Ukraine war
Ukraine wariStock

The winter frost has set in and electricity is erratic with the war still raging in Ukraine. Yet Kinder Velt Child Therapy Centers are still open, treating thousands of Ukrainian children suffering from trauma and PTSD with a unique therapy innovated in Israel to treat children under terrorist rocket fire.

In a spacious mall in central Kyiv, dozens of young Ukrainian war victims suffering from post-traumatic syndrome are receiving support and strength at the Kinder Velt Therapy Center. “It’s winter, and the electricity and heating are erratic. We spend many hours in the cold, and it’s very challenging,” Masha Agolenko relates. Agolenko is just 21 years old, and works in the Center - she takes us on a tour of the therapy center.

These are difficult days in Ukraine. Many families that were living close to the battlefield have picked up and fled to safer regions in the country, including Kyiv, bringing along traumatized, emotionally-scarred children who were exposed to disaster scenes, death and destruction.

“When we started to see how deeply the children were suffering, we resolved to take action,” relates David Roytman, the man behind the project. Roytman, an internationally-acclaimed artist and multimillionaire whose luxury Judaica company earned him the reputation as the ‘Jewish Louis Vuitton,’ is no stranger to anguish, anxiety, or the trauma of war. Born in Soviet Odessa and abandoned by both parents by the age of six months, he grew up as an orphan, yet fate led him as a young teen to Israel where he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. During his military service, he battled the country’s enemies during Operation Defensive Shield, dodging rockets and bullets in the Jenin refugee camps. After his discharge, Roytman suffered PTSD, yet eventually found his healing through art, and he has since used abstract art to convey messages of peace and healing to others.

Approximately three years ago, Roytman, who splits his time between Israel and his native Odessa, founded Kinder Velt, a center administering developmental and psychological therapies including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and emotional counseling to local Jewish children from disadvantaged backgrounds. With the outbreak of hostilities in the region, many of the children fled, and the center closed. However, as war continued ravaging the country, claiming 30,000 lives and displacing over 12 million people, Roytman reopened the center and is currently bring healing and relief to hundreds of suffering children.

“We reoriented the Kinder Velt Therapy Centers, which before the war, were primarily art center therapies, into trauma centers. The world at large is noting the numbers of physical casualties here in Ukraine, but we’re focusing on the future as we know that if we don’t take action, we’re going to be left with a generation of emotionally-scarred adults. Every child who comes to our Center receives free therapy. They learn to process their pain, fears, and feelings, and they sleep better and more securely at night. This is a life-changer for many, many children.”

Roytman’s initiative is based on Israeli knowledge and experience accumulated over decades of war, terrorism, and instability. Over the years, tens of thousands of rockets have rained down upon Israel’s cities and towns, and huge numbers of children and adults, civilians, soldiers, and veterans alike have suffered serious psychological trauma. Aware of the dire long-term consequences of war and rocket attacks on its civilian population and, specifically, its children, Israel established numerous psychotrauma centers across the country to provide psychological assistance to victims of rocket and terror attacks.

The person most responsible for transplanting Israeli knowledge and experience to Ukraine is a child psychologist by the name of Dafna (Sharon) Maksimov of Ashdod, an international expert who has treated hundreds of child trauma victims. We met Dafna in Istanbul where a professional development seminar was being hosted for Kinder Velt employees in order to provide them with the requisite knowledge and skills to effectively treat the young victims of war. Kinder Velt culls from the methods and resources used in Israeli centers to provide essential emotional support and therapy to hundreds of children in Ukraine.

“We call our innovative therapy Hibuki, which translates loosely as ‘Huggy.’ Hibuki makes use of a plush puppy with long limbs and a sad expression that has worked wonders with thousands of children. We first made use of this tool in Israel back in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War after a group of Israeli therapists led by Dr. Shai Chen-Gal, a clinical psychologist, saw the stuffed animal as an effective, quick and cheap means of treating trauma for a large number of people.

“In Israel, Hibuki was a grassroots project that took flight to become a nationally-acclaimed success. When the war first broke out in Ukraine, I understood immediately that there were cultural differences, and that the warfare itself was different, which was why the project required significant adaptations.

“We introduced various changes into the project, beginning with age. The original Israeli program was geared to treat kids between the ages of four and eight, but we increased the scope of the therapy to treat adolescents, as well. Interestingly, the very first Ukrainian patient was 15 years old, which proved to us just how effective Hibuki can be for teenagers, and we now receive kids between the ages of 4 and 17.

“The puppy, which we call Hibuki, functions as a therapy tool. We ask the child why Hibuki looks so sad, which inevitably causes him to answer something like, ‘Because a rocket fell on his doghouse,’ or ‘Because he has no friends.’ Hibuki’s expression gives the puppy a distinctly human feel, and its long arms enfold the child in a soft embrace. All our professional activities are accompanied by research proving the effectiveness of the use of Hibuki in the rehabilitation of childhood trauma,” Dafna sums up.

As this article is being written, delegations of Kinder Velt employees from around Ukraine are attending eye-opening lectures in the conference in Istanbul. Alina Kovalenko, who manages the Kinder Velt branch in Kropyvnytskyi, shared: “We came here to Istanbul to receive up-to-date knowledge that will enable us to help the maximal number of children. For me, the trip to Turkey is a blessed change of pace and also a welcome break. For the first time in months, I don’t have to worry about water running out or the electricity shorting unexpectedly.

“When I first got on board with the project, I didn’t believe that a free program like this could benefit so many kids. We’re facing a future national crisis in Ukraine with millions of kids suffering serious trauma from the war. Where I live, we’re lucky if we have electricity half of the day, and right now, we have no running water at all. We’ve been literally drawing water from wells, and there’s national chaos. The mayor says that he hopes that by next Monday, we’ll be back to having running water, but I can’t say that I’m not skeptical. Thirty percent of the city’s population has already fled the country, but I live near my mother and elderly grandmother, and I can’t abandon them.

“The young patients in our branch come from as far as Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkov, and Kherson. They have no money, but loads of trauma, and without the free service that we provide, could never afford therapy. The therapy is working wonders.”

David Roytman, who masterminded this project, expresses: “Our goal is to ensure that despite the grave challenges, Ukrainian children grow up emotionally healthy, without the effects of PTSD. We’re investing tremendous resources to guarantee that the country’s future leaders are capable and stable. We genuinely believe the aphorism that, ‘One who rescues even a single soul is considered to have rescued an entire world,’ and this is our mission here at Kinder Velt.”