How Humanitarians Are Reversing the 'Traumatic Imprint' of War on Young Ukrainian Children
Early Starters International Early Starters International
Even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, children from the war-torn country are getting a sliver of reprieve, thanks to a humanitarian organization offering them a safe space in which to play and learn.
Early Starters International is operating a series of spaces for Ukrainian refugee children in Moldova, Czech Republic, Poland and within Ukraine itself.
Yulie Khromchenco, the Eastern Europe programs coordinator for the organization, explains that offering children a semblance of normalcy is crucial during wartime.
"As we know now from research, the imprint of childhood experiences is the strongest in the early childhood years — because in many ways it determines the life, development and well-being of a child in his adulthood," Khromchenco, 48, tells PEOPLE.
She continues: "The good news about early childhood is that when working correctly with children at that age, due to the relative flexibility of their brains, the traumatic imprint might be reversed or at least reduced."
RELATED: A Ukrainian Summer Camp Is Giving Kids Displaced by War a Second Chance at Childhood
Early Starters International
The longtime educator says the experience of working with the children and "seeing the kids happy, and engaging in kids stuff despite the situation" is rewarding. But it's not without obvious challenges.
"I think one of the hardest tensions for our staff is the [balance] between aspiring to make the space safe and knowing that our ability to ensure the safety of the kids can go only to some extent," she says.
RELATED: Angelina Jolie Says That Without an End to the War in Ukraine 'Children Will Pay the Highest Price'
Early Starters' Ukrainian safe space is located in a shelter in Lviv, a city not usually hard-hit by Russian missiles. But that could change in an instant.
"Last week a missile fell in Lviv area, wiped a building and killed five people," Khromchenco notes, adding: "We got another proof that our ability to control even the basic conditions for our space as safety is limited."
Early Starters International Yulie Khromchenco (left) at the opening event for the Lviv, Ukraine, center
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer.
Still, the Lviv educators "try to pass this feeling of safety and security to the children." Conveying an attitude of positivity isn't always easy in an environment that simply isn't safe. In fact, even playtime is often clouded by the atmosphere of war and tragedy.
"One of the most loved games by the children is to play 'Air alarm': one kid makes air alarm sounds, and the other kids hide in a toy house," she says.
Early Starters International
But now, more than a year into the Russian invasion, Khromchenco says she and the other educators have noticed a change in many of the children they teach.
"Many kids come to our spaces as 'hedgehogs,'" she says, using an an expression coined by one of the group's staff members, a former Ukrainian refugee from Dnipro. "They are frightened, shy, and sometimes very sad or aggressive."
She continues: "The chance to socialize with other kids in the same situation, the diverse activities kids can choose from and mainly the deep connection that was created with good adults helps the kids open up. After several months, and sometimes after only several weeks, we see different kids — lively, smiling, creative, willing to give and receive hugs. This change is a great moment to celebrate."
The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.