The war raging in Ukraine since 24 February has already forced more than 12 million people to leave their homes. Zina is one of them.
As she was taking shelter in Kharkiv metro station with thousands of others, she helped the kids hiding from the war with toys and educational materials provided by UNICEF with EU humanitarian funding.
“I heard the sounds, different ones. I knew we had about 3 seconds to run to the corridor and lie down,” Zina says as she recounts the moment she grabbed her daughter and husband to take shelter. “It felt like a year.”
Within minutes, their home had been devastated. But Zina, her husband Sergiy and their 19-month-old daughter Alice were alive, saved from the blasts by thick apartment block walls. Zina and Sergiy had protected Alice by using their own bodies to cover her.
“The next day we went to the Kharkiv metro station,” Zina says. “We stayed there for 32 days and nights.”
For Zina, her family, and thousands of other people, these metro stations have become home. A home without natural light and few signs of the outside world aside from the yellow flowers that people gathered to brighten things up a little.
The cold, cramped and dusty conditions in the metro made it hard to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. Adding to Zina’s stress was the fact that Alice was already an extremely vulnerable child, having survived 2 cancer-related surgeries.
“I couldn’t go outside,” Zina says. “I had flashbacks to the explosions. It changes you – you can’t stay the same.”
“A girl from UNICEF called me and asked if I wanted to be a volunteer and teach some English,” Zina says.
A local UNICEF partner had received supplies, including early childhood development and recreation kits, to support children sheltering in metro stations.
The kits have allowed volunteers like Zina to create games, informal lessons, and emotional support for children. This response has been replicated across dozens of metro stations in Kharkiv where people have fled bombing.
UNICEF’s child protection response is made possible thanks to support from EU humanitarian aid and other donors.
Leaving the metro station
Zina says she was determined to stay positive – for the sake of her daughter and the other children in the metro.
She wanted to help any child and other families sheltering underground, despite the conditions and the combined impact on her own mental health of losing her home, living in the metro station, and fighting to keep herself and her family healthy.
Still, the conditions eventually began to take a toll on Alice’s health. “She couldn’t walk. She was so tired and sick,” Zina says.
She says that it was at this point that she made the difficult decision to leave the relative safety of the metro station with Alice to find help for her.
Confronting the devastation above ground – and her fears of the journey that lay ahead – Zina set out for Lviv, in the west of the country.
Sergiy stayed behind at the metro station to look after his parents. Finally, they made it without incident to the relative safety of Lviv.
Alice is now being cared for at a children’s hospital in Lviv, her mother living at her side.
“This is the best treatment we can ever imagine, they [the hospital staff] are all wonderful, we felt like we came home,” Zina says. “My work is to stay cheerful for her. I need Alice to be healthy.”
Story by Toby Fricker, UNICEF.
Publication date: 24/06/2022