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Ukraine: UNICEF Supports Kharkiv Families Evacuating From Areas Near Russia

Recent days have seen relentless Russian air strikes which have killed and injured civilians. The escalation in attacks has also damaged or destroyed critical infrastructure, including power generation plants, electricity substations and railways.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is providing support to families arriving in the main city, also called Kharkiv.

‘Not easy now’

“In the city itself, the situation is not easy now, but it is much calmer than in the border areas,” Liudmila Palamar, UNICEF programme manager in the Kharkiv region, told UN News.

Earlier this week, UNICEF reported that nearly 2,000 children in Ukraine have been killed or injured since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion two years ago.

Additionally, nearly half of all boys and girls are missing out on in-person schooling.

Ms. Palamar also discussed how UNICEF is ensuring that children can continue to learn even as conflict rages.

This interview was translated from Russian and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liudmyla Palamar: The situation in Kharkiv, both the region and the city, is not easy now. The territories from which evacuations are taking place are in a difficult situation in terms of security, with daily shelling. Therefore, it is almost impossible for families with children to stay there now. Most now travel in their own cars or other vehicles, but about 30 to 40 per cent are evacuated by the authorities.

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Those who are evacuated with the help of organisations or local authorities come to the humanitarian headquarters, which is located in the city of Kharkiv. In the city itself, the situation is not easy now, but it is much calmer than in the border areas. Shelling of the city continues on a regular basis, but it is not as intense as in settlements such as Vovchansk or Liptsy, from where people are leaving.

Upon arrival in the city of Kharkiv, all evacuees are met by a large team at the humanitarian headquarters. UNICEF and our partners are an integral part of this team. We help families with children, primarily with essential items and humanitarian relief items such as hygiene kits. Since most families leave in a hurry – they leave practically without anything, without personal belongings – essential goods are what they need in the first days.

We also provide blankets and, if necessary, children’s clothing. We also provide special UNICEF kits for children that contain, for example, a toothbrush, colouring books and information materials that help to distract and support them a little.

The humanitarian centre also has our child-friendly space, where psychologists organise leisure activities for children while their parents are waiting in queues to register and receive help.

UN News: Recent strikes have hit critical infrastructure, including the energy sector, causing power outages. How does this affect children, particularly their ability to learn, because many are now forced to study online?

Liudmyla Palamar: Indeed, most children in the Kharkiv region – except for a single school called MetroSchool, which is located inside the Kharkiv Metro system – are now working online. Therefore, all schoolchildren who live in the Kharkiv region directly depend on having regular access to the internet as well as electricity to charge their laptops or tablets.

For the past few months, both the city and the entire region have been living with regular power outages. Outages can last for several hours a day.

Of course, this causes a lot of stress for children in terms of access to learning because all children live in different areas. Therefore, it is almost impossible for a teacher to adjust or plan classes, for example, in such a way that everyone can join in. Therefore, children sometimes drop out of classes. Sometimes the light turns off unexpectedly, and the internet disappears unexpectedly. Therefore, of course, this is a big problem.

What we are doing as UNICEF in such a situation is to support children and help them with their academic performance through the Catch-Up Learning programme. It aims to make up for the knowledge that children have lost or that they did not have time to acquire over the past two years of the war, but also due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schoolchildren in Kharkiv, like all schoolchildren in the world, were at home online.

We have 10 such locations in the city of Kharkiv. We work in two key subjects within the UNICEF mandate: language and mathematics. At these locations, which are not affected by power outages, children can regularly access laptops and classes.

We are also taking the infrastructure aspect very seriously. The recent attacks have affected not only critical infrastructure that produces electricity, but also water supply and heating.

We are now working very closely with the utility companies that are primarily responsible for heating to help them restore or replace equipment that was lost in the attacks so that when the cold weather begins – which is less than six months away – children can have warm homes and apartments.

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