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“You’ve always been my helping hand”. Daughter of a Bucha victim helps orphans to cope with trauma

The body of Iryna Filkina, 52, was identified by her manicure
“You’ve always been my helping hand”. Daughter of a Bucha victim helps orphans to cope with trauma
Edited by: Denys Dratsky

She established The “Mama Ira” Foundation in memory of her mother who was killed by the Russian troops in Bucha. Olha Shchyruk spoke to Euromaidan Press about the Ukrainian children who lost their parents in Russia’s war against Ukraine, and her efforts to help them.

“Mama, now I have to repay your love and give it to the world”

On 7 April, Olha Shchyruk launched her charity to help Ukrainian children who lost their parents in Russia’s war against Ukraine. It happened just a few days after her mother, 52-year-old Iryna Filkina, had been killed by Russian soldiers in Bucha near Kyiv.

Olha wrote her first post on The “Mama Ira” Foundation Instagram page:

My mother always said to me: Olia, you have to grow up.
Am I an adult now, Mom?
You have always been a helping hand to me.. My friends still call you: “Mama Ira.”
A hand that supports, that fondles, that wipes tears away.
Mom, I cried and no one wiped, and I cried and screamed even more bitterly … I thought you would hear that and come by.
Today I woke up for the first time without tears, because in my dream I’ve heard a small girl crying somewhere. A kid smaller than me and in more pain. The girl cried because she didn’t know where her mother was, and would she ever come back and kiss and hug her again.
Mom, you gave me so much love, you put so much effort in me – and I just have no right not to give it back to the world.
Mom, I don’t know if I succeed, and I’m scared, but you used to say that no one could do anything better than me.
So I decided to open a charity in your memory. In this way, I would know that you exist not only in my mind. You are in my heart, and as long as my heart beats, it will share with the world the love that you have put in it.
And, as you always said to everything that I said: Mom always loves you.”

Olha Shchyruk. Photo: The “Mama Ira” Foundation Instagram page

Before the Russian invasion, the 26-year-old Olha worked as a psychologist helping children with disabilities. For the past year and a half, she also treated internally displaced persons from Donetsk and Luhansk regions who were forced to leave their homes after the 2014 Russian aggression.

After the tragic loss of her mother, Olha decided to establish a charity to help the children who, like her, had become orphans because of the Russian war against Ukraine.

“This is not just some new project idea. It should be a soul that cares for the future of children just as much as their mothers might care for them… I want all of the children who had lost their parents or otherwise suffered from Russia’s war on Ukraine to be able to receive professional assistance,”– Olha wrote on her Instagram page.

The body of Iryna Filkina, 52, was identified by her manicure. Photo by Zohra Bensemra
Olha talked to Euromaidan Press about her first steps to set up The “Mama Ira” Foundation, on Ukrainian children who lost parents in the Russian war against Ukraine, and how psychologists can help them to cope with trauma.

The charity’s first steps

The “Mama Ira” Foundation has already managed to attract support from local Ukrainian partners, in particular, psychologists and art therapists from Kyiv, who provide psychological support online. We now also have partners from Odesa from the “Children of Heroes” Foundation, which works directly with children who had lost their parents.

We are currently covering the basic needs of our children. We transport them to safe locations to stay there either with their relatives in Ukraine or abroad. Also, the important issue is burial arrangements for their parents. The costs of burial now start at 25,000 hryvnias ($1,000). If a child loses both parents, these expenses have to be covered. We are also focusing on the child’s other needs, including housing, various issues that have arisen during the war, provide them with food and clothing.

children affected by war in ukraine
Food is provided by The “Mama Ira” Foundation to children who lost their parents in Russia’s war against Ukraine

Most children affected by the war in Ukraine do not engage socially, and many of them become detached

Not all children agree to be treated by a psychologist. According to the information we’ve received from our partners, approximately 80% of the children are reluctant to communicate with psychologists directly. The “Children of Heroes” Foundation currently works with 82 kids. Only 10 of them have contacted the Foundation themselves; mostly it is relatives who have come in touch with the foundation. Ukraine is still at war. If there were no war, there would be much more publicity, and children’s relatives and friends would report about such cases more often. These days, children are afraid to speak about where they are and with whom they are. They often lock themselves in a room and refuse to communicate with their relatives. They also stop communicating with each other.

This experience is dreadfully stressful. If at age 26, I’m under such big stress, then I understand how hard it must be for the kids.

Olha and her mother Iryna. Photo: The “Mama Ira” Foundation website

Too often children just don’t speak at all, they become numb. Their age is 14-15. Even with psychological assistance, it would take a year or two to re-establish the contact. You understand how stressful it is if a child was talking at the age of 13-14, and then just stopped talking at all and does not say a word.

It is difficult to say if children would get back on their feet and show signs of improvement in a month or so. The psychologists that I had been in contact with agreed that the process would be quite difficult, and will take more than a year. It can take up to five years due to the high levels of trauma.

How many children lost their parents, and why is it so difficult to accurately count

The estimates of the number of Ukrainian children who lost their parents after the Russian invasion of Ukraine exceed 1,000 and sometimes reach 5,000. That figure is not mentioned in official reports because there everything should be properly documented. But some children even refuse to contact psychologists. They are afraid that the war that they have just fled from could come after them again tomorrow.

Children are afraid: some people came into their country, killed their parents, and went away. No one was able to protect their parents or themselves. Their parents, whom they had considered to be the strongest in life, were shot and killed by these people. There is no one in the whole world left to protect them. Children had been taught from birth that human life is sacred, that they were safe from harm, and that they needed to love all others. Now, the cognitive dissonance created in their minds that are not fully shaped can have grave negative implications for the future.

The treatment for children who lost parents due to the war against Ukraine is being developed in real-time

children ukraine war
Drawing by Tetiana Kopytova. The girl holds a toy that has been found in Kramatorsk after the Russian shelling at the railway station

What happens to the children who won’t be treated by a psychologist? Not all of them are getting psychological care, and it can be devastating on an emotional level. Or they might resort to violence and do the same as what was done to them because that’s how the human mind works.

Now we need to establish the optimal treatment procedure. Textbooks are not enough. It is all down to practice. Many psychologists, unfortunately, are either too stressed out themselves or are unable to find proper treatment. This creates additional pressure on them. They are developing treatment plans in real-time.

bloody toy
A toy covered with blood found after Russian shelling at Kramatorsk railway station become a sad symbol of the Russian war crimes. Photo: Roman Kulik

So far, our partners from Odesa have been recruiting volunteers to help families, with one to five families assigned to each volunteer. They display a lot of kindness and loyalty. They communicate with children as friends. They are from Ukraine themselves and tell children stories about their sufferings. It was also decided to not publicize the children’s stories. If we use those stories in our fundraising efforts and to attract publicity, that could potentially be harmful to the children. Sometimes the children themselves don’t want their names to appear publicly. They opt to maintain their privacy. If we make them do public appearances, that could seriously harm the children’s fragile psyche.

“If I don’t think about it, it never happened.” Why is it important to work through painful experiences?

Murder, torture, and rape – all happened during the First and Second World Wars. If we talk about the trauma after WWII, many men became alcoholics, while women had to carry the burden of raising the children on their own. There were a lot of domestic violence incidents. Many of the children have engaged themselves in violent acts because of past trauma.

The right way to deal with these feelings, after an initial shock, is to reflect on traumatic events. You express your feelings of pain. You cry and it hurts – you describe how much it hurts. But the last stage is acceptance of the situation that you are in before moving on with your life.

Just as it happened after WWII, we will see a lot of people becoming more and more detached. Many children will not be able to continue their treatment. Some pretend that it never happened. Moreover, every second victim thinks that he or she deserves what has happened. They mistakenly think that something was wrong with them. This might result in serious mental issues, which could also make a person avoid tackling them in any way. Girls who have been abused will avoid discussing these topics but there will be triggers. For example, because of the triggers, they could become hysterical. The unprocessed trauma will come back to haunt them.

The initial stages of shock and acceptance also include denial, anger, and second-guessing. “What if I had left sooner” is an example of the second-guessing stage. And it is all very uneven. I was a little angry today, tomorrow I will resist the situation, and a day after, I will deny that anything ever happened at all.

It is impossible to perform such experiments without help from certified psychologists. We need to explain to the people who never lost their relatives how to talk to those who did. People often demand them to talk about the details that victims are not yet ready to talk about.

children war bucha
A volunteer has just retrieved dozens of bodies from a mass grave in Bucha. Photo: Дарница Live

Adoption can make things worse

I wouldn’t recommend proceeding with adoption for at least the next three years. The adopting family should go through a rigorous psychological evaluation. Often orphans did not yet have enough time to process the traumatic events from their past. The children could receive visitors under supervision but they should stay in the custody of state care institutions. A child is not a toy to be passed around. Children need to know where they are going and how they are getting there, and that nothing will ever be the same. It is necessary to prepare the children for this. Many orphans do not remember their parents. And those who do might experience the incomprehensible trauma of losing their joyful past being a part of a happy family.

The “Mama Ira” Foundation now has a Ukrainian language website, Facebook and Instagram pages, a Telegram bot for people who seek help, and a PayPal account for donations ([email protected])

“As long as our military defends this country, you and I can save our most precious treasure – our children. Together, we are supporting our country on the home front by taking care of our youngest,”– wrote Olha on The “Mama Ira” Foundation Instagram page.



Edited by: Denys Dratsky
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