The children who poured into Poland from hollowed-out Ukrainian homes had the horrors of war seared into their minds. Some had lost close relatives, seen dead bodies strewn across roads, or escaped terrifying encounters with Russian soldiers.
At the start, many shared one visible sign of the suffering they had internalised.
“We have children from Mariupol, we have children from Kherson, and from other areas, which were really heavily bombed,” Viktoriia Gnap, co-founder of schools’ charity Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation, told i.
“These children are very much traumatised. In the very beginning, we observed that the children were wearing clothes with hoods on their heads.
“I started to ask psychologists, why does it happen? And they told me that it is definitely not because they’re cold. It’s because they want to hide somehow from reality.”
The education of a generation of children left mentally scarred by the war has become one of the casualties of Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Millions of pupils whose schooling had been disrupted by two years of Covid remote learning were suddenly forced into exile or uprooted from their homes.
One leading aid worker told i that the war risked sparking a mental health crisis for children which could last “an entire generation”.
The largest number of refugee children, around 800,000, came to Poland with their mothers and grandmothers. Families were ripped apart overnight as fathers either stayed behind to fight or help the war effort.
Since November, there has been another influx of families who have uprooted as electricity blackouts caused by Russian targeting of infrastructure plunged millions into darkness.
The sudden arrival of such a huge number of children put pressure on an already under-strain Polish education system, where thousands of teacher vacancies have left schools overcrowded.
Horrified by what was happening in their homeland, Ms Gnap, 42, a former teacher with a background in adult learning who is originally from Donetsk, and her husband Oleksandr Osadchyi felt compelled to act.
Relocating from their new home in Lisbon to Warsaw, they set up the foundation in late March last year, initially renting schools in Poland so that newly-arrived Ukrainian children could take lessons in the evening before moving into their own premises in three cities in September.
Working on the Ukrainian curriculum and taught by Ukrainian teachers who have also escaped across the border, the focus has been on moving youngsters away from online learning and back to classroom-based studies after two years of staying away due to Covid.
“A lot of teachers and parents noticed that children forgot how to communicate, they stopped learning how to socialise. And the level of knowledge was decreasing greatly because of these online classes,” said Ms Gnap.
“Ukrainian schools and teachers were not very technologically advanced to provide high level online education. That’s why we decided that we need to set up offline schools so that children could come back to normality, go to school every day which would bring them to life, I would say, and would somehow treat the trauma of war.”
By September, the foundation, funded by Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) charity Save the Children and Unicef, had set up three schools in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, which now have 1,600 pupils aged six to 17. Another 2,500 children are involved in activities in nine other cities around Poland. The children learn Polish to help with their assimilation into the country.
But the majority of refugee Ukrainian children are still studying online. And while they are physically free from the war, its horrors encroach into the classroom regularly, with lessons being held back at home disrupted by bomb sirens and electricity blackouts.
“Children who are in physical safety, being in Poland, for example, still have this psychological problem, because they, together with the Ukrainian teachers, live through the sirens and cut off of the electricity,” she added.
“Some of their school friends are also in Ukraine. And these Ukrainian kids need to go to the shelter, together with the teacher. And these guys in Poland or the US observe all of that.”
Many of the children they teach come from the east of Ukraine, which has borne some of the worst violence since the war started. Some of their cities, such as Mariupol, are still under Russian occupation. Others are now “completely ruined”, says Ms Gnap.
One little boy who fled Mariupol with his aunt was unaware for months that his mother had been killed by a bomb, with his father injured.
“His father was in the hospital and wanted to tell him in person,” said Ms Gnap. “He was only eight years old.”
Another pupil, a young girl, and her family narrowly escaped with their lives after Russian soldiers grilled her about her father, who was serving in the Ukrainian military, at a checkpoint in Kherson.
“The family needed to escape by crossing in a boat on a river. And when they crossed the Russian soldiers started asking this girl about her family, because children don’t lie,” said Ms Gnap.
“The parents and grandmother of this child had talked a lot about the situation to her. And they asked her to lie about the father and say he is a taxi driver and he lives in Poland.
“And she was so brave to say these lies just to save the family’s lives.”
When families first began arriving last March, mothers were unable to comprehend what they had been through.
“I just asked them a simple question, how are you? They just looked at me and started crying, because they couldn’t answer how they were.
“They lost everything. The responsibility for the children is only on them. Their husbands are not safe. Sometimes their parents are not safe if they didn’t come with them to another country and stayed in Ukraine.”
Psychological support groups have been set up to help the mothers. Children, too, are receiving help, with psychologists in each school.
For children who remain in Ukraine, the physical threat of the war is a daily danger as they try to continue with their studies amid the terror of the conflict.
Sven Coppens, director of child’s right charity Plan International’s Ukraine response, has recently returned from Kharkiv in the east where 80 per cent of schools are destroyed or damaged.
Among the work his team has carried out with displaced and refugee families is the provision of tablets for kids to learn online, safe spaces for children and caregivers to continue learning and the upscaling of mental health support.
But he said: “It’s still a very dreadful situation. There’s no face to face learning happening in the entire Kharkiv Oblast.
“So it’s all about getting access for kids that are affected to online learning. And even then it’s challenging. There’s a huge amount of power cuts since 10 October, when the nationwide strikes happened. About half of the online classes across Ukraine are actually interrupted by outages of electricity.”
In Kharkiv, many displaced families fled to bomb shelters to live. One that he visited in recent weeks houses around 400 people. The psychological weight of the war is etched into children’s behaviour and created a “mental health crisis”, said Mr Coppens.
“The conflict in Ukraine is taking an extremely heavy toll on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” said Mr Coppens, 51.
“We are seeing an increased prevalence of children losing sleep, children becoming anxious, children being depressed, some have very barely spoken since fleeing their homes, months back.
“We’ve seen examples of children jumping at every noise that they might hear. There’s not enough trained psychologists, trained service providers to deal with the situation.
“It risks having a huge impact on the development, resilience and wellbeing of an entire generation and potentially for years to come.”
One aid worker brought balloons for the children they were visiting. When one burst the terrified youngsters leapt under a table. The charity removed balloons from its programme as a result.
There have also been widespread reports of conflict-related sexual violence against mostly women and girls, he said.
“It’s vital that our response to this humanitarian crisis takes into account the specific vulnerabilities of girls or women,” he added.
Back in Poland, the children under Ms Gnap’s care have started to return to their normal selves over the months.
There had “definitely” been an improvement in their behaviour since they arrived, she said. “They stopped wearing hoods,” she laughed.
“This is good, it means that they are more or less feeling comfortable. And when they started to be naughty, you know, it means that they are more or less okay.”