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Day 24: Refugee Play Time

I sat in a chair with my legs out in front of me and my feet resting on a pillow on another chair in the refugee center. When Luda mentioned to me last week that she gives people pedicures at the Ukrainian Refugee Center where she lived, I booked one with her.

This was no spa experience.

We sat in the main room of the center which had an assortment of somebody’s leftover tables and chairs scattered around the room. The only art hanging on the walls was a left-over Happy Birthday banner left over from some festivity and children’s drawings and coloring pages that had been lovingly tapped to the walls.

Luda said asked me what kind of books I wrote as she started buffing the calluses off of my feet.

She wanted to practice her English, so we discussed life, war, teaching and learning while she worked and searched her mind for ways to explain her thoughts.

As we talked, an 8-year-old girl walk walked into the room. Her eyes stayed on me as she walked quickly out a different door.

I smiled at her and smiled to myself, knowing that she would be back.

Each time I visited this center, the children have been too nervous to talk to me. But on this visit, I’d be here a little longer.

The same girl walked through the room again, this time she held a giant teddy bear.

I called to her, “That’s the best teddy bear I’ve ever seen. It’s as big as you are.”

Luda laughed as the girl ran out of the room with her bear.

A few minutes later, she returned with a giant monkey and looked at me as she walked across the room in her ongoing animal parade.

I held up two fingers and said, “Wait. You have two huge stuffed animals? That’s amazing.” I added that I loved her giant monkey.

More children joined the parade, carrying their stuffed animals from door to door so I might comment on them.

It was a perfect time for me to give the kids attention since I had to sit still for a while. I once had a two-and-a-half-hour pedicure in Poland. It looked like this one would be at least that long – all of that without a foot bath.

I settled into my chair as more kids marched through the room, holding up something for me to see. A pen. A pillow in the shape of a star. New sandals. Tiny dolls.

Each got a reaction from me, which only spurred them on.

When a boy walked through the room with a deck of Uno cards, I called out “Game on!” and insisted that he come over to play with me, “Right this minute.”

Reluctantly he brought the cards to the table. He said something. Luda translated that he didn’t know how to play the game.

“Time to learn.” I said.

I waved others to join too. One of the moms translated the first game.

I spoke to each child. “Do you want to play?”

They nodded yes or no.

It was a short deck, so I only gave each of us four cards.

It became an English lesson for numbers and colors and a card game lesson at the same time.

Six children joined me at the table. We played a game. They quickly understood that if there was a red card, then they must add a red card or a card with the same number. They figured out how to make someone skip a turn or change directions.

There was a lot of laughing as they figured it out.

At first they would only speak in Ukrainian or Russian—a language many children learned in school. Luda told them that they could only speak English for this game.

Oh, how they tried.

It was the best use of the time wasted while getting a pedicure during a rainstorm.

At the end of that first game, the youngest girl ran out of cards first. We persuaded her to say “UNO.” I solemnly shook her hand and insisted that the other kids did, too. And then we continued playing until there was a winner number two, then winner number three until we went as far as we could.

I showed them how I reshuffle the cards, laying out small piles to break up the similar colors. As I laid each card down, I would say its color.

The kids repeated after me.

We played another game. Several more children joined in. The experts helped teach the newcomers, which delighted me. They would be able to play this game by themselves without me.

We played that second game, which I won. One of the girls solemnly shook my hand. They understood that you shake the winner’s hand. Then they continued playing to find the next winners.

We played game after game. After a while, one of the boys agreed to lay out the cards to mix them up. The others watched him. I got a girl to be the dealer and taught her, by modeling, that the dealer gets the last card of every round.

She got it.

We played for hours. I kept reminding myself that I had nothing better to do.

Kids stepped in and played or wandered away. I trained more than half of the kids who lived in the center how to play. That was enough to generalize the learning so they could play on their own.


After three hours, Luda had just started applying nail polish. Yes, I had that many calluses.

I thought my head might explode if I played even one more game. Enough. Enough. Enough. (Which is probably how Luda felt about my feet.)

I just couldn’t play again.

I handed my journal and a pen to a girl and through pantomiming, encouraged her to draw a picture in it.

She rushed off, worked carefully and returned with a page filled with hearts.

I thanked her. Another girl stepped forward and drew on the next page. A larger heart in the center.

I thanked the girls for my art.

The children announced to Luda that they wanted to make a house (we call it a fort) using the table in the room. Luda helped tuck a piece of cloth from a giant parachute game around the table, so it draped onto the floor.

I watched them play while my polish dried.

When I was ready to go, I was invited to join them in their house. Though I didn’t accept the invitation, I stuck my head in and called out goodbye to the children.

The giant teddy bear and the giant monkey waved goodbye, too.

Children sitting around the author playing Uno.
(Playing the card game Uno. Someone gave the children a deck of cards, but they didn't know how to play the game: the directions were in English.)

A girl holds up her art work.
(An artist shares her hearts.)

A girl shows off her picture.
(An artist makes a larger heart on the page.)

Getting a pedicure
(My pedicure.)

A girl pulls a giant teddy bear into a fort under a table
(The teddy bear enters the house.)




Day 21: Trauma Talk part 2

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