My relatives living in a war zone have their own views on how to talk to children about the Russian invasion
Valerie Royzman is a reporter for the Bangor Daily News from Toledo, Ohio. Valerie is a proud daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. She has relatives in Kropyvnytskyi, Odessa and Znamenka. His family quotes have been translated from Russian to English. You can read his first-person accounts here and here.
My cousin, Oksana, vividly remembers when an explosion rocked the area near their apartment complex in early March. She glanced at her 5 year old son, Makar. He shivered and looked at her, his blue eyes twinkling with fear. She still can’t shake the picture.
“I still remember his face, and it’s painful,” she said. “At that exact moment, I ran over and hugged him and said everything was under control, that I was there. I pulled him away from the windows and immediately told him that we were protected and everything would be fine.
Their building in kyiv remained intact, but my cousin’s family lives not far from the city center and areas heavily bombed and destroyed by Russian forces. Almost every family in their neighborhood fled to western Ukraine or other countries, some right after the invasion began, and others later when they could no longer bear the anxiety. and the sounds of war playing in the background of their lives.
There has been a lot of information and news in the United States about the best ways to talk to children about the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Ukrainian parents living in the war zone and fleeing their country have a particular perspective on the subject. Some members of my family in Kyiv are trying to find delicate ways to explain to their children the ravages of their homeland.
It is impossible to completely protect children from war because everything has changed in their lives, says Oksana. On February 24, when Russia’s assault on Ukraine began, she woke up her son and told him he wouldn’t be going to school that morning. He was happy. She and her husband packed backpacks with essentials, in case they were forced to leave.
“We sat down to talk to him and explained the situation to him as gently as possible, without fear or hatred, that a country attacked our country and we are forced to fight,” she said. “That our military is actively protecting us, which is why he might hear loud noises in the street.”
The war has been raging around them for over a month now, but Oksana firmly believes that a positive attitude and their decision to keep quiet helped their child suffer the least amount of emotional damage. Even if they’re scared inside, their face won’t show it. “Quiet parents – quiet child,” she wrote. “It’s a fact. Surely our panic won’t stop a flying rocket, so what’s the point of panicking?”
Their family chooses to focus on what they can control, so they spend a lot of time reading books about Paddington the Bear, space, and Ukrainian fairy tales; build Legos and play board games; and visit the playground outside their compound on calm days when the air does not carry the smells of war – gunpowder, burning and death. Oksana noticed that if she takes a few steps forward, Makar instantly runs to her side and extends her hand.
“He once asked where all his friends were,” she says. “I replied that they left because they were afraid, but when the war is over they will come home and you will see each other again. He never asked why we weren’t leaving. I think he trusts us and knows that no matter where we are, we are all together.
My cousin is optimistic and believes that love and peace will heal the world, but she has seen other families struggle to maintain the same perspective. A couple and their two children who lived in their building spent two weeks in the basement. They were particularly panicked, leading to many arguments and stress over how they would earn money to support their children, she says. When they left for western Ukraine, Oksana fed their cat every day. They finally came back for their pet, so now she is watering their plants.
Oksana’s family is also visualizing what’s to come next. When Ukraine wins the war and peace reigns over their country, they will celebrate by spending all day in the playroom and filling their bellies with sweets, she tells Makar. He smiles and likes to be called back. It is also at this time that he will be able to see his grandmother and his uncle, who live not far from there in kyiv, but far enough away that it is dangerous to risk the trip.
My aunt Elena tried to stay calm for her three children and her husband, but images of smashed windows and demolished buildings, vehicles riddled with bullets and, even worse, dead people lying in the streets, are etched forever in his mind. Her youngest, 5-year-old Kira, asked why the soldiers were lying there and not moving, and if they too would end up like this.
At first, Elena told her daughter that the bombardment was thunder. They had to leave their home in kyiv for a safer place, a house outside the city in which her friend let them shelter, because they had to avoid being struck by lightning. When the children understood, Elena explained that another country had attacked them, and sometimes this happens between countries.
Eventually they had to leave, so they headed for Lviv, near the Polish border. By then, thousands of refugees had sought refuge there, so they left. They traveled through Moldova and Romania, and arrived in Bulgaria, where they had already spent their holidays.
Sometimes the children cried along the way, asking for ordinary things like a McDonald’s meal and to be reunited with their friends. “Can you draw me a mermaid?” Elena would ask to distract them. There weren’t many safe places to stop as the family traveled through Ukraine; many gas stations were closed and they were warned of saboteurs disguised as civilians, she said. There were days when the only food they could find was milk and bread from the locals as they passed through many towns.
After almost two weeks of travel, they are safe and sound. The other day he greeted the place where they are staying in Bulgaria, and Elena’s two youngest children immediately calmed down. They thought the Russian soldiers had come to harm their family, she said. Their hearts need time to recover.
Thousands of miles away, Oksana hugs her son and lies with him as he falls asleep, their black cat snuggled nearby. Her husband is about to leave for his evening shift to defend the neighborhood against marauders. He and other volunteers in the area patrol the streets and search for injured civilians or those seeking shelter after their homes have been destroyed. “He joined the ranks of those who protect our sleep from thieves,” Oksana says. She closes her eyes and hopes to wake up in a land where nothing can hurt them.