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Ukrainian refugees dealing with trauma after escaping to Poland
03:59 - Source: CNN
Warsaw, Poland CNN  — 

Eight-year-old Yana was going to gymnastics class six days a week at home near Odessa, Ukraine.

Now, she can only practice by herself on a patch of open floor in a refugee center here in the Polish capital.

Yana is one of millions of Ukrainian children coping with change: forced to leave her home, her passions and her father behind in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of their country.

“There were explosions there and stuff like that,” she said quietly, recalling that she heard more than she actually saw.

“I’m just not afraid of it very much,” she added.

Her mother, Liudmyla Bats, said Yana is very strong and said she hopes that when her daughter tells her she is doing OK, she really means it.

But sitting in her bathrobe after a welcome shower at the Arena Ursynów, a sports complex now used to temporarily house Ukrainian refugees, Bats talked about her own trauma.

“Even here, every time when I hear some sounds and when the airplane is flying, I’m afraid,” she said.

Bats and her children are benefiting from the well-documented generosity of the Poles – shelter, food, even a table well-stocked with pencils and paper for Yana to use while attending virtual school on her phone.

But less known is the help Polish leaders and private organizations are providing Ukrainian refugees dealing with what we can’t see: the mental health of the mostly women and children who crossed the border.

More than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland, and, according to the Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, there are some 300,000 in the capital city alone. He said 100,000 are children and already 15,000 Ukrainian refugees are enrolled in Polish schools – some with his own children.

“I talk to my kids because they attend Warsaw schools with Ukrainian kids. They say that those kids are incredibly resilient, but you never know what’s beneath the surface. And, of course, this is one of the major problems. I mean, health care – psychological health,” the mayor said.

Trzaskowski said he has temporarily directed many of the city’s psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health social services to help the Ukrainian refugees.

Private organizations are prioritizing the care too – leaving leaflets at train stations for arriving refugees to see.

“We are all traumatized, especially after what we’ve seen in the past days on television. And some of those kids were just escaping bombs. Some of them were seeing members of their family being killed. I mean, this is something that we have problems imagining,” Trzaskowski said. “We have a lot of traumatized kids in Warsaw who need help.”

“My friends from Ukraine tell me that they can focus on fighting and rebuilding their country because we take care of their families and their kids,” he added, referring to the men who stayed behind.

No longer an afterthought

The emphasis on mental health is a very modern approach to caring for war refugees. It wasn’t that long ago that it was an afterthought, if a thought at all.

At a Jewish Hillel Center in downtown Warsaw, Milena Konovalova leads group therapy sessions for refugee women. She recently fled Ukraine herself.

“Every woman needs another woman who can listen to her,” she said. “Before the war in Ukraine, I worked as a women’s psychologist. I worked only with women, and I understand how important it is for women to talk, to talk to other women.”

Konovalova is not Jewish, but the Hillel Center is one of many organizations opening their doors for all Ukrainians with any kind of need.

During a recent session, Konovalova and five other women sat around a table covered with rose petals in what she calls a women’s circle.

The lyrics of the song “Be Yourself” by Peruquois filled the room as the women took turns lighting candles. Emotions rushed to the surface. Tears flowed as the women connected and shared their experiences.

While the women talked, their children played in a makeshift day care center on the other side of the room. Some of them were too young to understand, happy just to be playing with toys and other children.

But some of them do understand. Young girls like eight-year-old Antonina, who said she knows that she’s in Poland because of the war.

“Because Putin has something in his head,” she explained.

It turns out not all grown-ups make good decisions, we said during our conversation.

“When it comes to Putin, yes,” Antonina shot back.

The refugee children, just like children in the United States, were already dealing with mental health challenges from being isolated during almost two years of the pandemic. Now, having left the warm comforts of home, not to mention their fathers who stayed in Ukraine to fight, any move toward a pre-pandemic normalcy has been cruelly interrupted.

Their mothers across the room are seeking emotional support to help themselves and put them in a better place to address their family’s needs and traumas.

“When we talk to other women, we hear that we have the same problems, and when we see our situation from a distance, we can solve it,” explained Konovalova.

“The most prominent trauma is that women don’t see tomorrow. They are not sure, they doubt, they are frightened or scared, they don’t feel protected anywhere,” she said. “And it’s important to convey to them that there is tomorrow, that they are in a warm and safe place, that the children will have porridge tomorrow, and she will be able to tuck him in, go for a walk with the child. It’s important to know that tomorrow will happen.”

Anna Odzeniak and Ksenyia Medvedeva contributed to this report.