Day 16: Trauma in Refugee Children?

I sat next to a boy who was methodically showing me the eyes of every stuffed animal in our collection in the Kid’s Corner in the Free Shop that helps Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland.

A mother entered the area and sat next to her daughter who may have been four-years-old. The little girl had long brown braids carefully platted down her back.

Daughter sat close to her mother and whispered something into her ear.

I watched, wondering if there was some kind of problem with another child in the area.

The mother’s eyes rested on the collection of teeny-tiny toys that were scattered over the ground. These are the most popular toys in our area. She nodded to her daughter then moved next to the toys and started dressing the tiny dolls that were about the size of her thumb.

She started a pile of dolls on her left side.

I exhaled. Twice. Is she going to steal the dolls? Seriously?

I bit my lip and watched. How was I going to handle an adult stealing?

As the mother continued dressing the dolls, I pulled out my phone and typed into my translation program, “Thanks for organizing the dolls for the children!”

(The adage for writers is that you only get to use two exclamation marks per year. I use the marks liberally when I’m writing on social media. But my use of the mark here was calculated: I was expressing joy that she was helping me.

Her not taking these dolls was so important to me that I used half of my allotment of exclamation marks for the entire year.)

The mom looked at what I wrote, nodded and went back to organizing the dolls.

I don’t think she noticed the exclamation mark.

Playing with teeny tiny toys is a favorite activity.

Truth is, my teacher assistant in my classroom back home would get very upset if she saw such disorganization and would set to work to get everything orderly right away. Maybe this mom was also OCD.

Her daughter played nearby with the mermaid dolls, the other favorite toys.

Was she going to take those, too?

When the mother finished dressing the dolls, she tucked them into her left hand, and leaned over her daughter and watched her play. I waited.

The mother stood up and moved the toys to her right hand.

Sigh. She’s going for it.

She stepped out of the corner and headed to her bag of goods she’d gotten from the shop.

I said in English, “Those dolls stay here for the children.”

The mom nodded and put the dolls on the ground at the edge of the carpet, close to where her bags were.

The little boy continued showing me the eyes of stuffed animals.

“Yes. Eye…” I touched the stuffed animal’s eye, “and eye!” I pointed to his eye.

This lesson would be more effective in Ukrainian, but I’m sorely lacking in that language. I had to use what I had.

He nodded his head and dropped the animal by me feet and went for another one.

The mom reached down and took two of the dolls into her hand.

Children remove their shoes to play in the Kid's Corner.

I stood and stared at her and exhaled again. Breathe, Holly. Just breathe. This isn’t worth a fist fight. What can I possibly do to stop her from stealing? Nothing. Nothing.

I stared at the woman until she returned the toys. I gathered them up and put them away, less temptation strike again.

Years ago I trained to be a flight attendant for a major airline. The training was intense: every possible scenario was discussed and broken down into small bits—so that we would know what to do if there was an emergency.

There was a lesson on plane crashes. (Trust me, the training is not all about crashes. It’s mostly about how many crashes end with people living.)

In the lesson the instructor said that if the plane crashed and we were able to evacuate the plane in 90 seconds, which is expected: what would we say as we walked around on the ground?

Random answers were thrown out to the group. Laughing was encouraged.

What would the flight attendants say?

“No photos.”

“Please don’t climb on the plane: it is not a jungle gym.”

“Don’t eat candy if you can’t share.”

“No playing in spilled jet fuel.”

The flight attendant pointed to the student who said jet fuel. “Bingo.” She said.

What? Who would possibly play with jet fuel.

The instructor said, “You walk around saying, ‘Please step back from the plane. No smoking. No smoking. Please step back from the plane. No smoking. No smoking.”

To think that we would survive the crash, get everyone off the plane and then have some jerk smoking and blow us all up was too much for we trainees.

The instructor let us vent our frustration then said something that I think about often:

“You never know what people will do when they are traumatized or very stressed. Our brains have a way of shutting down the logic centers when we are in trauma. People might make decisions that are not based on logic.”

So I have to consider that this woman is not a thief, or that she wasn’t a thief before fleeing a war. Maybe she isn’t thinking logically.

Maybe all she wants is to keep her daughter happy. It might feel like it is the one thing she can control.

A pile of stuffed animals on the floor after the little boy identified all of their eyes.

She can’t control Russia’s invasion. She can’t control that her husband is still there. She can’t control being a refugee when she didn’t choose to leave. She can’t control how long she will be away from home. She can’t control whether or not she will ever go home or ever see her house or her husband again.

But she can try to control her daughter’s happiness, or she thinks she can.

Trust me, this is not a good plan, but people in trauma do not always choose decisions based on logic.

It’s a good reminder for us all.

One of the other volunteers said to me later when I was thinking this over, “These kids are fine. They’re laughing and playing. They show zero signs of trauma.”

His observation surprised me. Children fleeing war have no signs of trauma? Kids who have to relocate to another country to stay alive—while their father who is probably not a soldier by trade must remain in the country to fight—exhibit no signs of trauma or stress or hopelessness? Nothing?

I’ve seen quite a few signs of trauma while spending time in the Kids’ Corner.

Signs of Trauma I’ve seen in refugee children in the past two days:

A twelve-year-old by sat in the play kitchen and placed various plastic fruits and vegetables onto a plate. When he thought nobody was watching, he pretended to eat the food. Again and again.

Sometimes when children are suffering from trauma, they act like they’re younger than they are.

A girl rolled around the floor, over stuffed animals and over blocks. I let her roll. She was sensory seeking, something kids do when their body is out of balance. She reminded me of a student who insisted on touching everything.

They used to think that only autistic children were sensory seeking. Now they know that all children may seek extra sensory movements (tapping a pencil, opening and losing a book over and over again, arguing and playing in water.)

Sometimes children who have experienced trauma spend more time sensory seeking.

A boy played and laughed, but his right eye twitched the whole time. A nervous tic? A sign of stress?

A three-year-old girl screamed when her mother dropped her off in the Kid’s Corner. Her older brother told me in broken English that “She never yells when going out before.”

Some young children exhibit more separation anxiety after trauma.

A two-year-old boy is brought to the corner. He closes his eyes and stands frozen in one place. I sit next to him and play with blocks. It takes fifteen minutes for him to open his eyes and watch me, and then another fifteen until he is ready to play.

A boy who is a refugee points to the eye of a stuffed animal, then to his eye. He is making connections to his world.

He takes every stuffed animal—over 50 of them, and holds each one up and touches the stuffed animal’s eye, then touches his eye and shows me his revelation—stuffed animals have eyes.

He does this for over an hour.

When the pile is complete, he plays with other things.

Some children who have experienced trauma like repetitive activities. It sooths them.

An eight-year-old girl runs over to me and shows me her new toy: it’s a stress reduction activity where you press buttons. It forces your brain to pay attention to the task at hand.

Some children who have experienced trauma can be taught to relax by focusing on other things even for a few seconds at a time.

A seven-year-old girl sits coloring. She tells the Ukrainian volunteer who tells me, “My car is burned by the way. The bombs fell. Now we don’t have a car.” She told the story as if she were relating the weather report without any emotions.

Some children who are suffering from trauma numb themselves and show little emotion.

I don’t know these children, so I can’t be certain that the signs I am seeing are signs of trauma.

Trauma during free play doesn’t always look problematic.

But if a loud noise went off next to the children, or if they were trying to learn something new, or if they didn’t get their way for even a trivial item or if they couldn’t find their mother in a crowd, we might see them breaking down faster and taking longer to recover.

An art project led by Das, a Ukrainian volunteer.

At home they may express new fears like what happens if mom dies? What happens if the Russians find us here? What if my dog is afraid of the bombs?

All children have good days and all children have bad days.

When it comes to children suffering from trauma, we do them a disservice when we expect them to hide any signs of worry or stress or think that if they are not angry or depressed that they are fine.

Adults can be sad even if they're smiling. Same with children. Just because they're playing doesn't mean they're fine.

Children who have been traumatized need extra care and understanding.

Washing dishes.

All feelings are part of being human. Even sadness. Even fear. Even a happy disposition with sadness underneath.

How will we help the children?

By observing their actions.

By helping them feel safe.

By setting loving boundaries. We walk here. We share. We leave the toys here.

By playing with blocks right next to them until they feel comfortable enough to join in.

By meeting them where they are.


I want to color THIS. I want to use THIS color.

Creating. Drawing. Cutting. Making.

Car collection

Basket ball hoop.





Thanks for reading.



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