A “dark historical first.” That is how James Elder, a spokesperson for UNICEF, described United Nations data from last month revealing that children were making up nearly half of the refugees who had fled Ukraine since the war began. Since that time, things have only gotten darker. Multiple sources reported that Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s emergency programs director, just a few days ago said that having 4.8 million of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children displaced in such a short time was “something he hadn’t before seen happen so quickly in 31 years of humanitarian work.”
With men ages 18-60 needing to stay in-country to be part of the resistance, families have been separated at an escalating speed, and most are uncertain as to whether they will ever be reunited. Even as mothers and children head towards safety, fathers have been left behind, tears in their eyes, as they watch those dearest to their hearts seek safety.
“Today is the hardest and most difficult day for me,” said Maksim, as he watches his wife and young son head out of Uzhgorod. “I have to hold back tears in the presence of my wife. I understand this is all for a while, but how long? Will I be able to see them again? It’s very painful and difficult, but I make these decisions for their life and good.”
Tragically, Maksim’s story is not unique for Ukrainian families in the midst of the current crisis. It’s estimated that more than 4.7 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine in the past seven weeks, many leaving behind husbands and fathers to defend their country’s freedom.
For many of us working in the child welfare and orphan care space, we know from past crises that this kind of temporary family separation puts children at an increased risk of being permanently separated from their families. Women who were forced to leave their husbands behind struggle to provide for their children as refugees in a foreign country, and poverty leads to increased risks for their children, including some of these women making the impossible choice to place their children in an orphanage to meet their needs. Residential care facilities like orphanages may be able to provide for physical needs like food, water, and shelter, but they can’t provide all of the developmental, social, and emotional support a child fleeing a war-torn country will require to thrive long-term.
Inside Ukraine, efforts are being made to bring a semblance of order into a very chaotic reality.
Nikolai Kuleba, former Child Ombudsman (Minister of Children’s Rights) of Ukraine, coordinates a large-scale national effort to evacuate tens of thousands of children and families to neighboring Poland. As Nikolai and his team work through the logistics of transporting, housing, and providing food and water for hundreds of children and families at a time, he can only respond this way when asked how he is doing: “I am not safe if Ukraine’s children are not safe.”
In the western part of Ukraine, Jane and Barbara run a family restoration center called the Ark that is seen as a model for care by the Ukrainian government. For years, the Ark has been caring for children and working with biological parents by providing support services that will help them reunite with their children. After the outbreak of the war, Barbara and the rest of the Ark staff moved the children to a bomb shelter for safety where they stayed for eight days — no daylight, no showers. They have since evacuated to a temporary shelter in Germany as they figure out their next steps. The ongoing destruction of homes and livelihood for vulnerable families makes the possibility of reunification for these children even more challenging.
In the eastern part of the country, Petr and Tamara are helping to evacuate families from the war zone while caring for the many foster and adoptive families and children in the church where Petr serves as a pastor. For those who are unable to evacuate, the couple is providing food, medicine, personal hygiene products, and water. Serving these children and families is not new to Petr and Tamara—for years, they have been leaders in church orphan care ministry, leading hundreds from their congregation to foster and/or adopt children who would have otherwise languished in orphanages.
Inside of Ukraine are heroes like Maksim who have made the hard decision to do what is best for those they love. There are heroes like Nikolai, Jane, Barbara, Petr, and Tamara who are sacrificing their very lives for the sake of children who are unable to provide for themselves.
And for families who are seeking safety on the other side of the border, there are hundreds—thousands—of churches and Christians who are opening up homes and buildings and providing tangible resources for those seeking safety and rest. In Romania, there are people like Alex, who leads Romania’s national orphan care movement, and who is one of many who are welcoming in the thousands of women and children now entering their country. With an established network of partners, Alex is helping families stay together at a short-term facility to provide immediate shelter and food; assisting at a long-term refugee center to provide housing, food, and necessities; and offering food to those standing in line in Ukraine waiting to cross over.