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UNICEF addressing child trauma and displacement in Ukraine’s Kharkiv

Some are children with disabilities along with orphans – all of whom are showing signs of extreme trauma.

In the Kharkiv region, those evacuated are staying at camps for the internally displaced and being given vital assistance by UN agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Against this backdrop, UN News spoke with Munir Mammadzade, UNICEF Representative in Ukraine, who has just been in the region, where a Russian advance has driven thousands towards the main city in search of relative safety.  

He described the dire situation and the assistance needed in the immediate and longer term.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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UN News: You just visited Kharkiv. Can you describe the humanitarian situation in the city and around it, given the latest evacuations and intensive attacks over the last weeks?

Munir Mammadzade: So far, close to 11,000 people have been evacuated from the front areas, mostly to Kharkiv City. I visited the humanitarian hub where those evacuated by the government and volunteers are being registered and accessing services offered by UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations.

Children are among those evacuated and require dedicated and specialized support.  

In the humanitarian hub, we established a child-friendly space. We particularly support children in foster families because they are more vulnerable than others. There are also children with disabilities and children who live with disabled parents. I spoke to some of the children who were evacuated to the IDP centre.

The situation is very difficult. Immediate needs are being addressed thanks to the collective response of the UN and partners on the ground. However, there are many challenges that need to be addressed in the medium and long term.

The head of UNICEF in Ukraine Munir Mammadzade (in the center).
© UNICEF in Ukraine

The head of UNICEF in Ukraine Munir Mammadzade (in the center).

UN News: What are the main challenges for children right now?  

Mr. Mammadzade: Each and every relocation or displacement is a lifetime trauma for these children. They have already been traumatized since the escalation of the war. The frontline areas are regularly attacked and shelled, they were already experiencing mental health problems and required support.

They have limited access to education, relying only on online or distance learning. For example, I spoke to a boy who is about to turn 15. He told me he feels okay, everything is fine, but it was clear he is very stressed and requires professional and psychiatric support due to the trauma he has experienced.

He was choked as he was watching videos on social media all the time, and showing me some of the pictures of what is happening there. But the way he was reacting made us conclude that he requires such support.

Children will need immediate and long-term arrangements, such as learning opportunities, growth and development support and access to health services. Although immediate needs are being addressed, we must realize that displaced people and civilians may not be able to return to their homes.  

Host communities will need long-term solutions, but for humanitarians, our resources do not allow for systemic, long-term interventions. We foresee major challenges for over 100 vulnerable children without parental care who live with foster families.  

They now need to be relocated and are getting used to new foster family arrangements without their support network.

There are challenges associated with the services that children rely on, including energy, water and heating infrastructure, which are currently dysfunctional and may continue to be so in the future.

UNICEF kits for evacuated people from Ukraine's Kharkiv region.
© UNICEF in Ukraine

UNICEF kits for evacuated people from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

UN News: Given these terrible developments, in your view, how well are people coping with this situation, which have been very hard for them even before these latest events?  

Mr. Mammadzade: I spoke to a mother of three children and asked her what is next for her and the family: does she want to move further away from Kharkiv, relocate elsewhere or potentially even leave the country? She said the only thing she needs is to go back to her home.  

This is what most of the people are saying. I think the major challenge for them would be to accept the new reality and the fact that they cannot return because now the infrastructure that civilians rely on is not there.  

Their houses are destroyed. It is too early for them to accept that fact and realize it all the challenges that they will be going through. Of course, on the ground, we and humanitarian partners are providing psychosocial support.  

We are addressing some immediate threats, but the longer they stay in this limbo, the longer they stay in IDP camps, the more difficult it will be for them to cope.

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