Refugee children from Ukraine need help. This is how the world can step up.

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/Getty

We were walking through Warsaw Secondary School #1 to meet the 50 teenage Ukrainian students who had enrolled in their school in the last six weeks.

These children were among the mass exodus of refugees from Ukraine who had fled Vladimir Putin’s assassination spree into what was once a vibrant country full of promise, now facing unprovoked destruction on a scale not seen since WWII.

As the principal escorted us to the first class of Ukrainian teenagers, he stopped to warn us that some of the stories we would hear might be “difficult.” that we anticipate But this portly educator, otherwise “in charge,” was having a difficult time, his eyes brimming with tears as he told us about one particular 16-year-old girl (whom we’ll call Eva), a relatively recent arrival. to Warsaw.

Eva had been living in a suburb of Mariupol with her parents and a younger brother. Her father was an active duty Ukrainian Defense Forces fighter the night the missiles first landed on her apartment complex. Terrified, Eva’s mom woke the kids up, grabbed everything she could fit into a couple of suitcases, put everyone in the car, and drove west in a small caravan of friends and neighbors.

Results are in on the world’s handling of the war in Ukraine

They had gotten about two miles from their neighborhood when a missile hit the car directly in front of Eva’s, blowing it to pieces, with another mother and her children inside. Eva and her family, already in a state of shock at the bombing and the abrupt departure from their home, watched in horror as her friends were killed.

Eva wasn’t the only girl in the class who sat expressionless and silent as we talked to her classmates. But there were others who asked us questions and told us her stories, many of them communicating quite well in English. They were eager to talk about everything from life in the US and our favorite classic American cars, to unimaginable horror stories of the violence they witnessed and the anxiety they feel about their future.

Some 13 million refugees who have already left Ukraine (or moved to safer regions in the country’s western districts) are just the latest additions to the more than 80 million global refugees who have fled war, disaster and injustice. . Many refugees have languished in an intractable social limbo for years and years.

Poland and other countries in the region have been incredibly compassionate and generous to Ukrainians, inviting them into their communities and homes as they seek safety from the fierce Russian invasion.

But how long will the kindness and acceptance of others last?

We suspect that patience and openness in these circumstances will not be inexhaustible. And then, there is the matter of scale.

Poland alone has taken in almost 3 million Ukrainians (about 800,000 refugees have already returned to Ukraine). Another 700,000 have applied for special 18-month Polish ID cards that give them access to housing support, schools, social services and work permits.

As of last week, some 300,000 Ukrainians are in Warsaw, increasing the city’s population by more than 15 percent. This is proportionally equivalent to New York City accepting and providing services to more than 1.2 million non-English speaking traumatized war refugees in a matter of weeks.

The refugees in Warsaw include some 100,000 school-age children, of whom only about 20,000 have enrolled in schools, such as the secondary school we visited.

Warsaw’s dynamic mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, has opened special centers for many of the children trying to learn remotely, and wants to set up temporary “container classrooms” to accommodate children who will need to be in classrooms.

But, at this moment, the resources allow to cover only a fraction of the need. And, of course, this is not the only item on the mayor’s agenda. Warsaw’s health and hospital systems are under severe pressure, not to mention the need to find permanent housing and jobs for the new arrivals.

Ukrainian refugees of all ages will clearly be struggling for the foreseeable future. It is essential to act urgently. We (the US and our allies supporting Ukraine) must ensure that children are adequately supported to deal with trauma and are put on an effective educational trajectory as quickly as possible.

What is there to do?

We recommend that UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) coordinate a focused effort to address the two main challenges for displaced children: mental health support and educational continuity. And the agency must do it now, and at scale.

The goal should be to provide this critical support for everyone Ukrainian refugee or internally displaced child. This effort must be financed by rich countries, but all must cede the authority for coordination to the High Commissioner. That said, it is essential that these efforts be highly transparent and accountable to donor nations from programmatic, timely, and fiscal perspectives.

Specific strategies to meet the scale of these challenges in the shortest amount of time include proven technology-based approaches such as language-appropriate remote learning systems, well-designed digital content, and availability of the necessary hardware. Digital technology and systems could also find wide application in the training of Ukrainian-speaking mental health professionals in first aid and psychological support.

The United States, Ukraine and NATO have a secret weapon against Russia: patience.

And the High Commissioner must immediately embrace innovative ideas, such as creating plans to expand the capacity of education infrastructure by adapting mobile classrooms or “containers,” deploying 3-D printers to help build new facilities, and transforming empty buildings into schools.

Meanwhile, contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals are saving lives and giving hope to people whose lives have been turned upside down. Help support school lunch programs for refugee children, hire Ukrainian-speaking teachers and psychologists, organize summer camps that offer children a positive experience along with Polish language instruction, create “school-to-school” programs with centers education in the US are all excellent contributions.

When we visited a shelter for refugee families in the center of Warsaw, we were shown a “suggestion box” full of pieces of paper on which the children had written things they wanted, such as a t-shirt or a soccer ball. Make no mistake, meeting those kinds of needs of traumatized children also means a lot.

It goes without saying that these same efforts must be organized for each of the world’s 35 million refugee children. While attention is so focused on the catastrophe in Ukraine, the hope is that we will learn strategies that can be applied elsewhere. We have to start somewhere. Let’s start here and now.

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