As war rages around them, a bit of holiday cheer for Ukrainian children

Actors performing for young children in Kyiv, Ukraine
Theater actors put on a performance for children at a rehabilitation center during Monday’s celebrations of St. Nicholas Day in Kyiv, Ukraine.
(Evgeniy Maloletka / Associated Press)
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In a carpeted meeting room of what used to be a posh hotel, Ukrainian children scream with happiness at a performance put on for them and at the prospect of opening presents.

In a country where children have seen the horrors of a 10-month war, there are people trying to bring some peace and happiness to them, at least for a moment during this holiday season in Ukraine.

The upscale Venice Hotel on the outskirts of Kyiv is now a rehabilitation center for children who have experienced the horrors of the Russian invasion.


“When it’s a holiday, it’s easier,” said Ksenia, a 12-year-old girl from Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of a fierce battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

“We forget about the war. It’s easier to distract,” she added after a performance by actors, some dressed as Disney characters.

Ksenia was among the 62 children, ages 6 to 12, celebrating St. Nicholas Day on Monday. It’s a traditional date for Ukrainian kids to get presents and marks the beginning of the winter holiday season.

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“Why do our soldiers fight? For the sake of the future, because without it, there will be nothing. And children are our future,” said Artem Tatarinov, the director of the rehabilitation center.

Here, he said, they have received children who instead of playing had to hide in a shelter to escape bombs and who discovered grief when their relatives were killed.

UNICEF estimates that of Ukraine’s approximately 7 million children, at least 1.2 million are displaced within the country because of the war.


This center houses children for two weeks, and during that period they get therapeutic lessons and have sessions with psychologists to try to process the trauma they’ve experienced. “It is like a temporary rehabilitation from the war,” said Alevtyna, a tutor, who declined to give her last name for security reasons.

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She works with the children around the clock, sacrificing her regular life but also finding a safe place for herself. Like other mentors in the center, Alevtyna comes from eastern Ukraine, which is now under constant fire. Her native Kostyantynivka is just 14 miles from Bakhmut.

For children, Alevtyna said, the center can be sort of an island of happiness, but it’s not easy for them.

“They often talk about the war [and] cry,” she said. “Children are afraid to fall asleep, are afraid to turn off the light.”

Over the last six months, the center has received more than 1,300 children from across the country.

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“It is difficult to work like this when you see children who do not smile, when their childhood was taken away,” said Tatarinov.


He recounted his meeting with a 12-year-old boy who had discovered the headless body of his brother, 10 yards away from their house, after a mortar strike. “This is impossible to forget, but we do everything we can,” Tatarinov said.

That’s why this week, he and the tutors tried to focus on the holidays. On Monday, the theater performance brought cheer to the children for a little while.

“At least for an hour, they can believe in miracles again, believe in goodness again, where fairy-tale heroes come,” said Tetiana Hraban, head of the Golda Meir Institute of Civil Society, who helped to organize the performance.

The actors on stage asked the children what they wanted for this holiday. The heartbreaking replies were shouted over each other: “a generator,” “a power bank,” “a house.”

“Victory!” said one child, and all the others repeated it in a single shout, followed by applause.