UNICEF Spilno Centers Are a Refuge for Children in Ukraine

February 21, 2023
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They come in many shapes and sizes, from open-air tents to repurposed subway stations. But every one of the 182 Spilno centers that UNICEF and partners have set up in Ukraine is a comfortable, nurturing space where children can go to just be kids again for a while, away from the pressures of growing up in a war zone.

Children play a game at a newly opened UNICEF Spilno center in Vyshgorod, Ukraine, on Feb. 11, 2023. © UNICEF/UN0781867/Khomenko

'Spilno' means 'together' in Ukrainian; the multipurpose centers are much-needed places where out-of-school children can get together with other children, playing and learning and making new friends. In the past year, more than half a million children and their caregivers visited one.

A place for children to play, and for families to connect with vital services 

A mother kisses her child goodbye at a UNICEF child-friendly Spilno center in Kyiv, Ukraine. © UNICEF/UN0721385/Latayko

Spilno centers give displaced parents the chance to take a break while professional teachers and psychologists conduct master classes and play developmental games with the children.

They also serve as a hub, connecting children and parents with child protection services, mental health and psychological support, referrals for additional health services and registration for humanitarian cash transfers that help families meet their most urgent needs.

A child-friendly space underground in a Kharkiv subway station 

Children line up to play a game at a holiday party held at a UNICEF Spilno center in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in December 2022. Mothers and children moved into the station to avoid shelling and gunfire above ground. Other children visit the center during the day to play with toys, art supplies and games. © UNICEF/UN0760151/Pashkina

When the war escalated in March, thousands of people fleeing gunfire and shelling in the streets of Kharkiv took refuge in the city's subway system. By April 2022, an estimated 1,500 children and their mothers were living in 29 metro stations. UNICEF set up an underground Spilno site to provide activities and a sense of normalcy for displaced children.

Making art gives children a chance to heal

A boy paints at a UNICEF Spilno center in Odessa, Ukraine. © UNICEF/UN0779547/Makalis

Art supplies and craft materials are always on hand at Spilno centers. Expressing themselves through art can help children cope with some of the trauma they've experienced.  

Classes and activities help displaced teenagers adapt to their new reality

In August 2022, teenagers displaced by the war study English at a UNICEF Spilno center in Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine. "You can stay here as long as you like," it says on the white board. © UNICEF/UN0705051/Kozlovskyi

At a Spilno in Kropyvnytskyi, in central Ukraine, parents and babies play on rugs, children play board games and teenagers take English classes. Many are displaced, like 15-year-old Bohdan. "I'd go crazy if I just got stuck in my apartment," he said. "I think I would keep saying 'I want home.' "

"The most difficult cases involve the teenagers," said Olena, a professional teacher at the center. "They need to find friends with the same interests and views. My goal is to push them forward and show that they're not guilty, that they can continue living their happy life."

A heated tent filled with toys and educational materials in Balakliya

Children look forward to visiting the UNICEF Spilno center in Balakliya, Kharkiv, Ukraine. © UNICEF

As soon as the city of Balakliya in the Kharkiv region was liberated in September 2022, UNICEF set up a Spilno center in the central square. Every day, children and parents flock to the tent filled with colorful toys and children's furniture. The tent is equipped with generators and fan heaters to keep children warm while they play. 

"Kids call me fairy here because I give a lot of good to them for free," Olena, a senior administrator at the center, said in December. "I learn from them and they learn from me." 

During an air raid, children at the Spilno center in Balakliya, Ukraine, move to a safer space and continue working on their art projects. © UNICEF

"Each child is an inspiring, huge world," Olena said. "I always ask what they would like to do. I am a psychologist, a mother and an entertainment center all in one. Now, the Spilno Spot is the only place in Balakliya that brings them joy." 

UNICEF is working to help children in crisis in Ukraine. Your contribution can make a difference. Please donate today. 

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Top photo: On Sept. 1, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine, a girl draws at a Spilno center set up by UNICEF and partners to provide a welcoming place where children affected by the war can make friends, play, learn and connect with support services. © UNICEF/UN0698525/Kulakowskiy