How the war in Ukraine has forever changed the children in one kindergarten class
In the city of Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, there is a kindergarten classroom with bright yellow and green walls and long, gauzy curtains. It's filled with toys and books.
The lockers — purple, green and yellow with name tags on the front: Sofiia, Daniel, Bohdan — are still filled with children's belongings: shoes, backpacks and a drawing of a snowman.
But these days, there are no children.
A blessing, given that on a sunny day last August, a Russian artillery attack hit the school building, shattering nearly every window in the classroom. A fate thousands of schools across Ukraine have met since the war with Russia began.
"It's not the damage to the school that I mourn," Yana Tsyhanenko, the head of school, said that day as she surveyed the damage, the glass crunching under her feet. "It's the destruction of childhood."
Under the dust and debris, the classroom told a story of life before the war, of the lives of 27 students and their teacher, disrupted and forever changed.
The lunch menu with the date Feb. 24 — the day that Russia invaded — was still hanging on the wall, advertising the buckwheat soup and cabbage that was never served. A chess game was frozen mid-match, waiting for someone to make the next move.
Near a window, a cluster of plastic pots with the sprouts of African violets sat on a table, each flower planted by a student in the days before schools in Kharkiv shut down. A gift for their mothers. Ready to grow. Full of potential.
So often in war, the buildings that have been damaged are the most visible. But what about the invisible damage? The human, less-deadly, far-deeper scars?
What had happened to the children who once learned here?
Answering that question began an eight-month journey across Ukraine and Europe and to the United States. Time spent with children who now want to drive tanks or fly jets when they grow up, who have trouble sleeping, and who are scared. Friendships uprooted, children struggling to remember, others wanting to forget. But also children laughing and learning new languages — and beginning to dream.
Their stories make up one kindergarten classroom, but they also represent the millions of children from Ukraine who have left and who have stayed.
A yearbook, a text chat and a book about every student
The teacher in charge of that green classroom is Iryna Sahan, who mixes kindness and authority in a way only someone with nearly 30 years in a classroom can do. In her apartment in Kharkiv's northeast, she unwraps a package of newly printed yearbooks. Each book is filled with photos of her 27 kindergartners. She gets goosebumps as she turns the pages, describing them. "Aurora had a big personality. Sofiia was always in charge. Simeon convinced me to buy that chess set."
Her classroom was like a family. Everyone was busy reading, playing and learning.
"An anthill," she says, "constantly in motion."
Kharkiv is the second-largest city in Ukraine, just an hour from the border with Russia. And in those first days of war, it was a scary place. At 7 a.m. on Feb. 24, the morning of the invasion, Sahan sent a text message to the classroom's group chat: "Dear Parents ... this is the information we have at the moment," she wrote. All schools in Kharkiv are closed.
In the days that followed, the parents used the text chain to share evacuation routes, news of power outages, and their families' plans for where they would go.
Of the 27 students in that green and yellow kindergarten class, ultimately, more than half would leave the country — driving south through Moldova or west into Poland. For some, it was easier. They had relatives abroad, preexisting plans to emigrate, or a destination in mind. For others, it was much harder: weeks or months living in refugee camps in Poland and Germany; constantly moving from one country to another in search of housing, jobs and stability.
Through that group chat and social media, Sahan follows their journeys in Spain, the United States, Latvia and Germany.
About a dozen of the families stayed in Ukraine, leaving Kharkiv for destinations farther west: Kyiv, Lviv, Khmelnytskyi.
They packed lightly and left in a hurry.
By September, only one family was still living in the city of Kharkiv.
An empty playground in a city that's home
Sofiia Kuzmina, one of the oldest of Iryna Sahan's former students, is confident and tall; her shoulder-length blond hair is often pulled up in a knot at the top of her head. She likes to dance and sing and play dress-up. Yellow is her favorite color.
On a clear afternoon in September, she spins on the metal merry-go-round on the playground that separates her family's apartment building from the kindergarten, with the destroyed rainbow steps and the boarded-up windows in the background.
Now enrolled in an online first grade, she says she still remembers everything about kindergarten: the hairdressing station where Iryna Sahan braided her hair, playing games with her friend Aurora, learning to write her name with her friend Bohdan.
As her mother watches from a nearby bench, she gives up on the playground equipment and heads for a row of bushes, where she begins to collect leaves and sticks, mumbling to herself as she searches.
There are no other children on the playground. Kharkiv, which is frequently shelled by Russian forces at night, remains pretty empty. As Sofiia gathers her leaf collection, Natalia Kuzmina explains that her daughter has gotten used to playing by herself.
Sofiia approaches and hands her mom a pile of greens. "It's salad," she says with a smile. Natalia pretends to take a bite. "Thank you. Yum yum!"
In the weeks following the invasion last February, Sofiia's family left the city and spent time at a cottage farther west. But it was short-lived, and they soon returned. "I wanted to go back," Sofiia explains, resting her head on her mother's shoulder, "because here I can choose any of my toys, and there I didn't have any toys."
Natalia says that despite the danger at home, she can't imagine moving and living elsewhere. "I came back to Kharkiv for my children. It's important that children stay at home," she says. "And for me, I'm the person for whom it is really difficult to adjust."
But she and her husband have struggled to find work here, and being so close to the fighting has its challenges for Sofiia. Natalia explains that before the invasion, her daughter was a leader in the kindergarten, social and calm. But the war has changed her. "Now she reacts to everything in a more emotional way," Natalia says. "She will demand something or be argumentative. Sometimes she will cry with no reason."
Her parents do everything they can to shield Sofiia from what's happening. They don't talk about the war with her, and they try to put Sofiia to bed before the nightly shelling begins so she sleeps through the explosions. "The earlier, the better," Natalia says, laughing. She's not above lying if she has to: "Oh, that loud sound? That's just a car ... or maybe construction. Nothing to worry about."
Growing up in an instant
About 13 hours across Ukraine by train, in the western city of Lviv, Bohdan Semenukha's mom, Viktoria, has taken a very different approach.
"Our children know everything," she explains, as she sits on the couch in an apartment her family borrows from friends. Her son, Sofiia's former classmate, Bohdan, sits next to her. She begins to quiz him.
"Who made you leave Kharkiv?"
"Russia," he says, looking up at her, his small face eagerly awaiting the next question.
"Why do you love Ukraine?"
"Because I was born here," he says.
"Who made Ukrainians leave their home?"
They left Kharkiv in a panic last February, driving 36 hours to reach Lviv, close to the border with Poland. Viktoria says it's the safest place they could be that's still in Ukraine. Bohdan's father stayed behind in Kharkiv, assisting the military in their defense.
"Bohdan grew up in an instant," Viktoria says, as Bohdan plays with the family dog, Simba, who made the trip to Lviv sitting on Bohdan's lap. "We didn't have time for filtering things. He saw everything." At first, he was anxious, she says. He started to regress, often sucking on the corner of his T-shirt. Unlike Sofiia's mom, Viktoria felt that telling him everything might help him regain some power and control.
In western Ukraine, the war can feel farther away than in Kharkiv, but air raid sirens are still common in Lviv, and there have been a handful of recent missile strikes.
As Bohdan and his mom were driving home from school one day this winter, an air raid siren went off. Bohdan leaned forward and asked his mom, "Does it mean that there are rockets above or missiles in the sky?"
"No, I don't think so," Viktoria tells him.
"But what if they can get us?" he squeaks, his hands holding the seat in front of him.
It's a delicate balance, of knowing what's happening but still being able to just be a kid. At this moment, Viktoria reassures him it's OK. She often does this when he gets anxious or stressed.
Two best friends, torn apart by war
On the day Iryna Sahan shared that yearbook of all the children in her class, she pointed to a photo of two blond children smiling up at the camera. "This is young love," she said, laughing.
They're in so many photos together. Sitting next to each other, marching down the hall, one in front of the other. Aurora Demchenko, headstrong and sweet, and Daniel Bizyayev, who loves soccer and is a good listener. Sahan remembered how they'd sit next to each other and giggle, sometimes distracting the other students.
What had happened to them? Were they still in touch?
All Sahan knew was that the war had driven these two best friends the farthest away of any of her students — from Kharkiv, and from each other.
The Bizyayevs now live in a suburban neighborhood about an hour north of New York City. On a crisp November afternoon, Daniel steps off the yellow school bus he's ridden home and takes his mom Kristina's hand. They pass pumpkins and yard ghosts, left over from Halloween, on their way to their white two-story house with a large flag in the window. It's half Ukrainian and half American.
Their new house, which Daniel shares with his parents and two brothers, is pretty empty. There is some basic furniture and a room filled with toys, but the walls remain bare. They left Ukraine so fast, they weren't able to take much with them. Daniel's been missing his bedroom back in Kharkiv. "There were so many books," he remembers. "There were so many stories."
He does have one hardcover book that reminds him of before the war: It's a version of that kindergarten yearbook Iryna Sahan had in Kharkiv.
"This is me and this is me," he says, pointing to photos of himself. In so many of the photos of Daniel, Aurora is standing right next to him. Often, they're holding hands.
"She likes to play soccer and to play cars," he says. They were always together, says Kristina, who's been standing nearby. "Daniel loves her because she is not so girlish."
Daniel's parents, Kristina, who worked in marketing, and Yevgeniy, who ran a textile business, had been planning to immigrate to the United States since before Daniel was born. He'd been learning English in anticipation, while the adults worked on saving money, getting the paperwork together and coordinating with Yevgeniy's brother, who lives in the States. When the invasion came last February, they moved up their timeline.
"We wanted to save our lives and the lives of our children," Kristina explains. "For us, it was obvious to leave." As a parent, she says, you make decisions every day. When to wake up. To drink coffee. "Some decisions are harder to make than others," she says. "We never imagined we'd have to make this decision, but that's what we did."
After the invasion, they stayed first in Moldova, Romania, and then Germany. Daniel's youngest brother, Leo, spent his first birthday in a refugee camp. In April, they arrived in West Haven, Conn., to stay with a host family they'd never met but connected with through the website UkraineTakeShelter.com. And then right before the school year started, they moved into that white house in New York state.
While Daniel's been making new friends at school and on his soccer team, he's really been missing Ukraine — and Aurora. At night, he hugs his stuffed bear, pretending it's her. Over the summer, Daniel sent her a video message. "Kisses for you," he says, blowing kisses at the camera.
Aurora and her family never answered that message Daniel sent. Was it too painful to stay in touch? Or had they just gotten busy, adjusting to life in a new country?
"I don't remember"
Nearly 4,000 miles away, in Valencia, Spain, Aurora Demchenko's new school has a slide that goes all the way down to the lower-level floor, half inside and half outside. It's an international school, with instruction in English, where she and her two older brothers now go to class.
A few months after the visit with Daniel's family, Aurora is at school, sitting with two other girls on the blue foam carpet in the first-grade classroom. She wears her white and navy blue school uniform. Her long blond hair is pinned up with a red Minnie Mouse bow.
"Aurora, how are you feeling today?" her teacher, Amanda Green, asks. "So-so," Aurora replies in a quiet voice. "So-so," Green repeats. "Thank you for being honest."
As class begins, students chatter in a multitude of languages: English, Spanish, a little German and Russian. The school's students come from all over the world, but in just this classroom, Aurora is one of seven Ukrainian children.
In Ukraine, Iryna Sahan remembers Aurora having a big personality, but in her new class, she is more timid and reserved. When she started school here in the fall, she could hardly speak any English.
"Aurora, at the beginning, was quite guarded in terms of what she expressed," Green says while on a break from teaching. "She'd get really frustrated, get really angry, and couldn't express what that was like. Sometimes she couldn't finish a task, but it wasn't really about the task."
But over the last several months, her English has gotten better, and she's slowly coming out of her shell. At a school performance over the winter, other teachers noticed what a great performer she was, singing all the songs loudly and doing all of the dance moves. "It was just really sweet to see her so involved," Green remembers. "It must have been really hard for her, considering half of the time she didn't know what she was singing because she doesn't have the vocabulary. But she absolutely loved it."
Aurora's family, her three brothers and her parents, Maryna and Alex, had vacationed in Valencia, a coastal city in Spain, during previous summers. Before the war, Alex worked in Kharkiv's booming tech sector and had a few contacts in Spain. When Russia invaded, they packed up their car and decided this was where they'd head. Like many Ukrainian refugees, they've been granted temporary protection to live in Europe.
They now live in a high-rise apartment, and over homemade bowls of rassolnik, a dill and pickle soup, the family tells how when they first arrived in Valencia, it was during Las Fallas, the city's weeklong fire festival. The streets were filled with loud music, parties and fireworks.
"Aurora kept saying, 'It's bombing outside. We need to go to the basement,' " her father, Alex, remembers.
With so much change and uncertainty, the family has clung to reminders of home, like the single fork her 13-year-old brother, Sasha, brought from their kitchen in Kharkiv. It had been inside the backpack he grabbed as they fled. Now everyone fights over it.
Another reminder of home? A copy of that yearbook Iryna Sahan showed us in Kharkiv. A friend of Sahan brought it to Spain last fall, and the Demchenkos drove two hours just to pick it up. Aurora and her mom, Maryna, spread out on the bed and leaf through the book. Maryna points out pictures of Aurora and her best friend Daniel, now 4,000 miles away in the United States.
"Remember, you always tried to keep a place for Daniel?" she asks. "Remember when your teacher would scold you two for being too silly?" She imitates Iryna Sahan's stern voice: "Aurora! Daniel!"
"No, I don't remember," Aurora says.
"You don't remember? But your teacher Iryna told me," her mom says.
"I don't know. I don't remember," Aurora says, growing impatient. "No, it didn't happen."
"You have forgotten about this, haven't you?" Maryna says.
Aurora finds comfort with her brothers, especially Sasha. The two of them dump a pile of Legos on the floor in a bedroom, building a tower together. Sasha tries again to ask Aurora about the kindergarten. She remembers some things — the borscht for lunch, the things she learned, the games she played — but she doesn't want to talk about others. When he whispers, "Do you want to see your friends, do you want to visit Daniel?" she is visibly uncomfortable and storms off.
"Maybe because of the problems within Ukraine," Sasha explains. Maybe there's a sadness, he says, "maybe she thinks she will not see them again."
Trauma manifests in different ways, but children are resilient
All of the children in Sahan's kindergarten class, whether they left Ukraine or stayed, have experienced trauma in the last year. Coping with those difficult circumstances can manifest in very different ways in children, explains Maryam Kia-Keating, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies refugee and immigrant populations.
Kia-Keating has worked with children who feel helpless or uncertain, have difficulty falling asleep, or struggle to describe in words what's bothering them.
Daniel and Aurora's time together at the kindergarten "is both a painful memory as much as it is a beautiful one," she says. Memory loss, or blocking out painful memories, is also one of the ways the human brain tries to cope with something traumatic.
"Aurora's memory loss could be her brain helping her put the past aside and moving forward into the future," she explains. "She really has a lot to contend with. She has three languages, a new country, and all the other factors that are going on in her life."
But children are extremely resilient and adept at adjusting, she says. "They pick up new languages, they pick up the new culture, they even pick up the new identity. It's a survival mechanism that really works in our favor when we're young."
Staying busy in order to move on
While Aurora has been adjusting to life in Spain, Daniel's parents have kept him busy, building his life in New York. There are Ukrainian classes, swimming lessons and soccer practice, after-school activities and a break-dancing class.
On a visit to their house in February, his parents, Kristina and Yevgeniy, share a new rule: There is no more talk about Aurora.
Over the winter, they met with a psychologist at an event for Ukrainian refugees, explaining how Daniel is having a hard time letting go of his memories of Ukraine and of Aurora. When he looks through that yearbook, when he talks about Aurora, he can be sad for days. The psychologist suggests it is fine to talk about the past when Daniel brings it up, but Kristina and her husband shouldn't remind him.
So they've been avoiding it.
In the middle of the living room, Daniel shows off his new dancing skills, while his brothers Adam and Leo run around him. He launches into a head and shoulder stand on the floor, using his hands to spin.
"Turn just a little bit and stand," he demonstrates. "That's how you make it spin."
Daniel recently turned 7 and had a birthday party with children from his first grade class and from his soccer team. In a video from the party, the children are laughing and having a good time. New memories are important, Kristina says as she watches it. "Look, Daniel's really happy." He's even gotten some new books, in Russian and Ukrainian, to fill those empty bookshelves.
"It took time for him to understand that we are not going to see our friends in Ukraine for a while," she says. "Now he talks about Aurora less and less."
The children's roots will always be in Ukraine
It's now been more than a year since these children rehearsed poems, laughed and learned in that green and yellow classroom back in Kharkiv.
While the war is far from over, a counteroffensive late last fall pushed back Russian forces around the city. A few families from the kindergarten class have returned.
Sofiia Kuzmina welcomes the change. She is less bored and more social.
While online school rarely happens, because of frequent power outages, her singing lessons have resumed in person. In an after-school center not far from her home, she warms up by singing Do Re Mi Fa So, as the instructor plays the notes on a piano. Sofiia is working on a solo, and she takes the microphone as the instrumental track plays from the speakers. The other girls watch as she sways and belts out the song, a semblance of normal in a still chaotic time.
Dance lessons are also in full swing. Sofiia splits, twists and spins as pop music blares across the mirror-lined studio.
Even after all this time, her mom, Natalia, says Sofiia still talks about the kindergarten class in the present tense. "I think about the kindergarten before I fall asleep at night," Sofiia says from her bedroom, filled with toys. "I think about it and what it would be like if there wasn't a war, if me and all my friends were back there."
Across Ukraine in Lviv, Bohdan's mom, Viktoria, is still adamant that Bohdan doesn't forget what's happening in his country.They frequently visit the Lychakiv cemetery, just a few blocks from their apartment, to pay tribute to those who have died in this war.
On a recent afternoon, they walk slowly along the rows of freshly dug graves, the mounds of dirt covered in ribbons with pictures and flowers, a slight dusting of snow lingering on the petals.
"I want my son to see this," Viktoria says. "To feel this sacrifice."
With Bohdan in tow, they approach a family standing at the end of one of the gravesites. At their feet, a portrait of a young man in uniform. Viktoria and Bohdan stand with the family for a moment. Bohdan holds his mom's hand.
He's quiet as they walk back to the car. His mom is in tears. "When you see how many people are there," she says. "They are somebody's son, husband, father." Bohdan pipes in: "Someone's grandsons!"
Viktoria doesn't want to shield Bohdan from this pain, from this hate, that she feels. She thinks of Bohdan, of his classmates, as children who may not get a say in their future. A generation shaped by war.
Back in Kharkiv, in the kindergarten classroom, the chairs and desks are now stacked up in the center, and the books and toys are all put away. But there are certain things Iryna Sahan has left intact. The names of the children — Sofiia, Bohdan, Daniel — are still pinned on the lockers and on their nap-time beds.
"I can't bring myself to remove them," Sahan says. "These are my children and until the moment I have a new group, I won't remove them."
In the corner, still on that table by the window, there is a cluster of pots, with thick green leaves — the African violets that the children planted in the days before the invasion.
Not all of them survived. But some of them did.
"Maybe it's symbolic. Maybe it's how it was meant to be," Sahan says.
She and the other teachers have been watering them.
This story was edited by Steve Drummond, Nishant Dahiya and Desiree F. Hicks. The audio was produced by Lauren Migaki. Photo editing by Emily Bogle. Copy editing by Pam Webster. Design and development by Connie Hanzhang Jin.
Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this story from Ukraine and Spain.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.