Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Close to Ukrainian border, Nebraskans provide play, consolation to baby refugees

WARSAW, Poland. (Flatwater Free Press) — Eight-year-old Yehor focuses on the duty at hand.

On the ground of a lodge hallway, he folds scraps of paper into squares, layer upon layer as if he is packaging a gift.

Up to now two months, Yehor has slept within the chilly, darkish hallway of his condo constructing, the place blasts in his hometown Mariupol shook the home windows and the place meals and clear water ran out quick.

Then, whereas sheltering with kin, an explosion caved within the roof over their heads. His mom grabbed him and the household cat named Mouse and sprinted to the closest constructing nonetheless standing.

He spent two nights at a college full of evacuees, sleeping on a flattened cardboard field his mom discovered and claimed as a mattress.

He boarded a minibus full of strangers, spent a day-and-a-half inching alongside in bumper-to-bumper visitors and stopping at almost 40 checkpoints on the highway out of Ukraine.

That is how he ended up right here – in a lodge in Warsaw, folding and folding his paper package deal whereas youngsters subsequent to him craft paper planes.

“What are you making?” asks Mandy Haase-Thomas, a Nebraska volunteer who has come right here with the experience – and the need – to assist Ukrainian youngsters like Yehor.

“Wrapping provides for the struggle,” he replies.

Within the two months since Russia launched a struggle in opposition to Ukraine, an estimated 5.4 million folks have fled the nation – the biggest refugee disaster on European soil since World Battle II.

Yehor is one in every of roughly 1.6 million Ukrainian youngsters amongst these displaced, now spending their days in shelters, lodges and strangers’ properties throughout Europe.

A kind of lodges is a Greatest Western simply east of the Vistula River in Warsaw, the place 50 rooms are crammed with Ukrainian households making an attempt to determine what’s subsequent.


Courtesy of Mandy Haase-Thomas

Tara Knuth, government director of the Lincoln Youngsters’s Museum, performs a sport with a Ukrainian refugee baby. Knuth and Mandy Haase-Thomas, the Lincoln museum’s director of operations and engagement, turned a lodge convention room right into a makeshift exercise room for the refugee youngsters staying on the lodge.

It is the de facto headquarters of Operation Secure Harbor Ukraine, a Nebraska-founded undertaking elevating cash and sending volunteers to maintain refugee households protected, housed and fed.

Roughly 160 Ukrainian youngsters have entered this lodge after fleeing violence with their households. Like Yehor, some have seen the useless. They’ve an acute consciousness of the realities of struggle. They know to concern snipers and bombs. Many left behind fathers and older brothers. All left behind life, and childhood, as they knew it.

On the journey out of Ukraine, 8-year-old Yehor hardly ever cried, his mom, Kateryna Shepotynyk mentioned.

“He’s sturdy, and he’s courageous,” she mentioned. “He’s not afraid. Completely not afraid.”

By toys, crafts and video games, two Nebraska volunteers from the Lincoln Youngsters’s Museum hope to ease the youngsters’ trauma, if just for a number of moments day-after-day.

Tara Knuth and Haase-Thomas arrived in Poland on Sunday, April 24, lugging baggage brimming with stuffed animals and puzzles; string and beads and loads of fuzzy pipe cleaner; markers and coloring books and enjoying playing cards to cross the time in lodge rooms.

(Editor’s word: Flatwater Free Press Natalia Alamdari arrived in Warsaw the identical day, a visitor of Operation Secure Harbor. The undertaking’s leaders are permitting her to remain within the lodge as she experiences and volunteers. Study extra about Operation Secure Harbor at www.operationsafeharborukraine.com.)


Courtesy of Don Hutchens

Tara Knuth and Mandy Haase-Thomas pose in a lodge convention room, the place they arrange crafts, toys, puzzles and extra for youngsters and households staying within the lodge after fleeing Ukraine.

The Youngsters’s Museum duo realized in regards to the alternative when Knuth’s husband got here dwelling from enjoying basketball with information – teammate Steve Glenn, former Husker soccer participant and well-known Lincoln businessman, was elevating cash and recruiting volunteers to run a lodge shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

They had been quickly on a aircraft certain for Jap Europe, flying to this metropolis a number of hours from the Ukrainian border – and hoping that what they learn about educating and entertaining Nebraska youngsters might assist the youngest Ukrainians, too.

“Their days was faculty…their days was enjoying with buddies within the neighborhood,” mentioned Knuth, government director of the Lincoln Youngsters’s Museum. “After which it wasn’t that for a very long time. And now, to have some normalcy again in it is vital. After they can play and let their guard down, as a result of they know they’re feeling protected.”

Knuth and Haase-Thomas, the museum’s director of operations and engagement, have reworked the lodge convention room right into a makeshift youngsters’s museum.

There are tables of craft provides and coloring supplies. A nook of blocks and toy vehicles, the place the windowsill turns into a fake race observe. The Nebraskans tempo the room, serving to youngsters create flowers out of multicolored napkins and pipe cleaner, and passing out beads to string collectively bracelets.

The Nebraskans don’t converse Russian or Ukrainian. The youngsters don’t converse English. Most communication occurs over Google Translate, as the kids cross a cellphone forwards and backwards to learn what the Nebraska volunteers have mentioned.

Within the convention room, it is the water desk – a inexperienced plastic bin with canals and toy boats and rubber geese, crammed with water – that the youngsters flock to.

“Water brings every thing collectively,” Knuth mentioned. “Children really feel protected round water.”


Natalia Alamdari/Flatwater Free Press

Viktoriia Iordatii performs along with her son Timur, 4, within the convention room of the Greatest Western Felix lodge in Warsaw, Poland. Mom and son took a bus, hitched rides and walked from Odessa, Ukraine, to finally attain Warsaw.

Children like Timur Iordatii. Sitting on the convention room ground, he cranks a deal with with one hand to make small waves via the plastic river of water. With one other, he guides a rubber boat via the twists and turns.

Timur and his mom walked 18 miles to the border after their bus leaving Lviv bought caught in stand-still visitors leaving the nation.

Alongside the highway, households who lived close by left meals and provides for these strolling.

Mama, we have now to go away, Timur informed mom Viktoriia Iordatii when the struggle started. There are snipers, bombing, taking pictures, we have to go.

Timur is 4. His mom’s suitcase stands taller than him, however he nonetheless supplied to assist roll it alongside the aspect of the highway.

He bought sick after sleeping on a skinny mattress on the chilly ground of a college close to the Ukrainian border. They stayed in a hostel after which with three completely different households earlier than ending up on the Greatest Western final week.

After two months, they lastly have privateness and their very own bathe. Timur is lastly round youngsters who’ve been via what he has. “A present from God,” his mom mentioned.

On this lodge, even playtime is infused with ideas of the struggle: A leftover field turns into a make-believe tank. Armed with blue and yellow markers, youngsters shade the Ukrainian flag into hearts and outlined arms.

Child art 2.jpg

Play is a language, Haase-Thomas mentioned, shedding mild on how youngsters grapple with what is going on on of their world.

The duo from the Lincoln Youngsters’s Museum got here to Warsaw to supply consolation via play.


Courtesy of Don Hutchens

Tara Knuth and Mandy Haase-Thomas play leap rope with youngsters outdoors the Greatest Western Felix lodge in Warsaw, Poland. The kids traveled with their households from throughout Ukraine, fleeing the Russian invasion.

Along with her museum work, Knuth has helped practice foster dad and mom and advocated for youngsters in foster care. It taught her that one thing so simple as utilizing the identical pasta sauce an individual is used to can deliver consolation.

“These youngsters have misplaced every thing.” she mentioned. “There’s some security in what you realize.”

One mom informed Knuth she’s glad her son can wander the lodge with buddies as a substitute of sitting within the room desirous about the previous two months. Playtime is a welcome distraction.

“It is all the time useful once you’re connecting with different people who find themselves going via the identical factor. The youngsters want that,” Knuth mentioned. “Social and emotional, there is a purpose why they’re tied collectively. Being remoted will get you in your ideas.”

By the top of their makeshift museum’s first day, the Nebraskans needed to arrange an additional desk as a result of so many younger refugees – and their mothers – wished to make bracelets. Children walked round proudly exhibiting off their handiwork, whereas moms chatted and saved their arms busy stringing beads onto coloured pipe cleaner.

Youngsters, moms and volunteers all walked out with rainbows of bracelets on their wrists.

Earlier than she determined to go away for Poland, Haase-Thomas’s six-year-old daughter requested: “Mommy, do you know there are individuals who don’t have homes? Can we give them cash? We’ve sufficient.”

A number of days later, the Lincoln museum worker attended a church service targeted on following your coronary heart in case you really feel known as to assist. She spoke to Glenn, who informed her he might inform her personal coronary heart was set on serving to Ukrainian youngsters.

“Mommy’s going to assist individuals who don’t have a house,” she informed her daughter earlier than she left. “She’s going to assist different mommies.”

Now Knuth and Haase-Thomas attempt to make the Ukrainian dad and mom’ lives simpler any method they’ll. They play with their youngsters. They run to the pharmacy to seize much-needed medicines. They serve meals. They attempt to raise somewhat weight from the dad and mom within the lodge, Knuth mentioned. However they’ll solely raise a lot.

“What we will do through the day doesn’t change what (the kids) are most likely experiencing at night time. When issues get quiet, when their ideas come again,” Knuth mentioned. “There’s solely a lot distraction, there’s solely a lot enjoyable that we will put into this.”

The very best they’ll do: Supply one thing else these youngsters can keep in mind.

“That once they look again on this time, it’s not all dangerous recollections,” Knuth mentioned. “That there are folks that performed with them, who gave them consideration, who cherished them.”

“Who wished to verify they felt protected,” Haase-Thomas mentioned.

Since leaving Ukraine, Yehor hasn’t been enrolled in a brand new faculty. As a substitute, he performs within the lodge halls together with his newfound buddies. He wraps imaginary provides for the struggle he simply escaped.

And, on the second day after Lincoln volunteers arrange store, he walks into the makeshift youngsters’s museum.

He colours. He throws plastic darts with the opposite youngsters.

“He must overlook about what he is seen and what he felt. Even for me, I do not wish to keep in mind what it was,” Shepotynyk mentioned. “And here’s a place the place we will do it.”

Yehor doesn’t but know that he and his mom will quickly fly to London to hitch his aunt and begin a brand new life.

On this second, in a Warsaw lodge’s transformed convention room, he performs, like an 8-year-old ought to.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first impartial, nonprofit newsroom targeted on investigations and have tales that matter.

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