On a late July morning, the sounds of summer camp were the sounds of summer camps everywhere as kids raced from one activity to the next.
But the Midgard Forest camp is in Kyiv, in wartime Ukraine, and when the air pierced the sirens, the kids knew what to do, forgo their jump ropes and tennis games and ran off for safety.
It’s as familiar a routine as lunch.
The war has brought a new reality to Ukrainians, but some things still hold true, and with the weather warming, some parents are faced with the ever-present question: What should we do with the kids this summer?
With children isolated and deprived of social contact – some driven by fierce fighting to flee their homes – schools and camps are springing up to offer programmes.
Parents considering sending their children to Forest Camp, which is run by Midgard School, may have once asked about the pedigree of counselors or art programs, but on February 24, when Russian troops rushed across the border into Ukraine, all that changed.
“My first question to school was whether they had shelter,” Natalia Ostapchuk remembered when dropping her 6-year-old son, Vyacheslav Evatin.
Yes, it is, and when the sirens went off the other morning, that was where the campers headed.
The kids spent about an hour in the basement shelter, and for the most part, they took it step by step.
The shelter covers about 5,000 square feet, and given the frequency of going there – at least once a day – the school has set it up well. Next to the tables and chairs, there are toys, table games and TV screens. There is also an air supply system, toilets, showers and wi-fi.
“I don’t feel like I’m sheltered,” said Polina Sally, 11, whose family fled the fighting in Pokrovsk, a town in the east.
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Back in Pokrovsk, her family would descend into a cellar reused as a shelter, with canned food, porridge, and bottles of water.
“When there was bombing from afar, we spent the whole night there,” recalls Polina.
Soon the campers seemed to have forgotten their basement surroundings, content with spending time with their electronic devices as they texted their parents out of reassurance. But when the siren died, the children responded with joy, and climbed up the stairs to resume their day.
At least, until the next siren goes off.
Midgard School opened in 2017, and as in years past, when summer came, it turned into a camp.
But this is not like any other year.
This summer, the camp is offering a 50 percent discount to children of the Ukrainian military, many of whom are deployed to the front lines in the Far East. About a third of the camps are from IDP families, attending at no cost. Campers no longer go on day trips off campus. They need to stay near the shelter, in case the sirens are heard.
Many displaced camp families arrived with little more than they could carry. The school also provided housing for three families who had fled fighting in the east. They live in what is commonly known as a kindergarten building.
Five years ago, when her son was born, Marina Serhenko decided that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, could use the family development center. So I founded one. She called it Uniclub, and it offered community members a kindergarten, summer camp, and gym where moms could bring their kids.
Like jungle camp, Uniclub remade itself after the invasion of Ukraine.
“When the war began, we organized a shelter,” said Ivan Zubkov, Marina’s husband, who helps her run the center. “Families with their children – and even pets – were living in the shelter.”
Public kindergartens are not open this summer in most parts of Ukraine, but Uniclub has 25 children in its kindergarten and 12 in its camp.
It also provided services to children displaced from Mariupol, the eastern city brutally besieged by Russian forces. Uniclub provides clothing for those who need it, along with discounts and waivers on tuition fees.
Some families have landed at Uniclub to escape the fighting elsewhere in Ukraine – if only as a road stop.
Many have come forward, and with no prospect of a ceasefire in sight, some have left Ukraine altogether. Their pets were another story.
“We now have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even turtles to take care of,” Mr. Zubkov said.
It may have once seemed like an unfathomable summer activity, but Ukraine itself has become incomprehensible, so the program of teaching children how to reduce the risk of mines suddenly does not seem so strange.
The class was put together by Soloma Cats, a charity that works with professionals from the State Emergency Service and the National Police. Over the course of a week, in five districts of Kyiv, children and their parents are given safety lessons about mines and unexploded ordnance.
Although Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv after early efforts to seize the capital failed, the surrounding areas were occupied, and when the invaders withdrew, repositioning themselves to launch an attack on the east, there were reports of mines and booby traps behind.
“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of land in Ukraine is contaminated with mines,” says the charitable organization. “Children and adults all need to know how to act if they find something dangerous.”
The war has taken a heavy toll on the children of Ukraine.
Many communities have been uprooted and turned into killing fields. Many family members lost due to the fighting. Many of them have been killed.
The Ukrainian authorities announced last week that since the beginning of the Russian invasion, at least 358 children have been killed and 693 have been injured.
Not many children are left on the front lines in Ukraine. Most of them have been transferred out of harm’s way to centers for internally displaced people or out of the country.
But some parents have been reluctant to leave or let their children do so. Thus, camp or any summer program remains a distant dream. The goal is to stay simple.
“I know it’s not safe here,” said one mother, Victoria Kalashnikova, who was standing near her 13-year-old daughter, Daria, in the Marinka yard, in the east, when the town came under fire. “But where are we going? Where to stay? Who will take us? Who will pay?”
Even those who come out of combat may find each day an ordeal of uncertainty.
In Kyiv, Ihor Lykov and his wife Nonna recounted their escape from Mariupol with their parents and three children. With Mariupol now in Russian hands and their old house partially destroyed, the family has been living in the capital since March.
But they found welcome in Kyiv – and even in a summer program for their children. Uniclub took the older boys for free.
“In the camp, there are group sports and games,” said Maxim Likhov, 12. “I like to walk and play outside more than anything else, but I also like to join the group classes.”
Still, there is something he would like more.
“I want the war to end,” Maxim said. “And I want us to go home.”
Jeffrey Gittleman and Oleksandra Mikulishin contributed reporting,