Back to school, a telephone and the race to build bomb shelters | War in Ukraine

Back to school, a telephone and the race to build bomb shelters | War in Ukraine

War and the risk of missile attacks are forcing millions of Ukrainian children to homeschool. Only schools with bomb shelters can accommodate students.

Mykola, who dreamed of seeing her friends again, will instead take her lessons remotely thanks to the family cell phone.

The street is dilapidated and the houses are neglected. If it hadn't been for the yapping dogs and the neighbors you hear rebuffing them, you would have thought that the whole neighborhood was abandoned.

This is not war , the bombs and missiles that disfigured it, but the poverty in which 50% of Ukrainians lived long before February 24.

But the war, this cursed war, as Yulia Smirnova says, has made their lot worse. We haven't had a job since spring, says the mother of three.

Mikola, 11, Vlad, 8, and their little sister Lyuda, 6, come out as soon as they hear us coming. Our team met them a few hours earlier in downtown Odessa as they lined up to receive food at the counter set up by UNICEF.

Mykola's father is unemployed. Since the war broke out, the family has relied on a food bank to make ends meet.

First and foremost to help the displaced from southern and eastern Ukraine that UNICEF has established itself in Odessa. Yulia Smirnova now goes there every week to feed her family.

Her husband is also unemployed, but he prefers not to talk about it in front of the children.

He greets us discreetly, sticking his head out from under the hood of an old Moskvich that he is busy patching up, shirtless, under a blazing sun.

It is 32 degrees, although the x27;summer is coming to an end.

Tomorrow is September 1st, the big day back to school in Ukraine.

But for Yulia's family, this day of celebration and celebration will be without fanfare or balloons. Without a new school bag and without shiny shoes.

The back-to-school butterflies have been replaced by the apprehension of a school year that promises to be difficult and uncertain.

The three little ones are among millions of Ukrainian children who will have to educate themselves online because their neighborhood school has no bomb shelter. Only schools with adequate, government-approved shelter have been allowed to open their doors to receive students in person.

The three children of the Smirnova family: Lyuda and Vlad and Mykola

Mykola, the oldest, dreamed of reuniting with his friends and teachers like in the good old days.

After two years of pandemic and confinement, he was unable to return to school only a few weeks last January, before the war broke out and again plunged them into a state of extreme precariousness.

The family doesn't have a computer and can't even afford to buy a used one.

Yulia takes out her phone which will be used as a screen for the three children. Mykola, Vlad and Lyuda will take turns sharing it to follow the lessons remotely.

“It will be a nightmare to follow classes since we don't have a computer or an iPad. The ones that served us during the pandemic were old and no longer working. I don't even want to imagine what it will be like. We need help. »

— Yulia Smirnova

Yulia asked the education department to provide her with computer equipment, but the government told her that it was impossible at the moment.

The three children will have to make do with mom's phone and the small desk set up in a dark room that serves as both a living room and a bedroom for the parents. The old chandelier hanging from the ceiling has only one bulb and the fridge is empty.

We are aware of the needs of these families, says Olena Boinevitch, director of the Odessa department of education and science.

She received us in the basement. -floor of the government building, which looks like a fortress in the current circumstances. Soldiers stand guard at the entrance and directed us to the basement since the sirens were sounding as we arrived.

Olena Boinevitch did not a minute to waste going up and down the stairs as she coordinates the start of the school year.

I personally appealed to UNICEF to help us find computer equipment for families in need, she says, showing us the advertisements on her phone that she sent on her social networks.

The needs are immense since the vast majority of students have to stay at home.

“Education is a priority even in times of war, but it is the safety of children that guides all our decisions.

Olena Boinevich, Director of the Odessa Department of Education

An extensive review conducted on the ground during the months of July and August revealed that barely 40% of Ukraine's schools, day care centers and university campuses have adequate shelter.

In Odessa, only 33 schools were therefore able to reopen this week.

In Odessa, only 33 schools were able to welcome students for the start of the school year, which traditionally means one day party where students wear flowers.

We had the chance and the authorization to visit one of these establishments the same day of the start of the school year, on the condition of not revealing the address and the name.

The children arrived one after the other with bouquets in their hands, wreaths of flowers as tradition dictates. A bit of normality in the chaos.

Anton can't sit still, he's so excited to go back to school. We have to study a little anyway to find a good job when we grow up, he says from the height of his 9 years.

His friends immediately burst out laughing as they lined up.

Only settlements with adequate, government-approved shelter were awarded the permission to open their doors to receive students in person.

Anton's grandmother, who dropped him off at school, is less enthusiastic than the little one. She can't hide her anxiety when she sees him follow the teacher and go through the doors of the establishment.

We barely have time to catch up with the children that they are already going down the stairs that lead to the school basement. Because the first activity on the program this morning, even before visiting the classes, is to familiarize the children with the shelters where they will have to take refuge each time the sirens sound.

In Odessa it's been an average of two to three times a day since we arrived. The school management took weeks to arrange the space and make it fun. The walls are freshly painted and decorated with emblems that have become part of learning for little Ukrainians.

The acronym of the European Union, which the country hopes to join, is among the designs that line the underground shelters. There are cushions, water, food and even desks for students to spend the day in if needed.

Only a few schools in Ukraine have a finished basement to keep children safe.

Sending children to school in times of war is both a deliverance and a gesture of courage.

“I don't know how explain to you, but it's hard for us to know that it's their first day of school and they have to find their bearings in case of a bomb.

— Anton, family man

Beware, Roman believes, although the strategic port city of Odessa has not seen a major attack for a few weeks.

According to Ukrainian authorities, more than 2,000 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged by gunfire or missiles since February 24.

We surveyed parents and 99% told us that they prefer to keep the little ones at home, explains Vladimir Chelakin.

He is the director of another school that we visited on the first day of school. The classrooms are empty, the corridors silent. The school won't be able to open its doors until a proper shelter is built there. the hammers make a din. The school is one of three in Odessa that have just received the funds to undertake the works.

The visit is macabre. It smells damp and the air does not circulate. It will take months to adapt ventilation, electricity and heating.

Vladimir still can't believe it. He would never have imagined even in his worst nightmares having to build a bomb shelter in 2022.

“We never thought of that. Never, never, never. It is very difficult to understand. Even on February 24, when it started, I couldn't believe it. The two neighboring peoples, the two peoples who speak almost the same language…”

— Valdimir Chelakin, Principal of Lyceum No. 10, Odessa

He stops talking, his throat tight, and continues along the walls. Under rules set by authorities, schools must provide at least one square meter of space per child in bomb shelters. Since his high school has only 340 for 900 students, he will have to organize the courses in rotation.

Vladimir Chalekin, director of Lyceum No. 10, Odessa, shows the work that needs to be done in the cellars which will serve as shelter for the students.

Vladimir was thinking of retiring this year, but he doesn't have the heart or the desire to abandon the children in the midst of war.

He recorded a video for them to wish them a happy school year and good luck.

“What I really would have wanted to tell them out loud, it's "excuse us, little children. We adults couldn't keep the peace and protect you from all of this.”

— Valdimir Chelakin , Principal of Lyceum No. 10, Odessa

But it is better to spare them and save what remains of their innocence, as Yulia Smirnova explains to us: We try to protect them both psychologically and physically, she says. She taught her three children not to panic when the sirens go off. They need to live in a healthy atmosphere, especially to study, she adds.

If their education is compromised, it is their dreams and ambition that keep them alive and smiling. Little Lyuda says she wants to be a singer later. Vlad wants to be a policeman.

When I grow up, I'll be a soldier, says Mykola, the oldest. Because we have to protect our country.

Lyuda Smirnova, age 6, dreams of become a singer.

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