Ukrainian refugees in Poland get help for trauma you can not see – mental health.

Warsaw, Poland

Eight-year-old Yana went to gymnastics classes six days a week at home near Odessa, Ukraine.

Now she can only practice herself on a spot open floor in a refugee center here in the Polish capital.

Yana is one of millions of Ukrainian children dealing with change: forced to leave her home, her passions and her father in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of their country.

“There were explosions there and stuff like that,” she said quietly, remembering she heard more than she actually saw.

“I’m just not afraid of it,” she added.

Her mother, Liudmyla Bats, said that Yana is very strong and said that she hopes that when her daughter tells her that she is okay, then she really means it.

But as she sat in her bathrobe after a welcome shower in the Arena Ursynów, a sports complex now used to temporarily house Ukrainian refugees, Bats spoke of her own trauma.

“Even here, every time I hear some noises, and when the plane is flying, I’m scared,” she said.

Bats and her children enjoy the well-documented generosity of Poles – shelter, food, even a table filled with pencils and paper that Yana can use while attending virtual school on her phone.

But less well known is the help provided by Polish leaders and private organizations to Ukrainian refugees dealing with what we cannot see: the mental health of most women and children who crossed the border.

More than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland, and according to Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, there are about 300,000 in the capital alone. He said that 100,000 are children and that 15,000 Ukrainian refugees are already enrolled in Polish schools – some with his own children.

“I talk to my children because they go to Warsaw schools with Ukrainian children. They say those children are incredibly robust, but you never know what’s beneath the surface. And that’s obviously one of the biggest problems. I mean, health care – mental health, ”said the mayor.

Trzaskowski said he has temporarily instructed many of the city’s psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health services to help the Ukrainian refugees.

Private organizations also prioritize care – leaving leaflets at train stations so they can see the arriving refugees.

“We’re all traumatized, especially after what we’ve seen on TV in recent days. And some of those kids just escaped bombs. Some of them saw members of their family being killed. I mean, that’s something we’re having trouble with. to imagine us, “said Trzaskowski. “We have a lot of traumatized children in Warsaw who need help.”

“My friends from Ukraine tell me that they can focus on fighting and rebuilding their country because we take care of their families and their children,” he added, referring to the men who remained.

The emphasis on mental health is a very modern approach to the care of war refugees. It is not so long ago that it was an afterthought, if at all a thought.

In a Jewish Hillel center in the center of Warsaw, Milena Konovalova leads group therapy sessions for refugee women. She recently fled Ukraine herself.

“Every woman needs another woman who can listen to her,” she said. “Before the war in Ukraine, I worked as a female psychologist. I only worked with women, and I understand how important it is for women to talk, to talk to other women. ”

Konovalova is not Jewish, but the Hillel Center is one of many organizations that open their doors to all Ukrainians with any kind of need.

During a recent session, Konovalova and five other women sat around a table covered with rose petals in what she calls a circle of women.

The lyrics to the song “Be Yourself” by the Peruquois filled the room as the women took turns lighting candles. Emotions rushed to the surface. Tears flowed as the women banded together and shared their experiences.

While the women talked, their children played in a makeshift day care center on the other side of the room. Some of them were too young to understand, just happy to play with toys and other children.

But some of them understand. Young girls like eight-year-old Antonina, who said she knows she’s in Poland because of the war.

“Because Putin has something on his mind,” she explained.

It turns out that not all adults make good decisions, we said during our conversation.

“When it comes to Putin, yes,” Antonina shot back.

The refugee children, like children in the United States, already had mental health problems from being isolated for almost two years with the pandemic. Now, after leaving the warm comforts of home, not to mention their fathers who stayed in Ukraine to fight, every step towards a pre-pandemic normality has been cruelly interrupted.

Their mothers across the room are seeking emotional support to help themselves and put them in a better place to meet their family’s needs and traumas.

“When we talk to other women, we hear that we have the same problems, and when we see our situation from a distance, we can solve it,” Konovalova explained.

“The most prominent trauma is that women do not see tomorrow. They are not safe, they doubt, they are scared or scared, they do not feel protected anywhere, ”she said. “And it is important to convey to them that it is tomorrow, that they are a warm and safe place, that the children must have porridge tomorrow, and she will be able to put him in, go for a walk with the child. It is important to know that tomorrow will happen. ”

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