Improvised schools in Kharkiv metro provide sanctuary to war-hardened kids

By Rostyslav Averchuk

Kharkiv, Ukraine, Oct 24 (EFE).- Hundreds of children are attending classes in the redesigned parts of metro stations in Kharkiv. It is the only safe option to get in-person schooling amid the threat of Russian attacks in the city located only 30 km away from the border between the two countries.

It would look like a regular class at first glance, if not for the unusual setting. As some 20 children attentively listen to their teacher, several meters below them, trains come and go.

Above them, meters of concrete and land provide the only reliable protection against Russian missiles and drones, which continue to claim lives, with six people dead in the latest attack on Saturday.

“I thought they would come here stressed out and reserved on the morning after the attack. But no. It pains me to say so about our children, but they are now hardened by the experience of the war”, says Olena Kruchyna about her six and seven year-old first grade students.

Some 17 of them sit at the desks in one of the recently constructed rooms in what used to be a technical corridor for metro personnel.

For more than one and a half years, going to school has been out of the question for some 122,000 children who used to live in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

More than 120 schools have been damaged in the attacks. It takes just 30 seconds for a Russian missile to reach the city, while Kharkiv has no modern air defense systems capable of intercepting the S-300 missiles that are usually used in the strikes.

The city’s mayor Igor Terekhov recently announced the construction of an underground school. But for now, some 1,200 children ages 6 to 10 attend makeshift classes in five metro stations.

Two more stations are being redesigned in the hopes of creating space for at least 200 more students.

“Our primary target is to provide socialization to the smallest children,” Olga Demenko, head of the city’s education department, explains to EFE.

They need communication and they need a teacher who is physically present, and not just somewhere behind the screen, says Nadia, an on-site psychologist. Children can finally make friends here and learn how to study, she underlines to EFE.

Some children also find some comfort here, having lost their parents or having come from war-ravaged areas, such as Kupyansk.

“Little children often cannot communicate their pain. We help them express what they feel, for instance through painting”, Nadia explains as she shows EFE around the psychological support room.

The improvised learning centers lack the space and access to the outdoors that more spacious schools could provide above the ground. The risk of diseases spreading more easily in more crammed classes is also a concern.

To overcome these challenges, investment in a top-notch ventilation system has been made. The temperature in the rooms remains constant to provide more comfort.

Children come in several-hour shifts during the day, so that more of them could attend. To make the most out of the limited time and keep them engaged, several tutors help them organize their activities during breaks.

“On the one hand, we are satisfied with providing this experience at least to some children. On the other hand, the whole situation is not normal. We will only be really happy when all the children can study normally, without having to hide underground”, says Demenko.

Despite the ongoing stress of war, the children have made a lot of progress since the start of their studies in September, their teacher Olena Kruchyna underlines.

“They are brave and eager to learn. Seeing a spark in their eyes as they interact with me and among themselves is probably the highest award for us, their teachers”, she tells EFE.

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