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Rebuilding communities through sports in war-torn Ukraine

Vatican News speaks with Larissa Yatsiuk, about the work carried out in the social sports schools run by the NGO, “Epicentr for Children”, to help Ukrainian children recover from the trauma caused by the war waged by Russia in their country.

By Lisa Zengarini

One of the many “collateral” damages caused by war is the disruption of educational systems in the affected countries. In the 2023-2024 school year, some 200,000 children in war-torn Ukraine were reportedly deprived of access to education due to bombings, air strikes, blackouts, displacement of people, and temporary occupation of territories by Russian armed forces.

This adds to the heavy toll already paid by Ukrainian children in terms of deaths (nearly 2,000 according to U.N. sources), physical injuries and psychological trauma which, as Pope Francis recently repeated “has stolen their smile”.  

The Epicentr for Children’s social sports schools 

This is what Larissa Yatsiuk, coordinator of the non-profit organization “Epicentr for Children”, has noted in the faces of the many internally displaced children forced to leave their homes along with their families in Mariupol and other cities in Eastern Ukraine, or who have undergone the temporary occupation by Russian troops of their villages or cities, like Irpin. 

The Ukrainian non-governmental organization, co-sponsored by a Ukrainian hypermarket chain, is a branch of the Real Madrid Foundation of the famous Spanish football club, which sponsors social sports schools focused on supporting the education and holistic development of minors living in vulnerable situations around the globe, as well as promoting development cooperation in the five continents in conjunction with leading NGOs and international organisations working in this field.

Ms Yatsiuk told Vatican News that since the war between Ukraine and Russia broke out in 2022, the Epicentr for Children has extended its scope.  Whereas before the conflict its focus was on vulnerable children from disadvantaged families, the NGO now also takes care of the children of internally displaced families who have fled to Western Ukraine, or who have undergone  Russian occupation.  Overall, the social sports schools take on some  1,000 children every year. 

The values of sports to help resilience and rebuild communities

“What we do”, she explained  “is offer these children psychological assistance and help them integrate in their new environment through sport.” In fact,  “by teaching them  to practice the values of sport, including solidarity, empathy, respect for the adversaries, both when they win and when they lose, we help them manage their trauma and emotions, but also make them feel included.” 

This effort helps their resilience which is important, ”because children are our future,” Ms Yatsiuk said: “I remember that when I spoke to some children in Irpin soon after the city’s liberation from the Russians in March 2022, and they told me about the bad things that had happened there, I was struck by the fact they had no smile on their faces.”

“But in the photographs and videos we took after some sports events we had organized for them they looked relieved and happy. After what they had gone through,  they felt they weren’t alone anymore”.

This is especially important for internally displaced people, as many of them have problems integrating into host communities in Western Ukraine, also because, although Ukrainian, for the most part, they speak Russian and not Ukrainian.

“So the sports training and events we organize, along with psychological assistance help this integration process,” Ms Yatsiuk said

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