Holiday Train Brings Hope & Support to Children Caught in Ukraine War

December 23, 2022
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As subzero winter temperatures grip Ukraine this holiday season, some 7 million children continue to suffer the devastating impacts of war, including explosive weapons, heat and energy shortages, and the inability to go to school, either online or in person.

UNICEF is stepping up new initiatives and activities to ensure vulnerable children and families across the country get the financial, educational and moral support they need to survive this extremely difficult time.

To provide some hope and support for families living near the front lines in eastern Ukraine, particularly in newly accessible areas like Kharkiv and Kherson, UNICEF and Ukrainian Railways teamed up to dispatch a special holiday train bringing festive performances and gifts intended to spark children's creativity and boost their spirits.

On Dec. 22, 2022, St Nicholas and his assistants distribute gifts, including UNICEF school bags, art supplies and education materials, to children during holiday season celebrations at the Zanki Railway Station in Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine. © UNICEF/UN0756288/Filipov

UNICEF contributed some 30,000 backpacks filled with supplies like notebooks, pens, colored pencils, sharpeners, modeling clay, colored paper, scissors and glue. In Balakliia, Kharkiv Oblast, a crowd of people pulled their coats tightly to keep out the cold and stepped forward to meet the brightly decorated train as it pulled into the station. 

Some of the children couldn't believe their eyes when St. Nicholas stepped out of the train holding UNICEF backpacks. © UNICEF/UN0756295/Filipov

Children danced along with the music and posed for photos with the performers, happy for a few moments of respite from the hardships of war. A tiny girl in a fluffy hat looked up in awe at the man dressed as St. Nicholas. A little boy shouldered his new backpack and smiled. 

Spirits were high as children enjoyed musical performances and received gifts at Ukraine's Zanki railway station on Dec. 22, 2022. © UNICEF/UN0756287/Filipov

UNICEF is also working with Ukraine's Ministry of Social Policy to provide $102 million of additional cash transfers to 123,000 vulnerable families, particularly families with four or more children and families that have a child with a disability, benefitting nearly half a million people, including children.  

Children danced to the music at the Zanki railway station, happy to be together after months of isolation in a year filled with war. © UNICEF/UN0756284/Filipov 

"The holiday season has brought little cheer to families in Ukraine, but we hope that, by providing some of the most vulnerable families with critical cash assistance and education supplies, we can bring a little hope to parents and children in the midst of an especially difficult winter," said UNICEF Ukraine Representative Murat Sahin.

A UNICEF Spilno Spot in Balakliia, Ukraine, provides children with a safe place to play and be with other children their own age.  © UNICEF/UN0755927/Pashkina

Staying warm is top of mind for Ukraine's families; attacks on infrastructure have left heat and electricity in short supply. To provide families with access to heated spaces, UNICEF operates more than 140 Spilno — Ukrainian for "together" — Spots across Ukraine. The warm, child-friendly centers offer a sense of normalcy to traumatized children, along with psychosocial support, medical checks and referrals for other social services.

UNICEF Spilno Spots, like this one in Balakliia, Ukraine, give children a safe place to play and connect with social services. © UNICEF/UN0755915/Pashkina

As soon as Balakliia returned to the control of Ukrainian authorities in September, UNICEF opened a Spilno Spot. The white tent filled with toys and colorful furniture is now a favorite destination for local children who have spent long months without school or a safe place to play.

"At a time when families look back at the experiences of the past year ahead to the new year, providing this small sense of normalcy and hope for the future, amid the most uncertain times, is critical," said Sahin. "As we have done throughout 2022, UNICEF will do everything we can to support Ukraine's children and families as we move into a new year." 

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Top photo: On Dec. 20, 2022, a Ukrainian child receives a UNICEF backpack filled with art supplies and educational materials during holiday season celebrations at the Sloviansk railway station in the Kramatorsk district of Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast. © UNICEF/UN0755219/Filippov