the internally displaced.
Story and photos by Laurentia Jora, Communications Coordinator