The needs of children at a time of war
Anna Azarova is the PR manager at the British International School Ukraine. Her account of an epic trip from Ukraine across Europe with her friend’s son in her care received a standing ovation at the 2022 COBIS conference in London. But as she suggests, her story is a sign of needs to come for children in Ukraine.
Life writes our stories
I never expected to attend the COBIS Conference in 2022 – let alone give a presentation. I had to improvise. But quite often, life writes its stories for us. We have just to live these stories. Some would still say that every war has social, political and historical causes and contexts.
It is not true, because murdering people can not be justified, and any war becomes very personal, now I know that for sure. It is all about trauma and tragedy of a certain person — a certain wife, a certain husband, a certain husband, a certain child.
I made a very long trip to come to London, although the decision to travel was quite spontaneous. It was a trip that lasted two months. But when I embarked on this forced ‘journey’, I did not know that the path would lead me to London. Then, in early March, a friend of mine gave me his 14-year old son and asked me to get out of the country and take the boy with me. The boy’s mom and grandma were staying in another Ukrainian city, and we were not able to catch up. The roads were already blocked or destroyed or covered with a network of checkpoints and it was immensely difficult and even dangerous to travel across the country.
It took us two long days to get to the border between the Western parts of Ukraine and Slovakia. In the middle of the night, the boy, Arseniy, and I crossed the border on foot carrying a heavy suitcase filled with some things we grabbed and packed in a hurry, including my laptop, which is the most important thing. At that moment, I realised our life would never be the same.
On to Poland
Slovakian volunteers gave us a very warm welcome and offered us a school where we slept overnight. The school was fully prepared to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, with clean sheets and bed linen, clothing and food. For the first time ever, I slept in a refugee camp. On the next day, volunteers helped us get to the railway station and we started moving to Krakow. My school girlfriend was living there and agreed to accommodate us for a while. However, the very next day I had to book a small hotel room for us. As it turned out, Arseniy had some specific needs and my girlfriend (who has a husband and a 4-year old daughter) was not comfortable with that. I did not want to cause any trouble for her, and we moved to the hotel.
In Krakow we stayed for a week or more. We were waiting for Arseniy’s mom and grandma to come over to Poland and pick the boy, but they had some problems with their documents and could not leave the country.
I got in touch with Mrs Liz Free, Director of International School Rheintal, who had sent a letter of support to the BISU, inviting our staff to Switzerland. She herself was accommodating a Ukrainian family of four and recommended Arseniy and me to another host family, her next-door neighbours Monika and Jonas, and their two wonderful daughters Elin and Livia, in a little lovely place called Wangs, not far from Zurich.
Arseniy and I boarded a bus, going from Krakow to Zurich, it took us 20 hours to reach the destination. We were given a very warm welcome, I remember people on the train shaking hands with me when I told them that I was coming from Ukraine. Monika and Jonas turned out to be fantastic people. We really made friends easily and quickly, even more – we became part of their family.
Reunited in Germany
Two weeks later, Arseniy’s mom and grandma managed to reach Baden-Baden in Germany, I handed over the boy to them. Another 3-hour trip by train to Germany, and the Ukrainian family got united in the long run. On my way back to Switzerland, I felt a huge relief – my mission was accomplished, Arseniy’s dad was happy to learn that his boy was not only in a safe place but united with his closest relations. I remember him messaging me, ‘now I have no worries for my son and can fulfill my duty’. His dad is now serving in the Ukrainian Army somewhere in eastern Ukraine, close to the frontline. I don’t know where exactly. He is not allowed to say, it is strictly forbidden to disclose the location details. He had already witnessed the first war casualties…
UK host sponsorship
Afterwards, I decided to take part in the UK Sponsorship Programme. It is not that I was unhappy with my Swiss family – on the contrary. And they tried to persuade me to stay with them as long as I would wish. But I thought, being a BISU representative, my place is here, in the UK. Perhaps here I can do something useful for my school and for Ukrainian children, in terms of offering high quality, British style of education, which has always been our school’s mission. Evacuating one boy can be just a starting, pivotal point for pursuing this crucial cause on a larger scale.
Robin Hood, Whitehall and COBIS
Well, I applied for the UK Sponsorship Programme and found a host family, Martin and Janine, who live in East Leake, Nottinghamshire, where I am staying currently. The area is immediately associated with legends of noble hero Robin Hood, which sounds quite symbolic now.
Four days prior to my departure from Zurich to London, we had a chat with Liz and she encouraged me to try to attend the COBIS Conference. The fact that I was able to attend the conference and stand on the stage talking to delegates in person and online, it means that everything and anything is possible.
I would like to thank all the British people for the tremendous support, assistance, help, attention and care you have provided and continue providing to Ukrainians. When I walked down Whitehall and saw government buildings featuring, showcasing, I would rather say, Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flags, tears welled up in my eyes and my heart was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Again, my new host family are very friendly, very hospitable, very nice, very helpful people who were ready and eager to take me on. No sooner had I set foot on English soil in late April, they got me registered everywhere, at the GP’s , the bank, the local Council and even at a library, which means I was truly settled in. Staying with them, I already feel at home – home, which I lost in Ukraine. I mean, the notion of home, not a physical building. Though I check every day if my neighbouthers are still alive, if they are still there…
Large scale need for safety and education
I have shared a very personal story with you. But it proves that help can be very effective when provided to a certain child. Many other Ukrainian children are now experiencing war trauma and suffering psychological consequences. I want them, like me, to find the welcome they need, whether in the UK or anywhere in the world with host families. They also need to have a chance to get quality education. I believe education is a remedy that will help them let go of the past and start a new life. Let them discover another world where they are safe, loved and raised up properly to become global citizens.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Mr Colin Bell and Ms Fiona Rogers for inviting me to the Conference, and more than that, for giving me the floor. My thanks also go to Mrs Liz Free, Director of International School Rheintal, who inspired me to come over here.
Anna Azarova was born in Kyiv and was educated at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and the London School of Journalism.
She has been PR manager at BISU since 2021.
Support Images kindly provided by Anna