It’s the middle of an online Maths lesson. An air raid siren blares. There’s no time to waste. A little girl picks up her pet cat and puts her in her travel box. Then she quickly slips on her boots, coat, and hat. There’s no time for anything else.
“Be quick,” her mother whispers to her.
They run down the side of the house and into a bomb shelter. The girl goes first, the cat is passed down below ground and then the mother follows. They settle in a tight space beneath blankets, waiting for the sounds of explosions overhead to pass.
This is just another school day in Ukraine for this little girl and she is by no means unique. Education has been disrupted for more than 5 million children amid the war, according to UNICEF.
Education in Ukraine was put on hold for the first three months of the war and is still to be revived in most of the country. When bullets and bombs aren’t raining down, forcing families underground, they’re dealing with electricity blackouts. As a result of Russia’s missile strikes targeting Ukraine’s power grid, nearly 9 million people in the country are without power, making it virtually impossible for a generation of children in Ukraine to continue learning.
What’s more, thousands of schools, pre-schools, and other education facilities in Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed due to the use of explosive weapons in the war.
Despite all this, they try to maintain some semblance of normalcy and keep up with their studies online. It’s no easy feat but they are doing the best with what they have. Teach For Ukraine is an NGO working to ensure the best possible outcomes for students up and down the country affected by the conflict, including providing academic and psycho-emotional support to over 15,000 students and almost 80,000 teachers. Here, nine of their students and teachers told us how they’d been impacted by the war.
Alina, a 9th-grade student from Kyiv, fled to a village near Lviv.
I had to leave my house because it was terrifying and dangerous there. First, we went to the village near Borodyanka. Explosions were deafening there every day. Then, at the very last minute, before Russian tanks occupied the town, we left.
After enrolling in the local school, I felt devastated since I couldn't see my friends, who were also surrounded by shelling and explosions. I have to study remotely now because no one knows when a missile might hit. I have good classmates, but I often feel like a stranger here. I don't really get the new curriculum that I am currently studying. I don't like remote classes because physical contact with a person is essential to me. I feel even more devastated looking through my phone screen because I have come to realize why I have to study remotely in a strange city nowadays.
24-year-old Biology teacher, Viktoriia, had to console a student whose father had been killed on the battlefield.
On the day the war broke out, there was only one word in my head: “confusion.” But for some reason, I wasn’t afraid at all. Yesterday, I was laughing and saying it was impossible; today, war is my reality. However, everything seems unrealistic. As if I am still asleep, and that call at 5:36 a.m. was just a dream. Something must be done, but I don’t know what. We’re looking for ways to leave, but where to go? To Melitopol, which is being shelled? Where is everyone fleeing from Kyiv? Where is it safe now?
When I came back to the school where I worked, I just couldn’t believe what I saw. Everything looked like the scenery for a cheap horror movie. Broken windows, broken desks, scratched walls and boards with traces of shrapnel and knives. But the most painful thing was to see my office. I first noticed a door covering one of the broken windows. And then the cabinet itself. A broken chair is crushed by a half-collapsed ceiling. Test papers are scattered on the floor.
The worst thing to happen during this time was when my student said her father had died on the battlefield. At that moment, I was lost because you cannot be prepared for this. She stood and stared at me as tears welled in her eyes, and the usual light in her face disappeared. I didn’t know what I could do. All the words seemed meaningless.
Lisa, 14, survived the Russian bombardment of Borodyanka, a town northwest of Kyiv.
The first days of the war were okay, we didn't even believe that the war had started, but when Russian troops entered Borodyanka, it got worse. We had no electricity, no internet, no heat, or cell service. It was freezing and scary. We cooked food on the fire. We were saved by the fact that there were three barrels of water. The worst thing was when you heard shots and explosions and did not know whether they would blow over or not.
One day I was sitting at home and suddenly heard terrible explosions. My mother ran to my room and told me to run quickly to the basement. I saw shells falling incessantly not far from us when I went outside. Day and night, we hid in the basement for fear that something would hit our house. One night, they were firing very close to our house. The Russian military came for us. When I saw them, I was terrified and nervous. They came into our house and began to inspect it. We were fortunate that they didn’t do anything to us. Day after day, the Russians bombed my city more and more, torturing people and animals. When our defenders liberated the village, I was literally on cloud nine. I was ready to hug every Ukrainian soldier I saw.
When we went to the center of Borodyanka before the streets were cleaned, I was horrified with tears in my eyes. There was only one thought in my head: “For what?"
23-year-old English teacher, Olha, remembers walking into a classroom to see an eerie date on the blackboard.
On February 24, 2022, around 5 a.m., after hearing three loud explosions, I screamed and jumped out of bed. Frightened, I went out into the hallway, where equally frightened neighbors and colleagues asked me: “Did you hear that?” Of course, I had heard it. Almost immediately, a fighter jet roared overhead, and everyone clung to the floor in fear. There were explosions in the distance. Then I seemed to fall into some kind of time loop. News. Horror. Anxiety. News. Tears. News…
Our school has been operating remotely since February 24, 2022, because there is no proper bomb shelter for the students. The safest room in our school is the women’s locker room because it has no windows, but it can only accommodate 20 people. There are about 1,000 children studying in our school and over 80 staff members.
Recently, the sports hall in our school has been converted into one of the thousands of makeshift centers set up to provide essential services in the event of prolonged blackouts caused by Russian attacks. I now go there to help and many of my students also come to spend time together.
I remember walking into a classroom on August 31 and gasping — the date written on the blackboard was February 23.
Solidarity with Ukraine ✊— Led By Donkeys (@ByDonkeys) February 23, 2023
(Russian Embassy, London) pic.twitter.com/efRXKgDuqV
Ania, an 11th-grade student from the Kyiv region has been on the move since the war began.
After the war started, my mom and I moved abroad. We have already been through Romania and Bulgaria and now we are staying in Austria. We’ve been looking for housing everywhere, but it is difficult.
We don’t want to and don’t plan to stay in Austria and I hope to return home soon. At my school in Ukraine, we are learning online now but I’m also studying in Austria which is very difficult. It seems my future doesn’t exist now. Not only have I lost access to education, but I have also lost access to work, school, friends, and home. I planned to enroll at university this year, but instead, I am not even sure we will even have a permanent home by the summer.
Alice, a student in 8th grade, takes medication and goes to art therapy for war-related trauma.
When the war started, we moved out of our house with the whole family, including grandparents and siblings, to a country house where my stepmother's grandparents lived. It was pretty crowded there.
At first, it felt like some kind of a strange dream. Then, the reality of war started to dawn on me. We lived in that house for about a month and then moved again to Lviv, where we lived with friends for two months. It was also quite crowded there because besides us there was also a family with two children and the friends themselves with whom we lived. And so, about a month ago, we moved to Ternopil. When we got here, I was in a terrible state. But recently, we went to a doctor, and now I take pills and go to art therapy.
Student, Karina, describes weaving camouflage nets for the military in the Dnipro region.
On February 16, information about the war appeared on the internet. No one paid attention, although I was very wary.
On February 24, 2022, at six o'clock in the morning, everyone got ready to go to work as usual. Until they turned on the news. It seemed to me that at that moment, everyone was dreaming of things being normal, of going to work, school, or university.
From that day on, military helicopters and planes began flying outside our window. We raised money and collected food for the military. We went to school to weave camouflage nets to protect our city. That's how seven days of war passed.
Then, on the morning of March 4, I planned to weave nets as usual. But instead, my grandmother came to us in a panic and quickly helped to pack things, because we were due to take an evacuation train from our city to Lviv. They said it was the last one so that day a lot of people just didn't fit into the train. People were fighting just to get on it. My mother and I got into a compartment with 10 other people, a dog, and a cat. We traveled for more than 27 hours with one toilet for 250 people. We took it in turns to go to sleep and shared our food and water.
After arriving in Lviv, we immediately lined up for the Lviv-Przemyśl train. We stayed in line for more than 14 hours without being able to even go to the toilet, and 60,000 people stood in line. We didn't make it on this train of hell, so we went to Zakarpattia since we had relatives there and stayed there for a week.
On March 11, we left for Uzhhorod, and on March 12, we went from Slovakia to Poland. We had acquaintances there, and they offered us a whole house for free. Knowing the language, my mother immediately found a job, and I went to volunteer, giving out food at train stations, helping people to fill out documents, and helping refugees at shelters.
On May 28, my mother and I decided to come back home to Ukraine, thinking: "Everything will be fine." On that day, nine cars fully loaded with people with the same thought returned to Ukraine. I have been home for two weeks.
Daria, 7, describes sleeping fully clothed in case of bombing in the night.
We lived in the suburbs in the village of Komyshany near the famous town of Chornobaivka. We spent the two months of the occupation in the basement in complete isolation from friends and family because it was dangerous to go outside. There was shelling every day, so we slept dressed, ready to run to the shelter.
A month later, we were used to it, hiding from the shelling under the steps. These are the conditions in which online learning took place.
Two months later, our little family left Kherson. The road was difficult. We passed many Russian checkpoints and walked along the mined road waiting for them to let us through because there was active fighting. When we arrived at Ukrainian checkpoints and saw our Armed Forces, we felt pride and joy. We even received a chocolate bar as a gift. We spent the night in a kindergarten-turned-volunteer center in Kropyvnytskyi. Then in Ternopil, there were friendly teachers who took us to study on a volunteer basis. We very much hope that peace will come soon, and we will go to our hometown, walk our native streets, live our "old" everyday life, and allow ourselves to dream!
🇺🇦A tour of a bomb shelter in a kindergarten in #Ukrainepic.twitter.com/Cx7FWDP6BE— Sofia Ukraini (@SlavaUk30722777) February 21, 2023
Tetiana, a teacher, was starting to plan her life before the war changed everything.
The war broke out in the life of our family in 2014. We lived in Donetsk and dreamed of a peaceful and happy life, getting ready to become parents. But it was already dangerous in the summer of 2014, and we had to leave.
We stayed to live in Mariupol, a beautiful and successful city that bloomed before our eyes. I could not help but rejoice. Then, that fateful day: February 24, 2022. The sea had always given us strength and peace of mind. But now, that peace has been taken away from us. We don't know if we will ever be able to return home.
Before the war, my idea of happiness was different. But now, happiness means safety and not much else. It means the safety of all the people you love.
This isn’t our first brush with war. But we really hope that it's the last. In 2014, in Donetsk, we lost a nephew. He was only 19 years old. In Mariupol, our friends and their whole families have died after a missile hit their house. And our grandmother died, whom we were looking for for a long time, hoping that she had survived.
Those we will never see again will stay with us in our memories. Our friends are far away now but even at a great distance, we continue to support each other.
What's next? Life. As it is. We take our fear by the hand and carry on.
If I could go back in time and give myself a message, I’d say this: spend more time with your friends, go to the sea more often, and worry less.