Loud noises remind Misha, age 6, of frightening artillery sounds in Ukraine.
“Fear, he lives in my ears when I hear explosions. I’m very scared,” he says.
Veronica, age 7, silently clutches a stuffed bear at all times. She doesn’t remember where she came from. Her family escaped, leaving all their possessions behind.
As children and adults flee occupied Ukrainian territories to safer areas, they bring sharp memories of the ravages of war with them. Along with physical harm and destruction, the children who witnessed violence experience psychological pain from shelling, air strikes and other military hostilities.
Millions of Ukrainians fled from their homes since Russian military forces invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, 2022, forcing them to relocate inside the country or leave Ukraine altogether.
To help children like Misha and Veronica, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is partnering with Nevo, a Ukranian organization that offers psychological assistance in emergency situations. Nevo provides trauma support in Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine, to internally displaced persons.
Art therapy is one activity Nevo uses to empower and assist children and adults in a trauma support program. Staff offer both group activities of art and clay therapy and individual consultations with a psychologist. Children and adults are given the opportunity to create something new. As participants sculpt clay, staff help them process deeper feelings.
Art therapy is a way to work through frightening memories and emotions. Participants who aren’t ready to talk about an upsetting experience can express themselves through art forms. Staff members use a variety of techniques to reduce anxiety, including playing soft, soothing music.
Irina, a psychologist at Nevo, says special care is taken with traumatized children.
“One of the main rules of the psychologist: Do no harm! Children’s psyches are very tender, and in wartime, children experience a huge shock. At the same time, children are being rehabilitated with the assistance provided,” she says.
A staff member says she begins by suggesting that children mold something according to a model or using a form that can be filled with clay. The children are inspired when they succeed, she says.
Next, she offers to mold another piece for them of their choosing. During the process, children will tell her about their lives before the war.
“When I conduct a private consultation or a group session, you can see how children come to life through creativity, at least for an hour,” she says. “Children and adults have the opportunity to express their pain, and this happens through creativity…a conversation begins. They are happy to take a clay product home with them. They manage to create something new and beautiful among the devastation and flying missiles.”
In time, Nevo staff hope refugees will gain new perspectives and even find healing. Irina says the art therapy and support help refugees adapt to their new reality and give them courage to start a new life.
“It gives a feeling of strength and confidence that I can, I will succeed!” Irina says.
Names of children and staff have been shortened or are unused for their security.
By Cheri Wampole, a freelance writer from Harrisonburg, Virginia. Quotes in this story are provided by Nevo staff.
Mennonite Central Committee is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. MCC is committed to relationships with their local partners and churches. As an Anabaptist organization, they strive to make peace a part of everything they do.