10 June 2024

Those working to help traumatised children in Ukraine are themselves in great need of support. Barnafrid, a national knowledge centre at Linköping University, has been commissioned by the government to assist with working procedures and methods for an existence where fear is constantly present.

Two women at a table.
Olga Granlöf and Lena Grafl both have theirorigins in Ukraine. Anna Nilsen

Analyst Lena Grafl demonstrates a mobile app she had to install when she last visited her old home town of Odessa. In Ukraine, it is activated every time the air raid siren sounds.

The room at Barnafrid in Linkoping is filled with a heart-rending sound. At the same time, a voice in Ukrainian is heard urging us to seek shelter. In Odessa, the siren sounds three or four times a day. Sometimes it is followed by Russian rocket fire, sometimes not, but the inhabitants are forced to live with the worry – all the time.

Lena Grafl turns off the app and the silence is liberating. She says:

“We’ve seen that those working with children get burned out. They live in an environment with constant air raid sirens and bombings. They have to help themselves and their family and maybe they have a husband fighting on the front line. At the same time, they must help the children who come. It's really hard.”

Specific training

Since last autumn, she and her colleague at Barnafrid, Olga Granlöf, have been investigating what support those working with children in Ukraine need. They have interviewed key personnel and conducted surveys with psychologists and social workers all over the war-torn country. There has also been close contact with the Ministry of Social Policy in Kiev.

The investigation shows that the Ukrainians asked are calling for more knowledge about how to treat children in crisis situations.

“They want specific training. How are they going to talk to three-year-old children? How are they going to talk to children who are crying because their father is at the front? You can’t shirk away from it. All research and experience shows that small meetings can be crucial to how a child lands on the other side. Getting a look or a friendly pat,” says Olga Granlöf, who is a social worker.

Woman at table.
The effects of war can be felt for generations, says Olga Granlöf.Anna Nilsen
Barnafrid has previously developed similar courses for Swedish conditions. That was the reason they got the assignment from the government. The courses are now being adapted and translated to be used in Ukraine. They will then be tested in pilot trials.

A system to reduce stress

The courses should give the professionals clear procedures and methods to adhere to. And this is needed when you live under tremendous pressure.
“When you’re exhausted, you need to have something to hang on to. This reduces stress and makes you feel more confident about yourself. What we need is to develop a system that people can stick to,” says Lena Grafl.

The investigation also shows a need for recovery and personal mentoring on the ground but, due to security concerns, Barnafrid has yet to send personnel to Ukraine.

“That would require comprehensive security arrangements and it’s an insurance matter. But we have our partners on the ground,” says Laura Korhonen, head of division at Barnafrid.

A cell phone on a table.
An app on Lena Grafl’s phone acts as an air raid warning.Anna Nilsen
These include different universities and professional organisations, for example for psychologists. The idea is to spread knowledge to key people in Ukraine. They can then become knowledgeable supervisors for their colleagues.

But it is clear how dangerous life is there.

“The university in Zaporizhzhia is doing a tremendous job, but now it’s been announced that they were bombed. Several people have died,” says Lena Grafl.

There are several collaboration partners in the city of Kharkiv, but their conditions are uncertain. The bombs are also falling there.

Deficiencies are stored

At this point, peace is just a hazy memory for many children in Ukraine. Nevertheless, more than half of the professionals in the survey say that the situation is acceptable. But that is how the human mind works, say Lena Grafl and Olga Granlöf. You go into a shell and try to survive.

In fact, even the most basic needs of children cannot be met right now. There are only limited opportunities to play or to form friendships, and a lot of school teaching takes place online.

“So how does this affect a small child? These deficiencies are stored. We are faced with great needs that will only increase and this will last a long time. How can we measure the damage? I don’t think anyone would dare,” says Olga Granlöf.

Ukranian experiences

From countries that have been at war, it is known that the effects on human health are visible for at least two generations afterwards. Ukraine knows that, too. Since the 1920s, only a couple of generations have experienced peace during their lives. But that means that Ukraine has a lot to teach. Part of Barnafrid’s assignment is therefore to gather Ukrainian experiences that can strengthen Swedish war preparedness and contribute knowledge to education in Sweden.

“You can help each other to keep hope alive. When I talk to professionals in Ukraine, I think it matters to them that I listen to and acknowledge them. Perhaps it plays a small part in recovery, that someone else has listened and understood what they are doing”, says Olga Granlöf.

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