Fleeing the horrors of war, Ukrainian children arrive in countries in western Europe with a unique set of challenges. Many have witnessed the destruction of their homes, the loss of family members, and have lost almost all of their material possessions. Arriving in Belgium and other countries, many cross the border with just their Rucksack (рюкзачок).
Di Redmond, celebrated children’s author and name behind classics such as Bob the Builder, Postman Pat, Angelina Ballerina, Chuggington, and City of Friends, presented her new book, Rucksack, on 4 November before members of the Ukrainian community at the European Union’s recently inaugurated Ukrainian Civil Society Hub in Brussels.
Unlike Redmond’s other children’s books, Rucksack is intended to serve as a tool for refugee children to heal and explore their feelings after having left their homes in Ukraine, often to strange and far away places.
“I write books and television programs that make children laugh, and these books make adults cry. William Yule, the chief child therapist in Britain, said that these children have got to express their grief because children absorb their parent’s grief suddenly,” Redmond told The Brussels Times.
Anna Shevchenko, Ukrainian author and consultant, also helped launch the book alongside Redmond.
“I worked on the border with Romania in March with Ukrainian mothers and Ukrainian children and noticed that every single child held their rucksack as their most prized possession. The children would open up when they would show me what they had in the rucksack. I realised that, for them, it was more than a rucksack. It was hope, it was safety. It was everything they had and their memories,” she said.
Written in both English and Ukrainian, the story tells the tale of a boy leaving Ukraine with just a rucksack on his back, containing his memories of another, happier life. Travelling through towns and countryside, gutted by war, he leaves his homeland and travels to strange places.
Yet on his journey, the young boy loses his rucksack, his vital link to the past. He makes the long journey back home, to Ukraine, to find all the precious memories that he lost. On his journey, he realises that the memories of his rucksack remain, and he can learn to build new memories and hope.
“It teaches about letting go, breathing in, steadying, and also leaving something that you’re frightened of leaving behind because you think you’ll never find it again. Instead, it teaches to leave these memories in your mind somewhere safe. You can go away and live your life and come back to it,” Redmond explained.
The children’s book is illustrated by Ukrainian artist Lilia Martynyuk, who currently resides in a basement in Ukraine’s frontline city of Zaporizhzhia. Martynyuk’s illustrations encapsulate the realities of the destruction of war, as well as moments of sadness and joy in a war torn land.
Children traumatised by war
Created in cooperation with charity Children and War UK, who seek to help children recover from trauma and psychological damage from war, the book is accompanied by an activity booklet teaching children and their parents or teachers reading the book how to deal with traumatic experiences and express emotions.
“Children need support to deal with the emotional reactions they have to war. Parents/carers should provide opportunities to listen to their concerns. Looking at this book together allows children to think about their reactions and get some simple help to cope better with them,” said Professor William Yule of King’s College London, head of Children and War UK.
The book was also created in partnership with Dennis Ougrin, Professor of child and adolescent psychiatry of Queen Mary University, and Ukrainian psychologist Kateryna Yavna Rosenthal. The emotional needs of children are often significant, and require special attention.
“Quite often the kids close up. They don’t want to show that they experienced loss and they experienced fear, these are two key things, and of course uncertainty, because their security is taken away,” Shevchenko said.
The accompaniment to the book even teaches children how to do CBT breathing exercises to help reduce anxiety and stress.
Reading for integration
Also at the event, representatives of State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine, the Office of the President of Ukraine, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, and with the support of Volodymyr Zelenksyy’s spouse, Olena, Ukrainian-language children’s books, including Rucksack, were transferred to reading charity Libraries without Borders (bibliothèques sans frontières) in Belgium.
Dimitri Verboomen, Director of Libraries without Borders Belgium, stressed the importance of reading for the healing and integration of Ukrainian refugee children. The charity has established a series of small libraries across Europe, especially in countries with significant populations of Ukrainian refugees, to help promote learning and integration.
“Here in Belgium and in France, we create libraries in spaces where Ukrainians live so that they actually have access to books, but also a place of normality. It’s really important that they can first have access to their own culture but also can start learning French or Dutch and integrate into Belgian society,” Verboomen said.
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Books like Rucksack have a significant role to play in aiding Ukrainian refugees in Europe to come to terms with their loss and to better understand their emotion. Also written in English, the book also helps local children understand the feelings experienced by Ukrainian children.
“It’s very important for the kids who come here to just be kids again and be able to follow and join a class here in Belgium, to understand what happened and to be with other kids,” Verboomen added.
Redmond plans to translate the book into other languages and distribute Rucksack to other schools and help centres. The children's book will also soon be available to order online, with the funds from the sale helping to fund the donation of new copies to refugee children across Europe.