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One Israeli organization creating a 'safe place' for Ukrainian refugee children

From Moldova to Israel, Early Starters is attempting to peel back layers of trauma with good routine, positive experiences for children

Ukrainian refugees participating in a program by Early Starters International (Photo: Yuval Cohen Harounoff)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have strayed from the headlines, but for one Israeli organization the crisis remains front and center and has fast become a long-term project.

Just two weeks after the fighting began in February, Early Starters International established a center for Ukrainian refugee children over the border in Moldova. Seven months later, the organization is setting up more centers in Eastern Europe and has become a semi-permanent fixture in the region following the erratic flow of refugees crisscrossing the continent all the way down to Israel.

Yulie Khromchenco, ESI’s Eastern Europe program manager, told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that the organization’s focus with Ukrainian refugees has been to create a safe space for their children so they can begin to heal from the terror of war and the trauma of being uprooted from their homes.

“Trauma is a break in the norm. And, in order to heal from trauma, we need good experiences that come in continuation,” she said. “That is basically what we try to do – create a combination of good experiences.”

This intervention is designed to help reduce the traumas these children will carry into adulthood, Khromchenco said.

“And when we are talking about such large numbers (of refugees)” – she estimated between 7 to 8 million – “the lives of societies – of whole countries – will be better than if we don’t do any kind of intervention.”

While ESI operates programs in several countries, its Ukrainian outreach involves building safe spaces which provides stability and positive experiences for refugee children.

“A safe place,” Khromchenco explained, “is something between a play room and a kindergarten, which operates a known amount of hours each day where kids can come and just be kids.”

ESI's work with the Ukrainian refugees was done in collaboration with another Israeli organization – IsraAID, a disaster relief organization which contributed its expertise in psycho-social support and humanitarian aid to the construction of these safe spaces.

Ukrainian refugees participating in a program by Early Starters International (Photo: Yuval Cohen Harounoff)

HOW DID THEY GET STARTED?

Just two weeks after the war broke out, Khromchenco and ESI Founder Ran Cohen Harounoff were on the ground in Chișinău, Moldova, two hours from the Ukraine border. Refugees were sheltered in a local stadium where hundreds of beds were lined up, with no privacy, and full of shell shocked women and children, Khromchenco described.

“It was absolutely chaotic and it was unhealthy, even toxic for the kids to go around there,” she recalled.

The ESI team found an unused niche in the arena, hung tarp to create makeshift walls and decorated the space with synthetic grass, a bright carpet, a playhouse, tents and toys that made the atmosphere inviting and cozy.

“We have specific things that we put in a safe space because they help recreate the feeling of home,” Khromchenco explained. “We created a space where kids could come and play and express themselves through painting or through doing something by connecting with each other. And that’s what happened. And it was quite amazing – the feeling of it, of starting with nothing.”

After building the “room,” they spoke with the parents and invited their children who came – timidly at first – to check out the new space.

But by the second day, the children were already waiting for the ESI staff early in the morning.

By helping the children, ESI gave the mothers their own time to heal. Most of them had to leave their husbands behind as Ukraine restricted male citizens between 18 to 60 years old from traveling abroad after the war broke out.

Ukrainian refugees participating in a program by Early Starters International (Photo: Yuval Cohen Harounoff)

WHAT IS ESI?

Early Starters International was founded by experts who have over 30 years of experience in the Israeli education system. The organization’s aim is to make sure education is readily available to children and that it is “playful and intentional – with an eye to resilience building, community building and innovation.” ESI has projects in Ethiopia, Malawi, Haiti, Bangladesh and with refugees in Greece.

For Cohen Harounoff – a social entrepreneur, former kindergarten teacher, children’s author and artist – this idea of helping children in crisis situations is personal. His own mother was saved during the Holocaust when a family in Holland hid her as a child.

Khromchenco – a Russian-speaker whose career was in education – was just the person Cohen Harounoff was looking for to join the organization’s first-response team in Moldova. Now living in Jerusalem, Khromchenco immigrated with her parents from Moscow when she was a child. But her grandparents were from Ukraine – and so, Khromchenco feels this work is personal for her too.

When the ESI team set out in March, they didn’t have a concrete idea of what they were going to do. Back then, there were no direct flights to Moldova and while making their way across Eastern Europe, they witnessed the chaotic flow of humanity from Ukraine. The “enormity” of the crisis dawned on them in that moment, Khromchenco recalled.

“We saw the cars of Ukrainian refugees moving from Moldova to Romania. And you see people – like you and me – middle-class people, that somehow suddenly their life changed completely. And they’re there with the car with one or two suitcases, with children, with dogs and cats sometimes, with the grandmother. And they’re moving to some kind of un-understandable future and trying to find a safe space.”

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?

At the time, ESI’s work was widely featured in the Israeli media as news of the war galvanized the public. But while the media coverage has died down, ESI is still expanding its work has serves now around 3,500 Ukrainian children both in Europe and in Israel, where the organization operates seven centers for the 30,000 Ukrainians sheltering in the Holy Land.

Khromchenco just returned from nearly three months in Chișinău – joined by her family from Israel for part of the time. Part of her job and ESI’s mission is to train and hire locals to manage its centers. Many of them are Ukrainian refugees themselves who have education experience and are now feel doubly empowered – that they have found stability and purpose, and also that they are contributing to their own people in their time of need.

This particular dispersal has sparked an unprecedented phenomenon: Traditionally, refugees maintain their status as refugees, whereas many of the Ukrainians who fled plan to go back there some day, Khromchenco explained.

This has made for a complicated humanitarian aid response. In the meantime, ESI is focusing on southern Moldova and possibly the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and even Ukraine itself.

“There are already cities which are relatively safe in Ukraine and they have quite a lot of internal refugees that are going from places that were bombed or evacuated to other places,” Khromchenco said. “So also back there in Ukraine, there is a need for safe spaces for kids and a way to treat these kids in a way that will reduce their trauma.”

While ESI is adding therapy tools to its arsenal and is working with local psychologists and other professionals to help the Ukrainian refugees, it maintains a very simple yet effective formula at the core of its approach.

“Our rationale basically says that what kids need most is a good routine – a good, normal routine that signifies to them that they can be kids in this setting,” Khromchenco said.

To learn more about ESI or donate to the work, check the ESI webpage.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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