Day 6·Q&A

Ukraine needs greater support, supplies for kids in danger: former ombudsman for children

Mykola Kuleba is answering calls all hours of the day, asking families with children for help to flee the continuing conflict in Ukraine.

Mykola Kuleba is helping to remove children from conflict hotspots

A Polish fireman holds a baby at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on March 17, 2022. More than three million Ukrainians have fled across the border, mostly women and children, according to the UN. (Wojtek Radwansky/AFP/Getty Images)

Mykola Kuleba says he is answering calls all hours of the day from families with children who need help fleeing the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Kuleba, the former ombudsman for children with the office of the president in Ukraine, has been coordinating transportation for children stuck in and around the capital city Kyiv. 

According to the United Nations, at least 109 children have been killed since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Russian forces have been accused of bombing schools and a maternity hospital. Toronto's SickKids hospital took in two pediatric patients earlier this week.

Of the more than three million refugees who have fled Ukraine, half are children, said UNICEF on Tuesday

Speaking with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong, Kuleba described what he's hearing from parents and the challenges of evacuating some children from conflict hotspots. 

Here is part of that conversation.

You've been coordinating the effort to evacuate children out of some of those hotspots, and you wrote about watching and seeing these parents having to say goodbye to their children. Can you just describe what some of those moments have been like?

It's hard to say about this because every day I hear [from] witnesses of this catastrophe. Yesterday, I've been in one place, close to Kyiv, where is one of our centres, and it was the mothers, grandmothers and children together — lived in the basement almost three weeks. And it's horrible stories. And I don't really know what could be worse than this.

Can you imagine yesterday, I've been in that centre where we evacuated one orphanage with babies, and half of that babies is with disabilities. We evacuated these kids, but 11 kids ... were not evacuated because that children was with severe disabilities and we had to have ambulances, but we had no ambulances at that time.

We now plan, in special operation, how to take [those] children because Russian shellings is everywhere — and any time they could die. I know a lot of stories like this. That's why our children in serious danger now.

Empty strollers, 109 in total, are placed outside the Lviv city council during to highlight the number of children killed in the invasion as of March 18, 2022. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

What are your days like? What are you doing from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed at night?

Do you know the word nightmare? This is about my life — daily life. And, really, day and night somebody can call and my phone is red.

I sleep only little because more and more and more people [are] calling. We have a hotline now, it's much easier for me. I can direct people to hotline. And if somebody call to my phone and tell, please help me, we want [to] be delivered to safety ... we immediately react and find somebody close with the car — and it's very hard in occupied territories.

My day is to go every day in Kyiv, in the capital, to the centre because we have this help centre, Save Ukraine, and people every day can come there.

We have maybe 100 buses a day, which come and take these people, these parents and children, to the west of Ukraine or to the border.

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And that's what I wanted to ask about next, because we see these photos of kids loading up onto buses, videos of parents trying to get one last goodbye and to tell their kids to be brave as the the bus doors closed.

Where are those kids going? Who takes care of them when they get their house?

These kids [are] going to relatives if they are in the west of Ukraine. Or somebody, very often officials from orphanage, from institution, could be caregivers and they follow a child.... Together they can go to the west part of Ukraine or to Europe, to any country. But for us, our main role is to evacuate and find relatives, find parents and do it together.

You wrote in a very moving piece in the Guardian last week that you said "childhood cannot coexist with war."

What does it do to a child when they experience war? And what can you do for the kids that won't be able to get out of the hotspots, that will be stuck there?

It's hard to answer. It's impossible to stay normal after this nightmare. And today I talked with one mom who was delivered from hotspot suburb [of] Kyiv and with a maybe six- or seven-years-old daughter.

I ask her about reaction of her child, and she told me she cannot sleep. She's shaking all night and she cannot sleep at night. It's hard to tell what [will] happen in future, because for any children, it's impossible now to turn to a normal life.

We need more support. We need more help. We need buses, we need ambulances, we need food, we need hygiene products. We need everything to give them safety places. This is life, what is in Ukraine now.

UNICEF estimates that at least 1.5 million children have been forced to flee Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion of the country. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

You sound tired; you sound frustrated. You've been so focused on these kids and getting them to safety. How are you doing?

I'm not thinking about it because sometimes really, to be honest, when I see how children suffer, I cannot stop crying sometimes. But I have no time to cry. I have to live. I have to go ahead. I have to fight for our children, for our families, for our country and not stop.

And maybe — not maybe — when we will win, I will come down and will think about me. But now it is not time to think about myself. It's time to think about Ukrainian children.

This is my calling. I cannot imagine the other life. That's why it's hard to think about perspectives or about future. I can only dream about the best future for my country. That's all.

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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