Ukrainian children who fled to Europe struggle with trauma

Note: This report was supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

The war in Ukraine has forced more than 5 million refugees fleeing to the rest of Europe. More than 700,000 have sought refuge in Germany, where they face uncertain futures and long struggles to rebuild their lives. But it is the trauma of war that has been especially hard on children. Will Wintercross reports from Berlin in partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war in Ukraine has forced more than five million refugees to flee to other parts of Europe, with more than 700,000 of them seeking refuge in Germany.

    The tangible sufferings of the war aside, there is a hidden cost they have to bear, that of trauma. This is especially true of the youngest refugees.

    In partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center, special correspondent Will Wintercross reports from Berlin.

  • And a warning:

    There's a discussion of suicidal thoughts in this story.

  • Valeriy, Ukrainian Refugee:

    I have never felt this way before, when you don't know what's going to happen, like, in a month, what you're going to do with your life, where you're going to go.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Valeriy escaped Zaporizhzhia in Southern Ukraine in early March, when Russian troops began bombing nearby.

    He arrived in Berlin and was sent to the Norfander (ph) hostel, currently home to 50 children and their mothers, all Ukrainian war refugees. It is run by AWO, a major German charity, which helps the children find places in German schools and, critically, get psychological support.

    Eight-year-old Danylo Shekhovtsov fled Ukraine in early March as the fighting intensified.

  • Danylo Shekhovtsov, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):

    When there were explosions, we sealed the windows with adhesive tape, so that fragments would not hit us.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Eleven-year-old Mariya Samoilenko also escaped the war.

  • Mariya Samoilenko, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):

    The thing I miss most in my city right now is my dad. And I really miss his love and care right now.

  • Danylo Shekhovtsov (through translator):

    I miss my home, my dad. I was very sad that he had to stay back.

  • Question (through translator):

    What would you do now if you saw your dad?

  • Danylo Shekhovtsov (through translator):

    I would have to cry from joy. It's like my country. I have half a feeling that it will win and half a feeling it won't.

  • Question (through translator):

    And if it doesn't win, how will you feel?

    (CRYING)

  • Will Wintercross:

    Research shows that extended separation from a parent or caregiver is one of the most stressful things a child can experience. And, of course, so is war.

    Stresses accumulate. For children like Mariya and Danylo, the impact is mental, physical, and potentially lifelong, says Melanie Eckert, a German psychologist.

  • Melanie Eckert Psychologist:

    From research and as a psychologist, we know that the long-term effects are really, really bad if we don't get immediately help at the point after traumatization. Long-term effects can be, for example, sleeping disorders, depression, anxiety, up to really intense feelings of suicidality or even suicide attempts.

  • Will Wintercross:

    But this harm is not inevitable, with the right help.

    Eckert, who co-founded Krisenchat, a 24-hour crisis hot line, added Ukrainian-speaking counselors to her organization to help the newcomers.

  • Melanie Eckert:

    We extended our platform and worked with our network together to set up very quickly crisis help for young people who are directly affected by the war in Ukraine.

  • Will Wintercross:

    The hot line is part of a broader German effort to help what sometimes seems like an overwhelming number of new arrivals.

    This reception center here in Berlin has processed over 300,000 Ukrainian refugees. So far. A quarter of them have been children, many of which have been suffering from severe mental trauma.

    Barbara Breuer, from the main charity of Ukrainian refugees at Berlin Central Station, explains that they learned from the Syrian refugee crisis that integration doesn't happen by itself.

  • Barbara Breuer, Berliner Stadtmission:

    We have to help people. It shows them, we see you. We are here for you. We have got open ears, open arms. And I think that's the first thing that you have to do.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Breuer points out why rapid integration is so key to helping vulnerable children.

  • Barbara Breuer:

    So that they don't get depression, that they have something to do, that they find friends. Even if it's not for long, maybe for a year or as long this war may last, they should feel at home for this time and not be afraid and feel homesick all the time.

  • Melanie Wintercross:

    In the Syrian crisis, Germany was very slow to integrate the children into the German system of school, for example. Now we are much more fast. And it's very important that we are fast to integrate the Ukrainian children into the normal system, because they all experience a kind of trauma.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Mada Ou Zoubis escaped Syria for Berlin with her family when she was 10, and also went straight into the German school system.

  • Mada Ou Zoubis, Syrian Refugee:

    What I think was very well done was I was put in a (INAUDIBLE) class, which was like a welcome class. And it's supposed to teach you German, integrate you into the German school system.

    And we all got along very well. It's my happiest memories that first year in Germany.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Mada and her younger sister, Julia, who's 15, had their home bombed in Syria and witnessed their father being arrested by the secret police, a fate that often ends in execution. Their father spent 60 days in solitary confinement.

  • Mada Ou Zoubis:

    I realized my dad's laptop was in the backseat. And I was 100 percent sure that, if they found this, then they will take him for good.

    And so I went to the backseat, and I sat on the laptop…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mada Ou Zoubis:

    … which was in a bag. And I told Julia to sit on my lap, so that they wouldn't see anything.

  • Will Wintercross:

    Julia describes the effect this had on her.

  • Julia Ou Zoubis, Syrian Refugee:

    At least for the first two years in Germany, it was very difficult for me to adapt, I think. Simple things could trigger, like, me crying or me running away from things.

    When I would see people wearing military clothes, for example, or if people seemed suspicious, and I would think that the secret police found some sort of way to travel to Germany and get us.

  • Will Wintercross:

    The old fear hasn't disappeared.

  • Mada Ou Zoubis:

    This is just one of the events that probably caused me to feel ostracized and wanting to put up a fight every time I spoke to someone and just constantly trying not to get hurt.

  • Will Wintercross:

    I returned to the hostel to find out how Danylo and Valeriy were getting on.

  • Danylo Shekhovtsov (through translator):

    As long as I don't think about it, I feel very good. But when I start thinking about dad, I feel very bad.

  • Valeriy:

    Of course, it's great that I'm in Berlin, not in Ukraine right now on the bombings, sitting in the basement. Of course it is great, but, still, it's really hard to adapt.

  • Will Wintercross:

    As 2,000 Ukrainian refugees continue to stream into Germany per day, it's clear the authorities have their work cut out.

    And as for the young recent arrivals, it's a new house, but not necessarily a new home yet.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Will Wintercross in Berlin.

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