Culture & Society Czech Republic News Politics & International

Czech volunteers rush to provide psychological help to Ukrainian child refugees

Two_child_refugees_Przemyśl_Główny

Prague, Czech Republic – Free access to playrooms, volunteer psychological assistance and various art classes and sports activities have sprung up across the Czech Republic in hopes of better integrating Ukrainian children and relieving them of stress and trauma.

The Czech Interior Ministry said it has given emergency visas to over 312,000 Ukrainian refugees so far. Almost 40% of them are children under the age of 18 who are finding themselves displaced, without bearings and having experienced the trauma of war, shelling and air raid alarms.

The loss of home, relatives and friends, combined with the immediate pressure to start a new school and integrate into a foreign society are putting the children under extreme psychological pressure.

For most refugees, the psychological distress, fatigue and feelings of anxiety or helplessness are likely to improve over time, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

However, to reduce the risk of refugees developing serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, it is crucial refugees are supported and have access to immediate psychological assistance.

Anger, fear and apathy

One of the volunteers offering free psychological help is Elizaveta Vlasyuk. A refugee herself, she fled Kyiv after the Russian invasion began on February 24. Four days later, she started providing online and phone counselling to Ukrainian refugees sheltering in the Czech Republic.

“At the beginning, I had quite a big amount of calls. My whole day was booked,” Vlasyuk told Kafkadesk.

After living in Kyiv her whole life, Vlasyuk now provides emotional support to Ukrainians from her new home in Prague.

She was reportedly the first Ukrainian psychologist to sign up for the Czech Psychology Network for Global Changes platform providing free psychological assistance.

After the hectic first two weeks, the situation went quiet only to pick up again in recent days.

“The first reaction was fear […] Now, they [Ukrainian refugees] have to adjust to the new society. It’s not only that you have to leave the country, but you also have to live in the society, in the new country,” the volunteer psychologist said.

Currently, Vlasyuk takes care of about 60 to 70 Ukrainians. She said that half of her patients are parents who need help with their children and another 10% of callers are teenagers.

In contrast, only 10% of her clients are Ukrainian adults. The remaining percentage of patients are Czechs who want to arrange help for refugees they shelter or know about.

Vlasyuk said some children can suffer not only from mental trauma but also experience physical exhaustion as the need to instantly adapt, make new friends and start school is extremely challenging.

They can therefore feel anger, fear and apathy. According to Vlasyuk, such changes in children’s behaviour are a normal reaction to adaptation to the new circumstances and to what they experienced.

Only a small percentage of her clients are showing symptoms of PTSD or other more severe disorders which require specialised clinical therapy, beyond Vlasyuk’s scope.

However, according to the WHO’s review of more than 100 studies, one in five people who experienced war or conflict will have depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

For many refugees, it isn’t just the exposure to an armed conflict, violence or persecution that affects their well-being. Often, they are impacted by issues linked to settling in a new country, such as loneliness, poverty, and social exclusion.

Mental health crisis looming in Central and Eastern Europe

Another network of volunteer psychologists is run by the Czech NGO Doing what I can (Dělám co můžu) on the portal Terapie.cz.

Over 250 therapists are offering free counselling to those affected by the war in Ukraine with some experts being refugees themselves.

At the moment, the portal registers 276 requests for help, the network’s media representative Jana Dolejšová told Kafkadesk. “There are 10-20 new requests (for help) every day,” she added.

While in the beginning, the majority of clients were Ukrainians living in the Czech Republic, now it is predominantly used by refugees and their children. “We have received a lot of requests for psychological help for children, who have nightmares, struggle to eat and have strong emotional reactions,” Dolejšová said.

Because children struggle to communicate their distress, they often tend to somatise their mental health, the media representative said. For example, children can start daytime wetting and struggle to sleep and eat. They are also afraid of loud noises.

“Generally speaking, children have lower psychological resilience than adults and a crisis might affect them much worse,” said Dolejšová.

The organisation expects that the need for psychological assistance will grow rapidly in the future, but worries it might not be able to finance therapies for everyone.

At the moment, it is donor-led, with individuals and companies donating money to a public fundraiser.

However, it’s these donation-led initiatives that are crucial to delivering quick psychological aid to Ukrainian refugees in Central Europe as the whole region battles with a weak mental health infrastructure and often outdated perceptions and treatments of mental disorders.

Often, people are not seeking help because they fear the reaction of others, such as being labelled as having a “weak will” or being “lazy”. According to research by the Czech National Institute of Mental Health, 75% of Czechs would not want to work with someone with a mental illness, and over half of the surveyed people would not want to be friends with them.

In Poland, half a million Ukrainian refugees need support for mental health issues, and 30,000 have severe mental health problems, WHO representative in Poland Paloma Cuchi said in March.

However, Poland is facing a serious shortage of child psychiatrists. In 2019, there were only 419 child and adolescent psychiatrists available for the country’s nearly seven million children under 18.

Neighbouring Slovakia, which has taken in more than 370,000 Ukrainian refugees, has less than 50 child psychiatrists available across the country, according to the NGO League for Mental Health and experts in the field.

The situation in the Czech Republic isn’t much better – on average, the country has only six child psychiatrists available for 100,000 underage children, according to data shared during a Czech Senate conference in April. Out of 180 Czech child psychiatrists, 86 are over 65 years old.

The Czech Republic also struggles with providing adequate psychological help to students at primary and high schools. According to a study by PAQ Research, some Czech districts currently do not have a single school psychologist available.

Other data published by the Czech Pedagogical Chamber showed that on average, there is one school psychologist employed full-time for 2,682 primary school students and 4,244 high schoolers.

To mitigate the looming mental health crisis, the European Commission provided €9 million for psychological first aid and organisations providing mental health assistance for Ukrainian refugees.

Be my buddy

But it isn’t all about psychologists providing free phone counselling. Since the beginning of the invasion, many children and youth centres, sports clubs and arts venues have opened their doors to Ukrainian children and their mothers. They offer opportunities to relax, play games, do arts and crafts and socialise with other children and parents.

Professional sports clubs have also offered free training and classes for refugees. The Prague city hall cooperated with clubs in the capital and created a website showing all free sports classes from hockey and football to martial arts and skateboarding.

“We strive to ensure that children adapt here and forget about the extreme situation that is ongoing in their country. In cooperation with Prague sports clubs and associations, we would like to provide Ukrainian children with the opportunity to relax by engaging in their favourite sport,” Prague Councillor Vít Šmeral said in a press release.

Cultural organisations have also stepped up, with, for example, the Czech National Theatre organising free ballet classes for Ukrainian children aged 6-12 and collecting donations of ballet clothes and shoes.

A contemporary circus company La Putyka gave a new home to a group of teenage circus students who fled Kyiv, providing them with a training space, food, accommodation, and English lessons.

The Ukrainian circus artists have already participated in one improvisation performance with La Putyka in March. Czech magazine Reflex reported the performance, called Boom Vol. 1, earned a standing ovation.

The activities available to Ukrainian children are displayed on the Razom website, with information also available in Ukrainian.

However, spaces for the clubs and youth centres usually fill fast. In Prague’s Children and Youth Centre Ulita, phones do not stop ringing. “Every day, we receive phone calls from interested parents, who need to find a place for their children,” said Ulita’s director Kateřina Jarošová.

The centre has registered about 120 children but daily takes care of about 70 of them in four different adaptation groups. The pupils learn Czech, play sports, do pottery and arts and also have classes with Ukrainian teachers. In the afternoon, the centre also operates an open club for Ukrainians until the age of ten.

However, most activities are often aimed at the youngest children, leaving teenagers extremely vulnerable. The majority of them stay at home without any socialisation with their peers. Some have already started to show worrying signs of depression and anxiety.

“We have had parents and hosts calling us that they [teenagers] would really need to go out and meet people,” said Jarošová.

To provide a safe environment for the Ukrainian teens, her youth centre has created a new group for ages 11-18 that meets twice a week.

In Brno, local NGO Nesehnuti has also prepared a special buddy program for Ukrainian teenagers. The “Be My Buddy” project pairs Ukrainian teens with their Czech counterparts to help the refugees settle in and build friendships.

About twenty high school students from Brno volunteered to take part in the project and they met their new Ukrainian friends for the first time on April 19.

“It is important to help not only materialistically, but also establish connections between people,” said the project’s coordinator Anna Demchuk.

The buddies were arranged into small groups in which they schedule their activities for the next month. Their next mass meeting will be in May when they plan to go on a sightseeing tour in Brno and end it with a picnic.

“It was mainly about making the first contact, now we will be deepening our relationships,” Demchuk said to describe the first meeting.

The coordinator said the NGO would like to trial the project on a small group first, but they are already thinking about extending the initiative in autumn to include vulnerable adults, such as Ukrainian women.

“They are in a difficult situation, some do not know anyone here. It’s important that they can meet with someone, talk to them, ask them about practical information and share their problems,” Demchuk told Kafkadesk.

The NGO worker added that establishing relationships between Ukrainians and Czechs will be mutually beneficial for both sides.

From a psychological perspective, the situation is often much harder to cope with for teenagers, because – unlike younger kids – they are conscious of the news and events in their home country and are more likely to spend their time alone.

The biggest help for them would be to involve them in volunteer activities, according to Vlasyuk, as they could directly help other refugees and feel like they made a positive change.

“They will feel useful and occupied, which is a big relief for their mind,” said the psychologist.

Integration highlights issues in the Czech education system

Psychologists promote quick integration and immersion in the local culture as a way to improve mental health and ensure children’s healthy development. Vlasyuk said the faster the integration process begins, the better.

While some schools opted for creating special adaptation groups for Ukrainians, others decided to integrate the refugee children directly into their classrooms.

The Volgogradská Primary and Nursery School in Ostrava has already integrated several Ukrainian pupils. By the end of March, ten Ukrainian children were admitted to the primary school and two started attending kindergarten, according to headteacher Jan Šebesta.

However, while Volgogradská school has additional capacities to admit more children, quick and mass integration also raises a question of the quality of provided education and the financial burden on schools that will have to furnish additional rooms and buy extra tables and chairs.

The Czech government estimated that the integration of Ukrainian refugees into the Czech education system will likely cost about 12.3 billion Czech crowns (over €500 million).

Segregation might also become a problem in the Czech Republic, especially if schools start setting up Ukrainian-only classes or admitting too many students into one class.

Šebesta said that while integrating one or two pupils into a group is a relatively easy process, the situation is much more difficult when there are multiple foreign children in the same year.

“They tend to create their own community within the classroom, they only communicate among themselves and separate from the rest,” Šebesta told Kafkadesk.

Capacities are also stretched in adaptation groups that offer Czech classes and sometimes provide lectures led by Ukrainian teachers.

Mikoláš Aleš Primary School in Prague’s Suchdol district was quick to set up three adaptation groups for about 70 children by the end of March.

The school has also hired three Ukrainian teachers and one teaching assistant to teach Maths, English, Czech and other subjects alongside sports and art classes to prepare children for the transition to the Czech education system.

“The interest in the adaptation groups has been immense. Mothers need to work and children must have a regime and meaningful activities with their peers,” said headteacher Alexandra Kejharová.

But the school doesn’t have enough space and capacity to accept more students. “Providing help is really important for these children. At the same time, it provides us with a head start for our future work. The more they lead normal lives, the better will be their integration into Czech schools and life here. It would be very troublesome if they had nothing to do,” Kejharová told Kafkadesk in March. 

The adaptation groups for Ukrainians will be organised until the end of June when the Czech summer holidays start. From September, Ukrainian children will be fully integrated into regular classes at the Mikoláš Aleš School.

Overall, Czech primary schools should be prepared to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian students, according to PAQ Research.

The school capacities will run out if the Czech Republic admits about 250,000 children, which would lead to lower quality of education for all students in the Czech Republic, the government indicated in April.

Even more critical is the situation in nursery schools, which are notoriously known for operating at their capacity, especially in large cities where the majority of refugees are relocating to.

According to official data, there are over 4,000 refugee children eligible for nursery schooling in Prague. Prague kindergartens, on the other hand, currently have capacities to only admit about 600 of them, Czech news outlet Seznam Zpravy reported.

Another “immense problem”, according to Šebesta, is the language barrier between Ukrainian students, their parents, and Czech schools.

Many Ukrainian parents want to sign children up for education as soon as they can. But Šebesta said his school was trying to convince the refugee parents to first give the children the time to learn Czech and start official education from September.

A solution could be setting up a large network of schools providing classes in Czech as a foreign language, according to education experts from PAQ Research.

The language barrier is also making it more difficult for schools to provide psychological and learning support.

“We would be grateful if we had a school psychologist who would be able to communicate in their language. We feel that through interpreters, the relationship between the psychologist and the child is getting lost,” Šebesta of the Volgogradská school told Kafkadesk.

“For now, teachers are patient and welcoming, but we are at the start of the process. Everybody has energy for it, but I have no idea what will be in a month’s time or after half a year,” he added.

But looking at the incredible social and political mobilisation, from state institutions to ordinary Czechs and the Ukrainian community which, before the start of the war, was already the largest foreign-born minority in the country, there is cause for hope.

By Karolína Boháčová

A freelance journalist from the Czech Republic, Karolína is now based in Liverpool, UK, covering Czech and Polish affairs with a focus on social issues. She previously worked for the Reuters news agency and the international outlet Coda Story. You can follow her on Twitter.