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In Ukraine, a special school helps children cope with trauma from the war


A sad reality of all the wars and conflicts in the world is the trauma it causes children. NPR's Hanna Palamarenko visited a rehabilitation camp for Ukrainian children who have witnessed death, survived bombings and lost family.

HANNA PALAMARENKO, BYLINE: By most appearances, Gen.Camp is like any other modern residential school. Classrooms are busy with children and teachers. Signs tell students to wash their hands - outside, a playground and swimming pool. But the goal of this school in western Ukraine - they asked us not to name its location for safety reasons - isn't just to learn math and history. Psychologists are also teaching these 40 students, traumatized by the horrors of war, how to listen to their emotions, how to grow and plan for their future. Natalia Moroz is the director of this camp, now hosting its seventh group of kids.

NATALIA MOROZ: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "It is equally difficult every time," she says. "And you think you have heard everything, but life throws more and more terrible stories."

All of the kids at this school have had their parents die in the war, says Oksana Lebedeva, founder of the broader Gen.Ukrainian project, as she walks towards a classroom.

OKSANA LEBEDEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "They now can talk only about those who died," she says. Each child is asked to make a pillow to sleep with as a companion.

NAZAR SHULGA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I drew a pillow gamer," says 9-year-old Nazar Shulga, "because I used to play Call of Duty with my dad. And now I can play, too, but without my dad because he died in the war." Ivan Shulga, Nazar's father worked as a sound engineer on popular Ukrainian TV projects. But at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he became a fighter and went to the front.

NAZAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "He died on the June 14 this year. On June 15, we found out that he was killed," Nazar says. "My mother and I did not believe it, even when they brought his documents."

NAZAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I couldn't believe he was dead."

Project psychologist Vatui Martirosian notes that it is important to be frank with each child, not to avoid the fact of death.

VATUI MARTIROSIAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "If possible," she says, "it is necessary to involve the child in the rituals of saying farewell to the deceased."

Hundreds of people came to Nazar's father's funeral in Kyiv, he says, family, friends, colleagues and fellow soldiers.

NAZAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I believed only then," he says, "when I saw his face. It was so cold. I just wanted to look only at him."

LEBEDEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "What you need to know about children's grief," says Lebedeva, the project's founder, "is that either they feel terrible, or they behave like normal children." What she means is children can cry, then play, then laugh, then get distracted and then be sad again. But some aren't able to move past the trauma. Lebedeva says art therapy can show which children have greater needs.

LEBEDEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I'll show you a picture that one girl drew," she says. "It is a picture that makes you not want to live. But if you meet her, she is just an ordinary girl with a bow." The picture shows a skeleton, internal organs, all the details, Lebedeva says, that indicate more help is needed. Other Gen.Camp children drew pictures of mutilated bodies, scary-toothed monsters, a dozen eyes peering out of darkness, scenes of warfare. Ten-year-old Liuba, who didn't want her last name used, likes drawing war most of all.

LIUBA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I always draw the war," she says. "In my drawings, I have the Ukrainian side tanks and Russian military equipment that is completely broken." She also draws civilians, soldiers and medics.

LIUBA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "Unfortunately, my father was a medic," says Liuba. Her mother told her about her father's death on the day of the funeral.

LIUBA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "I was very sorry," she recalls. Now she dreams of growing up and becoming a military medic like her father. But she also draws doves as a symbol of peace.

The children, some up to 18 years old, are here for three weeks, where they can learn tools to cope with their trauma. Psychologists here acknowledge that not every child is going to heal, but they keep in contact after the kids leave.

LEBEDEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "The children's psyche is very flexible and can recover up to 100%," Lebedeva says. And she believes with the right efforts, every child who has faced terrible events will be able to live a full and happy life, though, she says, some return to the camp for more treatment. After group psychotherapy and a lunch, the children from Gen.Camp have a surprise - outside, an improvised stage has been built.


PALAMARENKO: A famous Ukrainian singer, Svitlana Tarabarova, is here to perform for the children.


SVITLANA TARABAROVA: (Singing in Ukrainian).

PALAMARENKO: "Life goes on. The night will pass. No one can break you," sings Tarabarova. The children are applauding, crying and laughing. Nine-year-old Nazar is dancing with his new friends. Liuba is singing along. They're being kids, normal kids, in a situation that is anything but. Hanna Palamarenko, NPR News, Western Ukraine.


TARABAROVA: (Singing in Ukrainian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hanna Palamarenko