“We thought we’d stay for two weeks, and now it’s been over a month already,” says Viktoria, a mom of two from the south of Ukraine. Viktoria and three of her close friends, all with two children each, fled the war in Ukraine and found shelter in SOS Children’s Village Bucharest.
“The uncertainty is scary,” Viktoria adds. “Back home we had our lives, our full families. We had plans – some for the weekend, others for the summer, for next year. If a plan fell through, we had somewhere to go back to. Now, we don’t know what to do next. Should we plan? Plan for what? What can we go back to?”
“24 February, the day the war started, was a shock,” says Hanna, Viktoria’s friend. “You don’t expect to wake up, grab what you can, take your children and leave not knowing when you’ll be back. That initial shock has passed now, but the fear and uncertainty remains.”
“We all have our husbands in Ukraine,” says Viktoria. “Our parents, our relatives are there. I talk to my husband every day. He’s alone now. The situation seems to have toughened him, but I can tell he’s sad. He misses our children, he misses me, he misses our life together. I miss him, our children miss their dad. You go through life as a family, and then suddenly you must make a choice that leaves you alone. That is difficult for everyone, regardless whether you’re a man or a woman.”
“My parents tell me not to worry,” says Natalia, another of Viktoria’s friends. “They say they’ve gotten used to the new normal of shooting, shelling and air raid sirens. My mom says she doesn’t even wake up to the sound of sirens any more. ‘Whatever happens is my destiny,’ she says to me, and tells me to take good care of her grandchildren.”
Together at the SOS Children’s Village
The four mothers and their children came to SOS Children’s Village Bucharest through a contact in the company where one of them worked. That company’s Romanian branch happened to be a corporate partner to SOS Children’s Villages Romania.
“Our wish was to stay together, but we were almost sure that no one would agree to have eight children, age three to 15, and four adults in the same apartment or house. We are thankful to SOS Children’s Villages for having us all stay in the same house. We feel much more comfortable when we’re together. We can support and comfort each other,” says Hanna. She adds that her sister and her parents managed to get to Romania and will soon join them in the same house in the SOS Children’s Village Bucharest. “It will be such a relief to have them here,” she says.
Childhood upside down
The eight children seem to get along, at least judging by the sound of giggles and stomping feet coming from the rooms.
“Their daily routine has drastically changed,” explains Lena, mother of the oldest 15-year-old girl. “Their lives are turned upside down. At first, they were confused that they had to stay in one room with me, without their own place or privacy. Now it’s better, they have adapted to the reality.
“My teenage daughter was a bit problematic. Nothing serious, just usual teenage behaviour which the war and fleeing our home heightened. I had her speak with a psychologist online, and she came to accept our new reality, at least for the time being.”
No school again
The school-age children attend online classes held by their teachers who are still in Ukraine. The mums say the children hardly learn anything. “They are at different ages and in different classes which are all held at different times,” says Viktoria. “So, there is no one time period when all school-age children are busy. Someone is always free to play which is distracting to the ones following classes.
“Another, much harder circumstance is that the classes are often interrupted by air raid sirens. Then the teacher stops the class to run to bomb shelters. At the beginning this upset them, but now they just calmly say ‘no school again’.”
Following a year of online schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukrainian children went back to school in person, only to have their education cut off again – this time having to run for their lives. Still, these four mums don’t give up on their children’s education.
What children need
“We all work with them, whoever can cover whichever lesson or subject,” says Hanna. “But, it’s not enough. They need textbooks, workbooks, practice tasks in Ukrainian, like they had back home. That is not available in Romania yet.”
“The children also need exercise,” adds Natalia. “My children took judo back home, and I would really like to see them continue with judo or a similar sport. Some of the girls took dancing lessons back home. This is also needed. Basically, any structured physical activity will be good for them.”
“Also drawing and sculpting,” Lena continues. “This would be something we can do together with the children because age doesn’t really matter for drawing and sculpting. I see a big need for this for my teen daughter. There are no children her age in the village, Ukrainian or Romanian. She connects with her friends from home online, but it’s not the same. Most of the time she feels alone and isolated.”
Time to heal
Asked if they need counselling or psychological support for themselves, in unison the mums say yes.
“We may appear strong and resilient, and perhaps to some point we are. Each one of us has to be both mother and father here. We need to appear strong for our children’s wellbeing. But, you often read something, see something, hear something, and it breaks you down. The hard truth hits you – you are far away from home, without your partner, and you don’t know if or when you will go back. You start to cry. The nights are especially hard. That’s when you realise how badly you need psychological help.”
After a heavy moment of silence, Viktoria lifts up the mood: “We also need language classes, both English and Romanian. And some sports for ourselves, like riding bikes or doing fitness classes. We need to keep active and busy.”
Whenever possible, these four mums take their children to the parks in Bucharest. “The parks here are simply lovely,” Viktoria says. “We also went to the Grigore Antipa National Museum of Natural History – the children loved it. We try to go on as many outings as possible – this keeps us busy, the children learn new things and we all have fun.”
Well, apparently not always, as Hanna explained: “Visiting Bran Castle in Transylvania didn’t sit well with my ten-year-old. Before we left, we explained to all children that Count Dracula isn’t real and that it’s all just stories. But, it was a cold gloomy day, making the atmosphere quite eerie and real.”
“Seeing the touristy vampire trinkets for sale at the stands and the castle up in the darkened sky, my daughter said to me angrily: ‘I thought you said monsters aren’t real. I won’t forgive you for this.’ I hugged her, held her tight, and after few minutes we both started laughing. We still laugh about it.”
Privacy note: all names are changed; exact location of origin is withheld.
SOS Children’s Villages Romania is sheltering Ukrainian children and families in all three SOS Children’s Villages in Bucharest, Cisnadie and Hemeiusi. In SOS Children’s Village Bucharest, on 26-March-2022, there were 16 children and seven parents from Ukraine.
SOS Children’s Villages Romania plans to scale up the support to Ukrainian children and families with different services and in-kind support on all three locations.