The children of Ukraine need our help
A little more than one year ago, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin started a bloody, vicious and savage war in Ukraine. He expected a quick victory over Ukraine. What he got was something else: mass, unified defiance and a powerful will to resist, both on the frontlines from the Ukrainian military and from a population that refused to bend. Since then, the world has continued to watch the destruction the Ukrainian people have endured in horror and disbelief.
It’s hard to imagine that this war, which has brought about the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, is still ongoing with no end in sight. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 8 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe, close to more than 5 million internally displaced people within Ukraine, and approximately 18 million people who need immediate humanitarian assistance. Women and children make up 90 percent of those fleeing the war, making them particularly vulnerable to violence, exploitation and discrimination.
While we try to wrap our heads around the futility of this war and acknowledge the deep scars of trauma the Ukrainian people endure — we must ask ourselves: How can we, as human beings, support the next generation of children and lower the catastrophic implications of the war? As adults we have a responsibility toward all children to provide opportunities for their development and support their well-being and happiness. The needs of young children in humanitarian crises are diverse and complex and often overlooked. We have an obligation to respond to young children’s needs through interventions that are tailored to them and specific to the context they live in.
When the war started, at my organization, Early Starters International, we began standing up safe spaces for young refugees across eastern Europe. Today, we’ve got early childhood safe spaces in the Czech Republic, Moldova, Poland and Israel. We also now have spaces in Ukraine in Lviv and soon in Kharkiv. The last 12 months have given us much time to observe and reflect on what these children need and what the world must do to ensure we don’t have a generation lost to war. Every day we see the joy in children’s eyes when they play and create and the relief in parents’ eyes knowing their children are well cared for.
That’s why we need to step up for these internally and externally displaced children, and that must start with ensuring quality early childhood education. Oftentimes, early childhood education is lost in the discussion for internally and externally displaced persons, but it is vital both for children and parents. Early childhood is the most important time in a person’s life — it is a critical period for brain development and lays the foundation for future health, happiness and well-being. We must provide quality early childhood development interventions that offer a safe and stable environment during crises with qualified early childhood educators who are well-trained and supervised. It is every young child’s right to access high-quality education that supports their social, physical, cognitive and emotional development. it is our responsibility, as adults, to provide it, regardless of the war. That means it is up to both governments and NGOs to provide access to this vital need.
Within these safe spaces, we also must provide psychosocial support. This war and its impact has been a traumatic event. Kids will often play “war” with bombs and missiles to feel like they are in control of something they have no control over. Children who have experienced this war have lived through trauma, loss and separation from their families and loved ones. We must provide psychological support for children and their families to help lower the impact of these experiences and help them adjust as they grow older.
Of course, we also must ensure that these programs are inclusive and for all children, no matter their ability, background, gender, socio-economic status and any other characteristic. This means providing extra support for children with special needs and promoting tolerance, empathy and diversity in all early childhood programming. Childhood doesn’t wait for children, and for Ukrainian children, their childhood is now — we must do everything we can to support their well-being and happiness, lower their trauma and build their resilience so that when they do become adults, they can perhaps do a better job than us, at creating a society that is just and fair.
As Ukraine bravely stands its ground and fights back on the battlefield, it is essential to remember that this war —like all wars — will eventually end. But as the war goes on, we must make sure that we are doing the work now to ensure that peace benefits the children of Ukraine. Now is the time for governments and others to invest in and support early childhood education. We can’t lose this generation of children.
Sarah Wilner is co-founder of Early Starters International, a non-profit organization that has set up early childhood education schools across eastern Europe as the war began (Czech Republic, Moldova, Romania, Poland) and has now set up schools in Lviv and one in Kharkiv. Wilner is also a special education teacher and trainer with over a decade of high-level experience in Israel’s MASHAV Carmel International Training Center. She directed a national early childhood education training program in Ghana in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and trained educators in Nepal, Africa and Asia.
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