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Safe in Greece, Ukrainian children confront trauma of war

The drawings in a makeshift classroom in Athens tell the story of children who escaped war. Combat scenes – a helicopter dropping bombs, burning buildings, tanks and bodies on the ground – hang next to peace doves carrying olive branches.

For three days a week, this small apartment in the Greek capital functions as a school and a haven for dozens of young Ukrainians and their mothers who fled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In one room, teenagers put their thoughts on paper.

“We do art therapy, which is more comfortable for kids. You don’t need to talk, you need to just show me,” said their teacher Regina Nasretdinova, a psychologist from Crimea.

The drawing which shocked her most, she says, was by a seven-year-old boy, depicting Ukrainian soldiers killing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I ask ‘Why draw Putin? Why you don’t draw something else?” Nasretdinova said. “Because – he told me – he stole my childhood, he stole my normal life.”

The school that offered Saturday language lessons for children born in Greece to Ukrainian migrants is now struggling to cope with more than 40 refugee students, with the help of volunteers and their own funds. The phones keep ringing.

A Russian tank drawn by a Ukrainian child, who fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is seen during an art therapy class at Berehynia Cultural and Educational Center in Athens, Greece, on March 28. [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]


“When I hear all these stories (of) how people die – from kids – how they saw bombs, everything, this broke me,” Nasretdinova said.

Three of the teachers are also refugees trying to restore normality to their upended lives.

“It’s very hard. My soul is broken,” said Yulia Maksymova, a teacher from Odessa in Greece with her 10-year-old daughter. Her husband, like other men, stayed behind and joined the territorial defense.

“But I’m happy that I can help children,” she said.

Since February, over 1.5 million children have fled the Ukraine war, which Russia calls a special operation, in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War Two. A third of the 16,000 Ukrainian refugees in Greece are children.

“These kids are different,” Nasretdinova said. “They’re more adult.”

At first they were “like scared animals,” she said, but they have since found confidence.

During a break, the students sipped tea and nibbled on snacks, filling the room with the raucous laughter of any regular classroom.

“(This) school is very cool, it’s probably the best school I’ve ever been to,” said Kostyantyn, who fled with his mother and brother.

The adults were more somber.

Maksymova, the teacher, gestured towards her daughter.

“I must live for her,” she said. “I must be happy. When happy a mother, happy her child.”