It had been a long time since this children’s home in the Polish city of Lodz had seen so many people. At the end of February, only a handful of Polish children took up residence there. But since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, they have been joined by dozens of young refugees who have fled two care homes in the western Ukrainian town of Kovel.

In the afternoon, the yard is filled with the sounds of children going back and forth on bicycles and small scooters. But when they hear the sound of 14-year-old Kira’s voice from the downstairs window, everything goes quiet.

“I went to music school for five years. After finishing that school year, after ninth grade in primary school, I wanted to start my training as a choirmaster so that one day I could lead my own church choir. I want to teach kids to sing,” she told DW.

Kira, 14, fled Ukraine with her sister Daryna, 8

But the war shattered his dreams for the moment. One day soon, she hopes to return home to begin her studies. But for now, she has to face her new reality.

Flee the fights

Kira is one of the oldest children in the group of Ukrainian refugees, old enough to help look after the little ones alongside their guardian, Galina Jovik. The general manager of the Kovel orphanage, 50, said an evacuation was needed to keep the youngsters safe.

“Every two hours at night, we were woken up by anti-aircraft sirens, and we had to go to the basement. Each time, we had to wake the children, dress them, then bring them back upstairs, undress them. and put them back to bed. It was hard. We ended up deciding to spend the night in the basement,” Jovik said.

A child plays on a blue slide exiting a yellow school bus

41 children have found temporary accommodation in this shelter in Lodz

But after spending two nights in the basement with the children, kept awake by blaring sirens, Jovik accepted an offer from Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy to vacate the children’s home. She also took her 6-year-old grandson, Artyom, with her; Jovik’s daughter, like her brother, are both in the army.

Now safe in Lodz, Jovik looks after a group of 20 children aged 3 to 16. They were joined by a second group, 21 disabled children from another hostel in the Kovel region.

Quick evacuation

Their accommodation was organized by the NGO Happy Kids, which has been caring for orphans and foster families in Poland for 20 years. He also has an extensive network in Ukraine.

“We contacted our Ukrainian partner organizations and the Ukrainian authorities right away, at the start of the war,” said Happy Kids’ Przemyslaw Macholak. “So far, we have evacuated a total of 1,500 Ukrainian children to Poland and placed them in 10 different homes.”

“If this tragedy continues, there will be more and more children who will lose their parents in this war,” added his colleague Izabela Kartasinska. “We will also try to help these war orphans.”

More than 4,000 children accommodated

Amid social reforms over the past two decades, Poland has tried to shut down its large children’s homes. As a result, nearly 80% of Polish children on social assistance were transferred to foster families, leaving room in the homes for Ukrainians.

“We’ve been fighting for 20 years to get rid of these huge facilities. The fact that they’re filling up again is a joke of history, but luckily it’s for a good cause,” Kartasinska said.

In the meantime, the Polish authorities have also intervened. Since mid-March, all children in Ukrainian homes and orphanages must be registered at a center set up just for this purpose in Stalowa Wola, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the border. with Ukraine. From there they are sent across the country to former children’s homes and convalescent homes.

To date, more than 4,000 Ukrainian children have found safety in Poland. As most of them crossed the border without their legal guardians, Poland has implemented a form of temporary guardianship, which must be granted within three days.

Children in shock

At the children’s home in Lodz, those who are old enough attend a Polish school, although Jovik ensures that they also attend Ukrainian lessons. She hopes they can return home soon, but until then a familiar daily routine is important to lessen the shock of war.

Young children play inside the house in Lodz

Young children were shielded from the reality of the situation

“The most important thing is to tell the truth to the children. They feel our nervousness, our tension,” Jovik said. “Problems should not be hidden, because children don’t like to be deceived. They will never forgive you for it.”

Nonetheless, she says, she didn’t tell the younger children about the war when they were evacuated, just that they were going on vacation to meet new friends.

pray for freedom

For older kids like Kira, however, war is very much on their minds. “I’m afraid the war will continue,” she said. With tears in her eyes, she added that she couldn’t find the words to talk about what was happening in eastern Ukraine, where “the Russians are shooting and killing young children”.

Every day, she prays and sings for peace, giving voice to the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

“We will survive all battles,” said Kira, confident that Ukraine would prevail. “We are a peaceful people, and we did not start this war.”

This article was originally published in German