UNICEF head Oleinik: Czech response to Ukraine “best of humanity” – we must not slip back

Yulia Oleinik

Czechia has handled a wholly unprecedented refugee situation since Ukraine was attacked by Russia 16 months ago. Among those working to help provide education, accommodation and other services to Ukrainian families is UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund. I discussed that assistance – and much, much more – with Yulia Oleinik, the agency’s head of office in Prague.

Where are you from, Yulia?

“I’m from Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a nomadic country and I think in that spirit I also have lived over the last 20 years in different countries: in the United States, then back to Central Asia for five years and now I’m in Prague, working on supporting government and partners in responding to the refugee crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.”

“50,000 Ukrainian refugee children are in the education system, which is incredible in such a short time and without prior experience.”

And you yourself are Ukrainian?

“That’s right. My last name is certainly Ukrainian.

“My family moved to Kazakhstan a year before I was born, from Ukraine.

“So for me this issue is certainly personal as well.”

Was there a Ukrainian community or minority in Kazakhstan?

“Yes. Kazakhstan was, and remains, quite international and multi-ethnic.

“In many ways because of Stalin’s policies, but also during the Soviet times there were a lot of movements of people between the republics for work and other reasons.”

As for work, how did you end up in your field?

“I think this experience of growing up as an adolescent in the ruins of the Soviet Union, and seeing society finding a new way and learning to live in a new reality, was truly transformative for me, as an adolescent and also observing what my parents and community had to go through.

“So I got very interested in the questions of international development, democracy, values and economic transformation.

“Then I went to study international development in the United States and the UK, and that brought me to the United Nations.

“In 2006 I joined the United Nations to work on development programmes, and most recently with UNICEF.”


When did you take over in Prague?

“July 2022, so nearly a year ago.”

It was before you started there, but I presume your office’s work was completely transformed on February 24 last year?

“That’s right. Obviously we have a very strong partnership and presence in Ukraine.

“So we had a system there to quickly scale up response to the crisis for children and families in Ukraine.

“But obviously very quickly it spilled over to many European countries and UNICEF responded by opening temporary presences in several countries: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

“We also already had a presence in countries like Bulgaria, Moldova, that were also affected.

“We have been supporting children and families on the move with regard to their basic needs first, but now with the longer term agenda of inclusion.”

What exactly is UNICEF doing here in Czechia for Ukrainian refugee children?

“We work very closely with the government and civil society partners to make sure that children and families fleeing the war in Ukraine have access to services: health, education, social protection, child protection.

“With time and with the right support young children start smiling; they are getting their childhood back.”

“So that they have the support that they need to stand on their feet, integrate into society and start contributing to society as well.

“Obviously questions like education are quite complex, because you have a large child population arriving in a very short time.

“And the education system and the Ministry of Education have done outstanding work over the last year in integrating children.

“Over 50,000 Ukrainian refugee children are now in the education system, which is incredible in such a short time and without prior experience.

“It greatly contributes to making the system more inclusive.

“But of course at the back end of it there have been a lot of efforts in supporting teachers, supporting school administration as well as the Ministry on how to work in this new reality.

“Let me give you a specific example.

“We work with the Ministry of Education on training teachers on how to teach in a more heterogeneous environment, how to identify signs of stress and trauma and how to address them – how to refer children for the support they need.

“We’ve also supported the Ministry in hiring and building the capacity of teaching assistants, both from Ukraine and the Czech Republic, to work alongside teachers and support children in understanding the curriculum, in understanding material, in integrating with classmates, so that they can have better learning outcomes and so that they are supported in terms of their mental health.”

According to UNICEF’s there are now more than 90,000 Ukrainian child refugees in Czechia. I presume you meet these kids quite often. When you talk about stress and their mental state, typically what kind of mental state do they have?

“It varies, depending on how long people have been here and what they have experienced.

“What we see is often that adolescents are lost.”

“I think for any child experiencing war and fleeing the war, with such huge uncertainty, will have a big impact.

“We see it with all ages, starting with small children.

“We support the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in opening new children’s groups throughout the Czech Republic.

“Now there are 67 that we have supported, so that children can continue developing, so that mothers can actually join the labour market and so they are supported from the mental health perspective.

“What we see in the first days – the teachers were telling us that every time they heard a sharp sound they would get under the tables, based on their earlier experience.

“But with time and with the right support they start smiling, they start playing together and they are getting their childhood back.

“But then it’s very different for the adolescents.

“They have come in a very fragile time for anyone: when you are turning from childhood to adulthood, from education to employment.

“It could be a difficult time for any one of us, but when you are displaced, when you are taken out of your community, when you have to flee your home, your school, your friend, it’s many times more difficult.

“What we see is often they are lost.

“They don’t know what the future holds, they don’t know if they will stay here long, or when or how they can go back.

“So supporting them in this period is very important, providing them with psycho-social support.

“But that does not necessarily mean from psychologists, or psychologists only.

“Often small things, like having a peer, having a Czech peer, or having a place to come to and engage in a conversation and a board game, feeling welcomed in school goes a long way in improving mental health and support for adolescents.

“Some adolescents are working so that they can support themselves here and families back at home.”

“But also helping them to regain a sense of hope and aspiration – that displacement does not need to spell the end of their dreams.

“Even in a new environment they can continue in their education, they can continue exploring employment opportunities.”

Is it that case that with younger children there’s quite a high level of attendance in schools, but when they get a bit older there’s much less attendance?

“That’s very much the case.

“Over 90 percent of Ukrainian children have been integrated into a primary school – which is really an incredible achievement, by international standards.

“We really need to acknowledge this effort by the Czech Republic.

“But when it comes to secondary school, it’s no longer mandatory.

“So only 46 percent of Ukrainian refugee adolescent are attending school.

“The big question is, What are the other half doing?


“Some of them are following the Ukrainian curriculum, some of them are working so that they can support themselves here and families back at home.

“Some of them are trying to combine both.

“But again, it raises questions of protection, questions of support.

“We know that many of these adolescents are here on their own, without their parents.

“And we work very closely with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in identifying those young people, making sure that their cases are managed by social workers and that they get the support that they need, connecting them to education, connecting them to the health services they need, or protection.”

There’s been quite a bit of news recently about a change to the law that governs the stay of Ukrainian refugees in Czechia. That’s coming in at the beginning of July. What exactly is changing?

“You are referring to Lex Ukraine 5, and that is the fifth iteration of Lex Ukraine, legislation that governs benefits and support to the refugee population.

“And what we see with Lex Ukraine 5 is that there will be rules around eligibility for accommodation, and humanitarian benefits will be much stricter – both in terms of the time that people can access this, as well as the amounts.

“The general position of the government has been in supporting refugees to become self-reliant and that is obviously important, both for refugees as well as for the government.

“As the conflict has become more protracted, we see that solidarity is going down in society.”

“We know that 100,000 are already in formal employment in the Czech Republic. Again an incredible achievement.

“But at the same time we need to the most vulnerable groups do not fall through the cracks with this legislation.

“It is quite complex, both in terms of calculations and eligibility criteria.

“So we are working with partners, monitoring very closely what it means for children, for families, and that we make sure that vulnerable groups – such as children with disabilities, unaccompanied and separated children, families from the Roma community – do not fall through the cracks.”

Recently there was a case of bullying that got a lot of attention [thanks to a viral video]. A young girl from Ukraine was spat at and pushed by Czech kids, who said pro-Russian things. Later the young girl was met by the president in a kind of symbolic moment. Is that common?

“There are cases we hear about.

“It’s certainly not commonplace, but it is important that these cases are addressed.

“UNICEF welcomes this and commends the president for making the statement and gesture that he did.

“I think it’s important for that child but it’s also important for every child, to see and to hear that there is no place for bullying and for violence in society.

“It’s important that we continue supporting a sense of social cohesion in schools, in society.

“We saw an unprecedented sense of solidarity and cohesion early on, when the conflict started.

“As the conflict has become more protracted, we see that solidarity is going down in society.

“And it is important that we continue supporting peaceful coexistence of communities.

“It’s important that we demonstrate that refugees, if supported, can stand on their feet and contribute to society.

“What the Czech Republic has done really reflects some of the best of humanity and it’s important that we do not go back and we do not lose sight of that progress.”

If I could ask you one more question about yourself: Being Ukrainian, how has it been for you to your people here in these difficult situations, going through this awful experience and time?

“I think it’s difficult to see no matter what your background is.

“Also as UNICEF staff, an organisation that stands for children’s rights, around the world, I feel very committed to supporting every child and making sure that they have support and services they need to continue developing, thriving.

“I think also ultimately we need to look beyond the current situation.

“These young people are the probably the biggest hope that Ukraine has for its rebuilding.

“And investing in their well-being and development now means also thinking of longer-term Ukraine.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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