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Ukraine’s Defenders through the Eyes of Young Adults

By: Kimberly Stefancik

Children, teenagers, and the education system have been under attack since the War began on Ukraine in 2014.  Their homes have been destroyed, schools have been targeted by Russian aggression, and the psychological toll and trauma will potentially be felt for generations to come.  But one of the aspects that seems to have been under-reported is the effects on children and young adults of having a family member who is fighting in the War for Ukraine’s freedom.

First, let’s review some of the statistics that are available about the impact thus far on the young people of Ukraine.  As of 2022, there was a total population of 7.5 million children in Ukraine.  According to an article by CNN, more than 700,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia, either forcibly or by their families, since 2022.  Most of these numbers are likely through forcible deportation, which is considered a War crime, and subsequent charges have been filed against Russia by the International Criminal Court (ICC.)  It is also incredibly challenging to track the number of children who are considered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), meaning they are a person who has been forced to move from their home as a result of the War.  UN reporting estimates there have been between one million and four million IDP children throughout the various stages of the War.  Most recently, President Zelenskyy stated 6.5 - 7.5 million people in total have left Ukraine altogether since 2022, mostly being women and children, and the UN confirms these numbers as well.  

Zelenskyy asserted in an interview with German news (January 2024) that there are about 880,000 soldiers in service with the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  The statistical breakdown of demographics is not publicly available.  But behind each of those soldiers, presumably they have family and friends who worry and think about them.  What we want to do is examine how it’s like being a teenager in Ukraine, who has a family member fighting in the War.  In order to accomplish this, several teenagers were interviewed so we may gain a deeper understanding about their personal experience.  

Toffee, Age 16

Village: Добровеличківка (Dobrovelychkivka)

Toffee’s father Kolia is a Renaissance man.  Before the War, he was an electrician and a professionally educated and trained Chef. His passions involve being out in nature, gardening, and a love of trees.   He’s also an electrician and carpenter.  Toffee says, “Dad is versatile,” and everyone who knows him, knows this to be true. 

Toffee’s Dad has been in the Army since the full-scale invasion began.  He also utilizes his Chef skills and helps to feed his fellow soldiers.  This is something that brings people great comfort during difficult times is having tasty food.  Toffee really misses having her Dad’s cooking.  But really what she misses most is just having her Dad around.  “It can’t be described in a few words.  I just want to wake up and see my Dad and have his care and support,” she said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I can’t talk to my Dad at any time and share with him about my day.  What I miss most is just talking to him and his attention.  But I know it’s not in his control right now.”

Ukrainian people who have a family member fighting in the War talk about it all the time with one another. “Not a day goes by where we don’t,” says Toffee. She says it is a source of pride how at every meal with their family, even festive holidays, everyone shares their opinions about the War. Her family also relishes in the proud history of the Ukrainian Cossacks, which dates back hundreds of years.  Ukrainians have a strong sense of national identity, and they hold it close to their hearts while their family members are away fighting for Ukraine’s independence.

Dmytro, 16

Village: Tsarychanka

Dmytro is involved with his community and has a supportive circle of friends.  He and his friends volunteer together, they are industrious, and have big hopes for their future.  They love their village and are proud to show it off to visitors.  Their village is humble, yet picturesque, and has a decent size population of young adults, too.

Dmytro told me about his cousin, also called Dmytro.  His cousin is quite the footballer and was close to playing professionally.  “I can tell you, he lived football.”  But in 2014, his life took a huge turn when Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, illegally annexing the Peninsula.  (Note: Crimea is Ukraine.)

Dmytro said his cousin is, “Super patriot of the Motherland,” and knew before he turned 18 that he was going to enlist in the military.  He started with an anti-terrorist organization in Donetsk region.  Now Dmytro is 27 and has been fighting in the War since 2022.  “Our family really misses him and we have not seen him much since the full War started.”  

The common theme with the young people is they miss the presence of their loved ones- not things or what they did, but merely having them around.  This is poignant in the way of how quickly these young adults have had to mature.  Dmytro said the War is the main topic of conversation every day with his friends and family and he would never want anyone to have to feel like they do with having a family member fighting in the War.  “To me,” he said, “It’s like I don’t know…daily thoughts of not knowing if my cousin is alive.”

Ilya, 15

Village: Novosofievka

Ilya has a kind group of friends who also volunteer and are happy to help their community any way they can.  Schooling is challenging because they are closer to the Front line in Southeast Ukraine and they must do home schooling, which further adds to feelings of isolation.  Sports teams are important to these kids, too.  Many villages have struggled since the full War started.  These areas of Ukraine were economically disadvantaged before the War and the War has only taken opportunities away.  It is an unnerving feeling when one visits villages and the population is mostly women, children, and elderly.  With the case being most of the men are away fighting in the War.  Ilya shared about his Uncle’s brother who was a factory security guard before the War and is now a soldier.  “I really miss him and wish the Victory would come sooner.”  But Ilya is confident in the Victory and talks about it with his friends.  “Ukraine will overcome,” he says. 

The young people will also carry the scars of this War even though they aren’t fighting.  In addition to having all the regular stressors of adolescence, their thoughts and conversations are also about War and death.  They know about the different types of weapons, and they pay close attention to the news.  During my volunteer time, I met students who lived through occupation, then having their village liberated, and they explained how they learned to make Molotov cocktails in school and where to throw them at Russian tanks. 

Besides their loved ones being away, it’s the constant unknowing which weighs heavy on their young minds. In addition to worrying, these young people are incredibly hopeful and resilient, too.  In a lot of ways, life is on hold as they wait but simultaneously it moves forward as they try to focus on normal teenager stuff, like school, sports, and having fun.  Because in this existential battle that Ukraine is fighting, the people who are in combat, know what they are fighting for, and that is for Ukraine’s next generations to be independent and free.



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