In Poland, the artist and psychologist Kateryna Shukh runs art therapy sessions for Ukrainian refugee women. Sian Norris spoke to her about the life-changing project

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“Try to imagine what it is like to lose your job, your town, your home, your important people,” Kateryna Shukh asks Byline Times. “Some have lost their children. They are under huge stress”.

In a border town in Poland, women who have fled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are gathering together to take part in art therapy sessions, where they can start to process their experiences of war, grief and trauma. Now, the work produced in partnership with Bereginia – Mariupol’s Women’s Association – and HumanDoc which supports refugees in Poland is being shown at an exhibition in London, supported by Women for Women International.

Shukh starts each therapy session by leading the women in a physical exercise, such as deep meditative breathing. “I find that helps me,” she tells Byline Times. They sit around a ‘sharing table’, where discussion about worries, fears and hopes are encouraged. Then the women get to work. Some workshops are dedicated to painting, other days they make traditional Ukrainian dolls, or draw mandalas. 

“One week we did fairy tale therapy,’ Shukh shares. A trained psychologist and a refugee herself, she runs the art therapy workshops to help women explore their own stories, emotions and stresses. “They had to create a character and tell the story according to the structure of the fairy tale. The important thing is that there is a happy ending”. 

Over 7.8 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on 24 February this year – the majority are women and children. Of these, 1.5 million have arrived in Poland. 

Ukrainian women refugees take part in art therapy in Poland. Photo: Kateryna Shukh

“Mostly the women come from hot spots,” explains Shukh. “From Mariupol, from the Zaporizhia region. They are under a lot of stress. They may have lost their children, they have lost their homes, they have been separated from their families”. 

“It is a big challenge, actually,” she continues. “Not only to continue after leaving Ukraine, but to continue without the person they have lost. I remember a woman who had lost her son because of a bombing attack. When they were living in their house in Mariupol, there was a military plane and the bombing attack hit him. There was no electricity and he was preparing food for the family”. 

According to data collected from the charity Action On Armed Violence, 3,476 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since 2014 as a result of explosive violence, according to English-language media reports. Of these, at least 302 injuries and deaths were children. 

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Rape and Trauma

Sexual violence is a key issue for the women taking part in the art therapy workshops. Allegations of war crimes in places such as Bucha and Kherson include the use of rape as a weapon of war, an issue raised by Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska at the UK Parliament while attending a conference organised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on sexual violence in conflict zones. Zelenska told listeners how rape is being used “systematically and openly” by Russia in the war in Ukraine.

“Sexual violence is the most cruel, most animalistic way to prove mastership over someone,” Zelenska said. “And for victims of this kind of violence, it is difficult to testify in war times because nobody feels safe”.

That lack of safety is familiar to Shukh. It’s clear to her that some of the women taking part in the workshops are victims/survivors of sexual violence, but she knows that addressing the issue requires a lot of care and sensitivity. 

“I see the signals,” she explains. “Women in Ukraine have lost their sense of safety. They have lost the safety of even their body. With art therapy, they can step-by-step build a new sense of safety”.

Victims and survivors of rape also face stigma, says Shukh. “A lot of women are made to feel it is their fault,” she tells Byline Times. “It is very important that they hear that it is not their fault, that this is a crime”.

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Sian Norris

Her Mother’s Daughter

While Kateryna Shukh works with women refugees in Poland, her mother remains in Ukraine where she supports internally displaced women who have fled the occupied regions such as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. She has been running art therapy workshops since Russia first attacked Ukraine in 2014. 

“My mother was a refugee, because at that time she had to leave Donetsk and her house, her career, and go back to Mariupol,” Shukh explains. “At first, I didn’t understand what she was doing, working with other refugee women. I thought she should be thinking of herself and building her life again. But then I saw the families and I wanted to be part of the process. I had studied psychology and I could help them. I started supporting children first, then the women”.

Ukrainian women refugees take part in art therapy in Poland. Photo: Kateryna Shukh

Women can be tentative about the process when they arrive at the project. But under Shukh’s guidance, they quickly become enthusiastic. “The first time, every woman says she doesn’t need it,” she laughs. “They say they need to do more serious things. Then they try it, and they come back again and again, saying they want to do more”.

Shukh believes that the reason women refugees embrace art therapy is that the space she provides gives women an opportunity to be themselves and have some control over their lives, after war has taken so much from them. 

“Many of the women we support are educated, they had good jobs, families, friends, homes that they have left behind,” she explains. “These women didn’t choose to leave Ukraine, they were forced into this situation. And during the process of art therapy, when they do something or draw something or take part in the games and exercises – this is the small piece when you can choose, and you can feel that you are the author of your life. You control something”.

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