FRESNO, Calif. – Ukrainian children fleeing the horrors of Russia’s unjust and unprovoked war on their country have been able to find some measure of peace and solace this summer at the Pearl of Transnistria camp located in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine.
“Since the beginning of this war, there are no ‘other people’s children.’ They are all our children, the future of the nation,” said Nazar Zbihley, founder and CEO of the charitable foundation Family-Ukraine, the group responsible for organizing and running the summer camp.
The charitable foundation raised funds to cover the full cost of the stay for children: transportation, five meals a day, medical insurance and care, sports games, nature hikes, art, dance and song contests, and visits to local historical sites.
Among the campers was Viktoriia Yaroshevska, a teenager from Mariupol who woke at 5 a.m. on February 24 as Russian bombs and rockets shook the ground around her. The life she had known in her peaceful house with a view of the Azov Sea was gone. Doors splintered, walls cracked and a favorite guitar burned. She and her mother, Nadiia, were only able to carry an emergency bag. They spent the first 10 days of the war in a cellar. The city went dark. It was cold, and they were cut off from power and had no outside communications.
Around Julian Calendar Easter, both mother and daughter decided to evacuate, leaving for the suburbs of Kyiv to join their estranged father. The grandparents stayed behind.
Their journey, which would typically take half a day, took a month. They had to rely on the kindness of strangers who drove them through Russian checkpoints, waiting for hours to get through filtration camps, risking their lives while moving at night through minefields and charred country roads that were under constant shelling. Low-flying jets roared overhead.
On the road, the teenager had to take care of her mother who suffered a diabetic coma due to a shortage of insulin. Choking back tears, Viktoriia recalled that when the evacuees crossed from Russia-occupied territory into territory under Ukrainian control, they dropped to their knees, hugged and kissed. They were both grateful to be back on Ukraine-controlled soil.
For Mr. Zbihley, February 24 was also a turning point. It was the day that his youngest son was born, and he decided to take his wife and daughter to Makariv near Bucha, hoping to stay away from the mayhem. Instead, he witnessed war crimes. The family spent 11 days under Russian occupation, hiding in a cellar without food, water, electricity, heating or communication.
On March 7, he and his family managed to escape to safety despite constant shelling. It was then that he and his friends began taking action to help others. They wanted to assist civilians scarred by war, especially children who lost not only their homes but one or both of their parents.
In June, Mr. Zbihley signed a memorandum with the Kyiv regional military administration and an agreement with a health resort in the Carpathian Mountains. And, with a promotional campaign run by celebrities and sports stars, they raised funds for a summer camp.
Over the past two months, camp leaders held four two-week camps for approximately 100 children age 6-16. The campers included Viktoriia, as well as orphans and children of members of Ukraine’s military fighting on the frontline, who, under the watchful eyes of psychologists, were able to receive treatment, both physical and mental.
After two weeks of summer camp, Viktoriia appears to have recovered from the initial trauma and stress, as seen by her answers on a Child Impact of Events Scale, developed by the Children and War Foundation, though she will need further psychological support to overcome persistent worry and intense feelings of impending death.
The volunteers have already brought her a gift – a brand new guitar, as well as a promise to make her cherished dream of returning home to a free Mariupol come true someday.
In order to help support the project, the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA) donated $18,600 to Family-Ukraine.
The donation was facilitated by two members of Branch 111 of the UNWLA, Dr. Victoria Malko and Liudmila Wussek, who is the chair of the UNWLA’s Standing Commit-tee on Education and president of Branch 111, with assistance from Olga Hrycak, chair of the organization’s Standing Committee on Social Welfare. It was approv-ed by UNWLA President Natalie Pawlenko.
Additional donations to the foundation have been made by the Ukrainian information technology companies iDeals, Giga Trans, Giga Cloud and Akurateco. UltraMarket donated nutritious food packages so that volunteers could deliver food and hygiene products to the children of families in need. The need is limitless. Parents and guardians apply for assistance on the foundation’s website daily.
Future plans of the Family-Ukraine foundation include continued support of children affected by the war via weekend camps where they can develop skills in the sciences, arts or sports.
“The goal is to create a community of successful, strong, patriotically-educated children who can rely on [the]care and support of their compatriots,” Mr. Zbihley said.
Readers who would like to learn more about the Family-Ukraine foundation and other children’s stories can do so by visiting the website https://dity.family-ukraine.com/#about. Readers who would like to support the foundation’s activities can do so via PayPal by using the account firstname.lastname@example.org. The organization can also accept wire transfers using the following bank and routing information: Charitable Foundation “Family-Ukraine,” UA503510050000026002879143087; beneficiary bank: 020061151200138 Ukrsibbank, Andriivska Str. 2/12, Kyiv; SWIFT Ukraine: KHABUA2K, Correspondent bank: BNP Paribas, New York, U.S.A.; U.S.A. SWIFT: BNPAUS3N