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School promises a fresh start for Ukraine's refugee children

Education Emergency Girls' Rights Refugees Ukraine

12-year-old Vitaly comes from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. A keen tennis player, he used to train three times a week, but the last time he picked up a tennis racket was on 23 February, the day before the missiles and airstrikes started to fall on Ukraine.

“That was the last normal day. I did my homework and then I fell asleep. My father woke me up at 5am, he said that war had broken out and that we should go to our grandmother’s house in the countryside, away from Kyiv. That’s what happened, we just moved there,” explains Vitaly, recalling the last night he spent in his own home.

The family stayed with Vitaly’s grandmother in the countryside for three weeks before deciding that it was too dangerous to stay in Ukraine, so Vitaly, his parents and his 13-month-old brother Misha started travelling towards the Moldovan border.

“The journey was difficult. There was lots of machinery and military equipment on the roads and checkpoints everywhere. They checked our documents all the time and asked questions, like, what my mother’s name was, what her surname was, to make sure I was her son. I did not know where we were going. I was scared,” Vitaly recalls.

When the family reached the border, they waiting in a long line for four hours before learning that Vitaly’s father was not allowed to leave with his family. “When we reached the border, my father was not allowed to come, so he had to go back because it’s the law for all the men not to be allowed to leave Ukraine. My mother had to take over the wheel.”

Vitaly looked after his little brother in the back of the car while his mother drove them across the border and into Moldova. “It was difficult. Misha was crying and vomiting so we had a nasty smell in the car. It was very unpleasant. He was crying all the time, and it was just endless.”

After crossing the border, the family drove to Chisinau, the capital city where they found a house to rent. For the first few weeks, Vitaly tried to keep up with his lessons at his old school through Google Classroom and Zoom calls, but he struggled to follow the classes.

Vitaly, 12, with his mother and baby brother Misha who is 16 months old 

“For the first weeks, we had online learning. It wasn’t fun, it was boring. I just attended them because I had to. Lots of my classmates have left Kyiv, they went to the countryside. Some went to Poland and Germany. I speak to them every now and again, but not very often.”

Vitaly has now started at a new school in Chisinau. The Moldovan authorities are working hard to register Ukrainian children into the school system. It’s been a huge challenge to deal with the scale and speed of new arrivals of school-aged children in the country.

Plan International is working with local authorities in Moldova to provide school backpacks with basic school supplies for newly arrived children and has trained teachers with skills needed to support and teach Ukrainian students, including children who have potentially experienced traumatic events. 

“When I first came into my class, my teacher met me and introduced me to the class. They all treat me well. I like this class even more than the one I had in Kyiv. I’ve found some friends here already. I’m quite happy with the current situation here,” Vitaly tells us.

Outside of school, Vitaly is settling into his new home. He likes to explore the city with his mother and enjoys playing games on his laptop like most typical 12-year-olds. However, he misses playing tennis, the sport that he loved so much at home and is worried that it will be hard to get back into his training schedule.

“It will be very challenging. Even when I missed one training session, I fell out of my schedule. Once I broke my leg and couldn’t attend training for four months. My comeback was hard. I lost my form. It was almost like starting from scratch because I was just so out of touch. Now it will be the same, it will be like starting from zero again.”

When asked if he thinks he might return to Kyiv one day, Vitaly says: “I do not think we will go back soon, but I want to go back very much. My tennis school is already open and I really miss it. I want to go back as soon as possible.”