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For some Kharkiv schoolkids, class moved to safety underground in a subway station


As Russia continues to attack Ukraine and occupy parts of it, Ukrainians are planning for years of war, and they are adapting for that long fight. Schools are the latest change. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Kharkiv.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The grade schoolers, bundled in puffy coats, hold hands as they walk down stairs to a subway station in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. But the children are not heading to the trains. They bypass the corridor leading to the platforms. Instead, they walk down another corridor, where small rooms have recently been built. These rooms are filled with color. I see rainbow posters, cartoon animals and lots of artwork.

There's some drawings - daisies, a sun - some kids flipping through textbooks.

These children are in second grade. About 10 of them squeeze into a room the size of a large walk-in closet. Their underground school began last month.

LYUDMYLA DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Teacher Lyudmyla Demchenko hugs them as they arrive. She used to teach them online. She says they know they're here because of the war.

DEMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) They even asked me how deep underground the metro station was and why we don't hear air raid sirens. I told them, children, it's very good that we don't hear them because if we do, it's really serious.

KAKISSIS: Some parts of Kharkiv are just 20 miles from the Russian border. And last year, when Russian forces were trying to occupy Kharkiv, more than 160,000 people sheltered in the subway system, including thousands of children.

OLHA HARBUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Teacher Olha Harbuz says the children remember how that felt, and she sees the stress of this long war on her own young son.

HARBUZ: (Through interpreter) There are questions like, Mom, when will there be victory, and when will the war end? And now, you see, there are my tears.

KAKISSIS: Harbuz starts crying and abruptly gets up so her students won't see her. She returns with red eyes and a big, shaky smile. She tells the children it's time for a break.


KAKISSIS: Her students tell me they love seeing their teacher and each other in person instead of through a computer screen.

MAXIM: I am Maxim. I am 7. (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "I can make so many friends now," Maxim says. "And when I raise my hand, the teacher is right there and she sees me."

VARYA: Varya. (Through interpreter) My name is Varya. I'm 7. (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We have fun and there's tasty food," Varya says. "And we learn things together. I really like a story we read about honeybees."

ANDRIY: Andriy. (Through interpreter) My name is Andriy.

KAKISSIS: Hi, Andriy. Nice to meet you. How old are you, sweetheart?

ANDRIY: (Through interpreter) I'm 7. (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "I like putting on my uniform and coming here," Andriy says. "And then when we dance like snakes, I like to watch my friend because he does it in this really funny way."

There are breaks every 35 minutes with happy songs, so the children can shake out some energy and clap. There's no playground here, only a square of padding with some toys. School psychologist Olena Kochetova sits in on the classes.

OLENA KOCHETOVA: (Through interpreter) During breaks, you see them playing, and we encourage them to play group games together because they really need to feel each other's company.

KAKISSIS: The vast majority of the 52,000 children who still live in Kharkiv study online. A little over a thousand attend these underground classrooms. Their families volunteered.

DEMCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: The mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, helped organize these classes. He stops to visit and waves at the second graders in Lyudmyla Demchenko's classroom.

IHOR TEREKHOV: (Through interpreter) We have to educate our children regardless of what the Russians do. The border is very close, and they are firing missiles at us that can reach Kharkiv in 40 seconds.

KAKISSIS: Terekhov says Kharkiv is now building an entire school underground, one that will have space for many more students. It's set to open early next year.

TEREKHOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "This doesn't mean that we have to stay underground for the rest of our lives," he says. "It just means that we need to face our reality today."


KAKISSIS: The mayor steps into one of the tiny underground classrooms where Kharkiv's children are dancing together to another song, and he decides to join them.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.