Sports as Mental Health Support for Ukrainian Children
A powerful way to support children caught in conflict or crisis is to provide a safe place where they can get back to doing the things they used to do before their lives were turned upside down. To give them space to play and otherwise engage with each other and to find a bit of normalcy.
Letting kids be kids is a big part of what UNICEF and partners set out to achieve with their Child-Friendly Spaces at refugee camps and other humanitarian settings. It is an important function of the respite centers and mother-and-child rooms found at every UNICEF-UNHCR Blue Dot.
And it is a guiding principle behind a mental health support project called PORUCH now playing out in the small village of Serednie in western Ukraine.
A chance to just be kids again for children who have seen the horrors of the Ukraine war up close
PORUCH is a joint project of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Institute of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, the NGO Volonter VHC and UNICEF offering mental health support online or face-to-face to those who have seen the horrors of war up close. Psychologists work in groups, helping traumatized children and teens work through their fears and find new ways to cope. (There are PORUCH support groups for mothers too.)
In Serednie, the kids are playing sports, with help from another partner: the Transcarpathian Football Association. There are smiles and laughter as the children run around on the grass, passing a soccer ball back and forth and around orange cones.
"I used to have weekly football classes back home and here I am doing it again, making new friends," says Nastya, 12, who fled Kyiv with her mother.
Playing soccer as part of the healing process: PORUCH in action
Nastya says she was terrified when war broke out on Feb. 24. "I was scared a lot,” she says. “I was afraid that a missile would hit my home. I realized that children like me died. Even though we were hiding in a basement, it was terrifying."
One of her teammates, 12-year-old Yaroslava, fled her home in Kharkiv, after spending 10 days sheltering in a basement with her relatives and neighbors. "I was worried about all my relatives. We were not sure if we would manage to leave,” Yaroslava recalls. “I was also anxious about my hamster. Little animals have weak hearts and can die. It was exactly what happened. I miss my classmates a lot, but I have found friends here too.”
After a game, the children gather in groups to draw while discussing their feelings and experiences.
Veronika, who is 9, fled a Kyiv suburb, together with her mother and grandmother. "When this all started, it was horrifying,” she says. “We went to a village and we heard gunfire and bombs there. We were even sleeping with our clothes on, so that we could flee if needed. Explosions occurred every day, waking us up. I dream about the war ending so that we can go home. It's nice here and today it was a lot of fun, so I even forgot about the whole situation, but I haven't been at home for so long.”
Psychologist Diana Sember, above, is helping the children to feel safe again. “My goal is to provide children with a feeling of relief, to help them make friends, communicate and feel safe,” says Sember. “Each child reacts to the reality in Ukraine in their own way. And the PORUCH program is well set up. It helps them to work through their trauma. There is a good combination of activities and work in groups, which gives a good result.”
Together with partners, UNICEF works to provide mental health and psychosocial support to children who have been traumatized by war and other crises. Help UNICEF reach more children in need. Your contribution can make a difference. Donate today.
Top photo: Children get ready to play soccer as part of the UNICEF-supported PORUCH project in western Ukraine, a mental health support program that uses sports and other group activities to help children recover from the trauma of war. © UNICEF