First day of School, Sixth Year of Conflict

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Are you getting ready for the first of September? Have you bought all the textbooks, notebooks and school uniforms? Got a lesson schedule? In the town of Popasna, preparations are well underway, despite its proximity to the contact line in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine.

As well as the challenges all parents face – new clothes, books, maybe a few tears – families in this part of the world have to think about avoiding land mines on the way to school, and shelling during lessons.

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting, special time for little Dima: he graduated from kindergarten and is going to start big school. His dad has repurposed an old table into a homework desk, and now it fits the boy’s size. Every day Dima practices with his handwriting manual and reads books and his new desk.

A new backpack was bought in advance, last winter. Dima often gets it out of the closet and walks around the house like the real schoolboy he will be in a few days.

His mother Yana has just received a cash transfer from IOM, within programme funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. She immediately went shopping to buy a tracksuit, T-shirts, jeans and a shirt for Dima.

There are three children in the family: Dima and his two elder sisters. “Kid’s stuff is so expensive now,” says Yana. “Jeans cost 200 hryvnias (USD 7.5). Maybe the clothes for adults are even more expensive, I have already forgotten when I was buying something for myself… But on the other hand, we have almost finished the refurbishment of our house after the shelling. Look, there is new wallpaper in our daughter’s room. Just a few holes after the shelling left in the living room, we will plaster them and try to forget about this horror”.

Yana lost her job a year ago and when she’s not out job-hunting or looking after the family she’s in the garden: neighbours who have left Popasna allowed her to cultivate their plots, and now the family is literally living off the land.

Yana’s husband goes to work every day, but his factory has been idle for several months (the conflict caused the breakdown of many enterprises in eastern Ukraine). When last paid, he received only 400 hryvnias (USD 15), which is far from enough for a family of five. With all their previous savings and cash assistance received from IOM, the family have bought some farm machinery and hope to make money by ploughing people’s plots in autumn, to earn money to get them through the harsh winter.

Three schoolchildren in a family is a challenge, especially in situation of such insecurity and economic instability. The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine is in its sixth year, and some 500,000 children in a 20-kilometre area on both sides of the contact line remain in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

On their way to school, thousands of girls and boys are exposed to the risks of landmines, explosive remnants of war, and sometimes even shelling. During the second semester of the last academic year (January–May 2019), at least 14 schools came under shelling and small-arms fire, damaging facilities and disrupting classes. Psychological trauma and emotional distress are a reality for many schoolchildren, their parents and teachers. Within its humanitarian programmes, IOM assisted over 100,000 conflict-affected and displaced children since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014.

Studies have shown that in crises, children mature faster. “I want to be as grown-up like my sisters going to 9th and 11th grade!” Dima says to us. He changes his clothes, folds his new tracksuit and hides it in the closet together with his backpack. He shows us to the garden where the roses are in bloom. On the first of September he will bring them to his first teacher.

Words: Anna Pochtarenko, pictures: Volodymyr Shuvayev