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What life is really like for Ukraine’s children and youth

What life is really like for Ukraine’s children and youth

In my twenty-five years as a teacher and executive at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), various events have been worthy of international attention, but none like the surreal present. The country today often seems like the setting of a World War II film with all the usual paradoxes. Cafés are open with music in the air, and spring brings couples holding hands out to the street. But half the flowers people are buying here in Lviv are for the constant funerals at the baroque Church of St. Peter and Paul. It has been the military chapel since Austrian times, except of course when the Soviets shuttered it and used it for a book depository. The dozen priests and seminarians there are all graduates or students of UCU and members of what is locally called the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, an eastern-rite church with about five million members and three thousand priests.

In the cellar of a Kyiv kindergarten, children take shelter during an air raid. Photo: Genya SAVILOV / AFP via Getty

The daily funerals are followed by processions to the new military cemetery called the “Field of Mars”, covered with hundreds of tightly packed new graves decked with flags. Each wooden cross bears a large vivid photograph of the fallen hero perhaps sent home a month ago from the battle front. These men, often smiling, feel more present than many of the mourners, who pile up the earth on top of the casket for about ten minutes, with plastic wreaths and fresh flowers as the final layer. The family will come back the next day to put the wooden box around the soil and arrange flowers again, and again. Out of the hundred or so graduates, students or employees of UCU serving in the armed forces, fourteen are now dead. No one wants the deaths to stop more than those who have lost their family and best friends, but as they say, “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.”

The war is everywhere at all ages. I’ve heard kindergarten lads boasting about Fortress Bachmut and they can list which of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries are supporting us and which are against us. More than ever, boys have very realistic toy guns of various sizes. Hurrying out onto the sidewalk, a concerned mother held one hand of her very small son, but he had his substantial toy gun in the other. Why not? Kids see the “big boys” in uniform stationed on the streets with weapons, so they also want to protect their families.

Recently, I was on a trip around eastern Ukraine, visiting our alumni who are either in the army or running the NGOs that provide many basic services now — there are a lot because UCU has the country’s only degree program in non-profit management. In polls, volunteer organisations receive an almost equal high rating as the army.

The now-famous Ukrainian resilience is visible everywhere. During the daytime, Kharkiv is bustling again with a reasonable amount of traffic and there is some rebuilding. But the streets are empty of children. More than half of all Ukrainian children had to leave their homes in the first month of the war, and about half of those are still outside the country.  The percentages are much greater in the east.

It is not just the unpredictable shelling of homes that drove parents to take children away, but also the problem of schools which are online because of constant air raids. The children have had only a few months of in-person classes during three years of Covid and the new Russian invasion. So, one of our partner organisations named “Peaceful Sky” runs an after-school program to give kids at least a few hours of activities with other kids, and some much-needed counselling. The afternoon I was there, the kids were drawing with coloured pencils. One happy seven-year-old had drawn flags of Ukraine and Russia in one corner and was writing accompanying sentences about the two nations but his violent verbs were not, shall we say, in the Easter spirit.

This trauma of war and displacement is why President Zelenskyy states that 1.5 million children are at risk of psychological damage. The First Lady has partnered with UCU’s psychology team in making this challenge her priority.

But will there even be more Ukrainian children? So many women of child-bearing age have fled as refugees that in 2022 Ukraine had the lowest birth rate of any country in the world, only a quarter of replacement levels.

The youth that remain in Ukraine are growing up fast. In Zaporizhzhya, our UCU team met with one of our graduates, Nazar Krayivskyy. The university community has been the main funder of his organization “Rays of Light” which delivers food and essentials to families living in basements along the front line there. Before the war, his centre ran educational programs in state orphanages and helped street children get legal papers. Half of his staff went west for safety, so some of those same youth he helped before are now the ones doing the packing.

The logic of random Russian destruction is to frighten everyone into leaving, to create Ukraine without Ukrainians. To deny the enemy that victory is why UCU has stayed in session throughout the whole war, paying salaries, housing refugees and training leaders for the future.

I came to Ukraine in 1995 to help re-build the Ukrainian Catholic University, which had been closed by the Soviets in the 1940s. For most of our history, this has been the only Catholic university in the immense lands of the former Soviet Union. Initially, we were renting a four-room kindergarten, but now UCU has the most modern campus in the country, and the top students on the national entrance exam.

At our recent open house for 17-year-olds planning to enter university this autumn, I met a confident young man with a little cross hanging from the earring on the left side of his half-shaven head. He is interested in journalism and has excellent English, so he could clearly obtain a place for no fees at a state university. But he has his heart set on UCU where the tuition is the princely sum of £2500. His mother, a war widow with two younger children, tells me she has the money for it. However, the young man feels it is his responsibility and refuses to let her pay any of the family money: if he doesn’t qualify for a full scholarship, he will make the sacrifice and go elsewhere. Imagine growing up the son of a war hero. If your father has volunteered and made the ultimate sacrifice, how do you live up to that standard?

And that is a question for all of us at UCU. Our students run volunteer centers and are getting the best “service learning” the world can offer. They work on cybersecurity teams or stop fake news. We train priests for psychological first aid, and overworked physical therapists teach rehabilitation. But somehow we must all do more.

The truth is that everyone in Ukraine is exhausted.  But they are also very, very grateful to the free world for its solidarity and support. We celebrated Easter in April with all the traditional eggs and breads, but Ukraine’s long Lent is far from over.

Jeffrey Wills is the former Vice-Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and now a Professor in classical languages. He has a PhD from Harvard. 

Source: Catholic Herald

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