Two years ago, Ukrainian teenagers were busy with friendships, falling in love and trying out new things, just like their peers in other countries.

But plans and dreams were quickly shattered by the Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, forcing many young people to flee their homes, friends and schools and build a new existence in a strange country.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian teens ended up in neighbouring Poland, some with their families and some without, among the millions of refugees who fled to other European countries. Nearly six million Ukrainians remain displaced outside the country, a World Bank study shows.

Two years on, many of them have settled into new lives. But some struggle with anxiety, anger and despair, as well as a sense of limbo as they contemplate the possibility of returning to Ukraine one day if the conflict ends.

Transitioning to adulthood can be a tough ride, and the danger and disruption caused by the war have made it harder.

Marharyta Chykalova, who turns 17 in March, left her hometown of Kherson in southern Ukraine with her mother in April 2022 after sleeping in a basement for weeks – and fearing for her life – as Russian troops occupied the city.

They fled to Moldova, then to Romania before settling in the Polish city of Gdynia. Marharyta started learning Polish, trying hard to fit in at her new Polish school, but the first six months were tough.

She says she kept in contact with some of her closest friends at home, but felt lonely nevertheless.

To help cope with depression, the soft-spoken student joined theatre classes that allowed her to express her emotions on stage and helped her make new friends.

“Some people say that home is not a place where you live, but home is a place where you feel good,” she said. “I feel good on the stage, with people close to me. This is my home.”

Around 165,000 Ukrainian teenagers between 13 and 18 years of age are registered as refugees in Poland, according to January data from the Office for Foreigners.

Some gather at Blue Trainers, a community space in a shopping mall in Gdansk where they play board games, billiards and table tennis. Most of all, they connect with their Ukrainian and Polish peers.

Signing up for sports was a particularly popular way of coping with the shock of the war among youngsters.

Andrii Nonka, 15, from Kharkiv, arrived in Poland on his birthday, March 6, 2022, with his mother. His father stayed in Ukraine. Occasionally, he feels a strong desire to go back home to see his friends and father.

Joining a boxing club helped him find new friends and now he looks at Poland increasingly as an opportunity to find a good job, possibly in IT.

“I think because of the war, I have matured quicker,” Andrii said. “For now, it is hard to tell where my home is. For now, my home is in Ukraine.”

Dariia Vynohradova, 17, also from Kharkiv, left her parents behind and says she no longer wants to return.

“I don’t want to go back because Kharkiv is destroyed so much, there is nothing to go back to,” she said. “I will go back to visit my parents sometimes, but I want to stay here.”


Comments are closed.