UNICEF Helps Children With Disabilities In Wartime Ukraine
Photo Caption
Four-year-old Theona, who has autism spectrum disorder, receives special services at Dzherelo Children's Rehabilitation Center in Lviv, Ukraine, with support from UNICEF.
Photo Credit

More than 14 million people have been forced out of their homes by the war in Ukraine, leaving parents struggling to keep their children safe and healthy in the midst of a national nightmare. For families of children with disabilities, uprooted from their familiar routines and support systems, the challenges can be even greater.

Heavy shelling drove 4-year-old Theona, who has autism spectrum disorder, and her family out of their house near Kherson in southern Ukraine. Now staying almost 600 miles away in Lviv, she is getting help from specialists at Dzherelo Children's Rehabilitation Center, with support from UNICEF.

Here, she is learning how to communicate through the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which uses a set of picture cards to explain her feelings.

Escape from Kherson
"The explosions occurred next to our house,” said Victoria, Theona’s mother. “A blast wave made the curtains move in and out of the open window. We couldn't believe that was happening. You just don't know what to do.”

For weeks, the family lived in darkness, covering the windows tightly with curtains and plywood to avoid shattered glass in the event of shelling. When they heard explosions or saw missiles flying through the air, they ran to the basement.

"Theona covered her ears with her hands and couldn't understand why she should stop playing," Victoria recalled. "She screamed and tried to run upstairs. That was a stress for all of us."

Victoria searched high and low for a driver who would agree to bring a child with a disability. In the end, they shared the journey with a neighbor and his family. The journey took two days and, although Theona wanted to run and play, she had to remain in the car.

The family brought only the bare essentials and Theona's favorite doll with them to Lviv.

New skills and a way to communicate
In Lviv, the family got in touch with specialists working at the children’s center.

"Dzherelo Children's Rehabilitation Center received us with respect and dignity,” said Victoria. “My daughter masters new skills and knowledge. She's developing and at her own pace.”

Before she began using the PECS communication method, Theona would pull on her mother's hand to ask for something. Now, thanks to the work of UNICEF specialists, she simply presents the relevant card to explain her feelings and wishes.

A chance to grow and thrive
"Communication is getting better, as well as her mood,” said Victoria.

Since Theona began attending the children’s center, Victoria has also signed her up for an inclusive kindergarten, where she can socialize and expand her social circle.

"Theona began to communicate more with relatives at home," explained Sophia Shikur, a speech therapist at the center. "Now she can say what she wants and what she doesn't want to do. The PECS system allows her to take an active part in family life, like playing with her older brother. I believe Theona is making great progress."

Individualized support for children and their families
As part of the UNICEF project, staff at the children’s center provide internally displaced families who are raising children with disabilities with consultations and help them adapt to a new place. Every child needs an individual approach.

"Our main task in the UNICEF project is to give parents a push, to refer the child to specialists who will help him develop and support them," said Sofia.

"Children with disabilities are first and foremost children, and they have the same rights that all children have," said Murat Sahin, UNICEF Representative in Ukraine. "So any humanitarian activity should include children with disabilities and offer adequate care, protection and a barrier-free environment. No child should be left behind, especially in times of war. We need to ensure children with disabilities are visible, heard and protected, as all children should be."

UNICEF won’t stop. Ever. Join us.

Image: View of Earth from space
Sometimes it seems the crises just keep coming for children.
Image: Kid being carried by UNICEF worker
Image: Kids under a tent
Image: Toddler standing by mother
Image: Closeup of kid wearing a face mask
Image: Mother carrying child giving a kiss
Image: Large amount of water flowing down
Image: Child walking holding jug of water
And famine.
Image: Baby getting a checkup
They can seem downright relentless.
Image: Mother holding baby
Image: Closeup of little child
But you know what?
Image: UNICEF worker walking through warehouse
Image: Warehouse machines
Image: UNICEF response vehicle driving
These past few year have proven we can rise up,
Image: Woman with face mask, walking through street
Image: Construction workers moving pipes
Image: UNICEF vehicle driving through snow/mountains
Deliver billions of vaccines, provide protection to uprooted families,
Image: Airplane landing on runway
Image: Medicine being given to baby
Image: UNICEF worker supporting family and giving woman a hug
Supply the therapeutic food that can save millions of children from famine
Image: UNICEF worker helping mother and child
Image: Toddler and baby eating food
When helping children unites us,
Image: People helping set up UNICEF stand
Image: UNICEF worker dancing with kids
We are a force to be reckoned with.
Image: Workers with first aid kits and supplies walking
Image: Health official in face mask and shield, gloves and scrubs
Together, we can counter any challenge thrown at us.
Image: UNICEF workers planning
Image: UNICEF workers moving boxes into truck
Image: UNICEF vehicle driving
Together, we can meet this moment and those to come.
Image: Someone walking on bridge with mountain view behind
Image: UNICEF worker standing in front of airplane
It’s why UNICEF won’t stop.
Image: Workers transporting boxes of supplies
Image: UNICEF workers walking
We won’t stop working for every child.
Image: Kids with backpacks smiling in front of UNICEF tent
Image: UNICEF USA logo
Text: UNICEF won’t stop working for every child
Text: Donate Now
Image: Kid eating
[music fades]