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From war to warmth: A Philadelphia community center provides refuge and hope to Ukrainian families


From war to warmth: A Philadelphia community center provides refuge and hope to Ukrainian families

Nestled in northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a community center has become a vital refuge for over 50 Ukrainian refugee children and their families fleeing war.
22 February 2024
Ukrainian refugee children participate in a summer program hosted by KleinLife, a community center in Philadelphia

Ukrainian refugee children participate in a summer program hosted by KleinLife, a community center in Philadelphia


Within the familiar walls of the KleinLife community center, Ukrainian refugee children have found solace in summer and after-school programs. The programs are designed not just for the children to build friendships and have fun, but also to help heal the scars of war and forced displacement.  

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, millions of refugees from Ukraine have been forced to flee their country since the Russian full-scale invasion in February 2022. Thousands have arrived in Philadelphia, where the community has embraced newcomers. 

 At the forefront of KleinLife’s summer and after-school programs is Victoria Faykin, the organization’s vice president. Faykin’s own history as a refugee from Soviet Union gives her a profound connection to the children and families she serves. Driven by her desire to help, she pitched the idea of a summer program to KleinLife’s President Andre Krug. 

Hailing from Kharkov, Ukraine, Krug had felt powerless watching his childhood home be ravaged by conflict. “When you see the neighborhood where you grew up in being destroyed right in front of you, it’s a bad feeling that you’re sitting here, and you can't do anything,” he explained. With refugees from Ukraine arriving in Philadelphia, Krug realized that KleinLife's resources and support could help. 

Welcoming Faykin’s initiative and vision, the community center approved programming for ten children. "But I took in 55, and that's how this program started," she said with a smile. 

Faykin vividly recalls the trauma the children exhibited early on, describing a day when the overhead flight of a helicopter sent the children scrambling for cover in terror. “I have never seen such scared eyes. The children were so scared – all the time crying. Not shy, but stressed and afraid of everything.” It was this moment that affirmed her commitment to integrate therapeutic support into their daily activities. 

KleinLife's programs are carefully tailored to be more than diversions. Each activity, from robotics to swimming, is chosen for its potential to foster healing and normalcy. Art therapy, led by a Ukrainian-speaking psychiatrist, has become a pivotal part of this process, offering the children a way to express and work through their emotions. 

These therapies have also given children the opportunity to make unlikely new friends. In a thoughtful melding of past and present, Faykin and Krug have introduced the young refugees to local Holocaust survivors, creating an opportunity for shared stories of survival and hope. Krug reflects on the powerful connections formed through these interactions: “They experienced trauma when they were kids so we brought those two groups together and that was a fascinating experience.” 

The center’s commitment extends to the families of the children, providing a comprehensive network of support. Iryna Melnyk, a mother who arrived in the U.S. with her children, speaks to the extensive assistance they received, from help with registering her children for public school in the area to practical advice for their new start. 

“We had to flee Ukraine and seek refuge because of the constant air raids, the constant shelling," she reflected. “For four months we were hiding during every air raid. We were running away from the war, and we ended up in the United States of America.”  

Iryna heard of KleinLife by word of mouth when she and her family arrived in Philadelphia. “We ended up meeting Faykin. We were lucky, we received tremendous support, love, understanding and care for our children, who have extraordinary opportunities here.”   

Iryna credits KleinLife and its support for helping her children find peace and a feeling of safety in their homes again. “They were able to start forgetting about the war,” she said. 

Krug reflected on this sentiment, recalling how at the beginning of the program there was a pronounced quietness – a clear sign of their stress and unease from the traumatic experience of fleeing their homes. But as the weeks progressed, a shift occurred. The quiet was gradually replaced by the sort of laughter that bubbles up in playgrounds and schoolyards. Helicopters would fly above the center, and the children would keep playing instead of dropping to the ground in fear. 

“They became kids again,” said Krug, “which is you know, the greatest kind of accomplishment that we could achieve and that we could hope for.” 

As KleinLife continues to support Ukrainian children and their families, the center’s role in their lives goes beyond aid. It also acts as a testament of the power of community-based support, proving that with the right care and resources, those facing the toughest of times – including fleeing war – can find hope and resilience.