Lumos has been working with the government of Ukraine for nearly a decade and running a pilot project in the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine since 2019, supporting the regional authority with care reform and developing community support services so that children can grow up in families rather than in orphanages. Since then the number of children in institutional care has halved.
But Ukraine still has the highest rate of children in institutions in Europe – before the war around 100,000 children lived in 700 orphanages – 1,500 in Zhytomyr alone. When Russian troops invaded, children were immediately sent home to families without preparation and their care and protection cannot be guaranteed. Other children remain trapped in institutions - such as those without families or with disabilities preventing their relocation. Here they are suffering unbearable trauma with no way of knowing what the future holds.
Anastasia*, a Ukraine-based member of the Lumos team who works with children and young people, shares her experience of these early days of war.
23rd February 2022
A few days before the war started, I was full of anxiety and suffering negative premonitions. My ‘panic bag’ was packed and ready to go. The car had a full tank of petrol, and I had cash in my pocket. I just couldn’t comprehend how I could just take my son and flee the country.
I had been reading and analysing national and international news closely, and understood where everything was leading to. But common sense still kept telling me that in the 21st century, war such as this was impossible. It kept telling me that civilisation had advanced beyond this, and that bombing the most beautiful cities in Europe was a thing of the past.
The evening before the war, my French teacher (herself forced to leave her home due to the conflict) and I had discussed the lives of people in affected territories, and how hard it was to just run and leave everything behind. How would you know when it was time to run?
She told me that the sound of a bomb explosion was unmistakeable – that I would know it when I heard it.
At 5:30 in the morning I woke up at a loud and deafening sound, and I instantly knew: that’s the sound.
Good morning, Ukraine- 24th February 2022.
I try to pick my son up from his place of education, but he and the other students are periodically told to hide in bomb shelters, and I can’t even leave my street because of the traffic jam. The city is paralysed. Gas stations, ATM machines and stores are all packed with people – the ones which are open. Half of them are closed because there is no gas, food or money. People are in panic and fleeing the capital in their masses.
My son finally arrived, I’m so happy that we’re finally together. We left our home in search of water, food and a bomb shelter. Our apartment building has no basement or place to hide, but the bomb shelter is too far away – we’re not going to make it there. The airport nearby is too dangerous. We decided to drive outside the city to my sister’s home. Three hours and twenty kilometres later we’re safe. Or so we thought.
Sleepless nights began. It’s impossible to sleep when there is a constant stream of fighter jets flying overhead, mixed with the sounds of explosions and shots. In the morning we run outside to try and find out whose aircraft it is that is flying past us: Ukrainian or Russian. We’re not sure. Reading the news, we reel in horror. Friends from around the world are calling and offering their help. They cry with us.
We boarded up the windows with plywood and prepared the basement. We’re in total disbelief and we try to wake up from this nightmare that won’t pass. We’re not sure of today’s date: four days has passed but it seems like four years.
As it starts to get dangerous, we leave this house as well. Later, we found out that a projectile had hit our house. My sister and I looked at the photos that our neighbours sent, and we cried together for a while. We’re trembling, but happy that we managed to make it out of there.
Over this week we’ve had to relocate five times. Each place feels safer than the last, the further away we got from Kyiv. We thank God and the people who helped us that this has been possible. But the road is still difficult, there are crazy queues at checkpoints, and travelling takes longer than it should. As well as focusing on the road, we have to look around us in all directions, including into the sky.
Some of my friends have had to drive for a gruelling 36 hours non-stop just to get to safety.
It’s hard to sleep. At night my sister screams. Everyone is having nightmares.
We start our mornings by watching the news. It’s always sad news. We check in with friends and people we know – asking if everyone is alive.
4th – 6th March
I think about all the people who are hiding in basements, unable to leave. I think about the elderly and the children, especially children in hospitals and foster homes.
There are no humanitarian corridors, even to evacuate children. The children are dying just like the adults. I fear for those who survive too; war tears apart families and may send even more children into institutions, leaving them vulnerable to further trauma and abuse.
Young people who I work with, who grew up in foster homes, are now doing their best to volunteer. They help pack first aid kits for the frontline, and deliver food and medicine. Some of them have managed to relocate to the countryside or remote villages. One young man in a wheelchair who I work with, and who has spent his whole life in a residential institution, has always dreamed of travelling abroad. He called me to say that his dream has come true: he is abroad now. If only he had known the cost, he would never have dreamed.
Another young man spent four days in a bomb shelter. Every day I waited for him to get in touch, to tell me he’d left. Another left Kharkiv to the sound of shelling in a train overcrowded with children.
We are glad that we are all alive and in touch.
This is no longer a nightmare, but our reality.
My father has had a heart attack. There is nothing I can do to help him. He is in the hospital and we’re trying to find medicine for him through volunteers and friends – there is none available in the pharmacy. I want to see him, but I’m afraid to. All I can do is pray.
I have no idea when the war will end. Like everyone else, I want to believe that it will be soon. That we can return to our homes, hug our loved ones and together rebuild our beautiful country.
I remember those Ukrainians who left the affected territories, thinking that they would return in a month or two. Eight years have passed since then. The world has done a lot for us, and continues to help. But how many more people must die for this war and suffering to end?
I admire our people. Our strength, our courage, our love for our country and our belief in miracles.
*Name has been changed
We have launched an urgent fundraising appeal to help relocate the most vulnerable children, support families and emergency foster carers, provide emergency packages consisting of food, hygiene and medical items, and to provide psychological support in the coming weeks and months to support children deal with the trauma they’re experiencing. We also operates in Moldova and is currently working with the authorities and other partners to map the long-term support that will be needed to support the thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine and children separated from their families.