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Helping children in crisis

March 23, 2015
Laura Evans

Instead of studying math and science, Ukrainian children are learning about the sounds of different kinds of bombs as they hide in basement shelters. More than 60 children have been killed in Ukraine since the conflict started nearly a year ago, while countless others have been traumatized as their families are forced to flee.

“The situation is complex and tense,” says MA in Conflict Analysis and Management alumna Laura Evans, who is in Kiev as an emergency child protection consultant with CANADEM and seconded to the United Nations. Here, Evans answers some of our questions about what life is like for the children of a country at war and what it’s like for her.

What do you do as an emergency child protection consultant in Ukraine?

This is difficult to answer without giving a little background. The field of child protection is about protecting children from violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation. In emergencies, child protection specialists try to recognize and respond to the special risks children face in a given context such as recruitment into armed forces or separation from their caregivers during evacuations.

Can you tell us about a “day in the life” for you in Ukraine?

I work out of the UNICEF Ukraine country office in Kiev. As an example of a day in my life, last week I joined a few of the other child protection team members to tour the Kiev railway station. We were there to observe the evacuation process of children from the non-government controlled areas. We needed to understand the process so we can help make sure that the needs of child evacuees are being met along the way. Later, back in the office, I worked with representatives of local organizations to help make sure that their field projects reach the most vulnerable children and provide the best possible support.

Can you describe what life is like for the children you are working with in Ukraine? What challenges and situations are they facing?

Ukraine is like two different countries right now. Here in Kiev, many children live their lives with little interruption. But in the non-government controlled area hundreds of thousands of children have been displaced by the conflict. Unknown numbers are still living in the non-government controlled areas. Some of them have become separated from their families, some can’t access safe accommodation or adequate food and water. Some children are literally staying in their basements or bomb shelters to avoid shelling. Other children, who have been evacuated or have otherwise left the conflict zone, are trying to fit into over-taxed host communities.

What are some of the biggest challenges of your work in Ukraine and how do you cope with them?

International work is always challenging. Cultural and language differences are always difficult. In Ukraine right now, I think the biggest challenge for everyone is that the conflict situation seems unpredictable. The current ceasefire agreement has not held and we all worry that things could escalate at any moment. We feel the responsibility to reach, protect and respond to the needs of children as an urgent pressure.

I cope by remembering that I am not the only one trying to help. There are people everywhere, all the time who are watching out for the vulnerable.

On my desk I keep a little sheep made by a child at one of the evacuee registration centres. It reminds me that creativity and play are basic and natural to children. If children can still play during a crisis like this then it is a sign that our job is being done.

How do you cope with the emotional toll of your work?

My strategy is pretty simple. It is the same strategy we try to teach caregivers and others to help children in stressful situations. In other words, I try to keep a normal routine including a normal sleeping and eating schedule and I pay special attention to the routines in my life that make me feel great. Like exercise, appreciating nature and staying connected to the people I love – like my own adult daughter.

Can you tell us about an experience in Ukraine that has had a large impact on you?

I am always awed and amazed at the simple kindness and generosity of people who are willing to take risks to help others. My favourite stories in Ukraine are the ones I hear of self-organized groups who arrange quiet, rescues using private cars and secret routes.

You’ve been working in the field of child protection since 1998; what inspired you to work in this field?

I have always been bothered by the profound powerlessness and vulnerability experienced by children when their families or communities let them down. There is nothing I believe in more deeply than in helping raise children’s voices in the situations that affect them.

What impact did your Royal Roads experience have on you and your work?

The MA in Conflict Analysis and Management program helped me bridge my domestic social work background with my international work goals. I wanted to be better informed on political and ethnic conflict theory and on international conflict management practice. Through Royal Roads I had a chance to do a funded action-research project in Northern Uganda. While it wasn’t my first international experience, it remains one of my most rewarding. My degree from RRU has definitely opened some doors for me.