Illustration by Madalina Pavel (Picturise)


The role of youth work in conflict settings

 by Yuliya Ielfimova 


In conflict settings, I often remember the quote from Harry Potter:

Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”, as it resembles a lot the role of youth work. 

The role of youth work in conflict settings encompasses a wide range of activities aimed at supporting and empowering young people in challenging and conflict-affected environments, and creating a safe space for young people for recovery, reconnection and resilience, normalising the life of young people, supporting their development and shaping  their future in crisis conditions. 

My life, as the lives of other Ukrainians, is divided before and after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. Before… since 2011, I had started to explore and work with the topics related to youth work in conflict. I got involved in the Youth Peace Ambassadors long-term programme of the Council of Europe’s Youth Department. The programme in the end led to the creation of an independent network of peacebuilders, the Youth Peace Ambassadors Network. Later, I joined another project of the Youth Department as a facilitator and a senior trainer: the Youth Peace Camps. The knowledge and expertise I acquired during these experiences, coupled with the practices I had accumulated since 2011 while working in the field, including various approaches, methods and educational materials proved to be invaluable in the period of “after”. These materials included Youth Partnership resources such as T-Kit 12: Youth transforming conflict, Step-by-step together: support, tips, examples and possibilities for youth work with young refugees, T-Kit 4: Intercultural learning and T-Kit 8: Social inclusion


 The needs of young people in conflict settings 

In the current context of the war in Ukraine, a total of 82% of young people indicated a loss due to the war (“Impact of war on youth in Ukraine”). Young people are grappling with a multitude of challenges, including reduction or loss of income, deterioration of mental health, death of friends or family members, damage to housing, sustaining injuries related to military actions, concerns about physical safety, lack of opportunities for self-realisation, concerns about the impossibility of employment, displacement within Ukraine and beyond, severed connections, uncertainties, social isolation, disruption of their education, and the daunting task of overcoming the traumatic impact of the conflict, which has divided their lives into distinct “before” and “after” periods.

During the spring and autumn 2022 we carried out the Voices of Young People in Ukraine project in collaboration with colleagues and five partner youth centres across different Ukrainian regions. The findings from the needs assessment conducted by young people within this project underscore the critical role that youth work can play.  The study conducted among the youth centres in Ukraine by the Council of Europe project Youth for Democracy in Ukraine (2022) contributes to this understanding. These findings emphasise the importance of:

  • creating spaces that foster the growth and self-realisation of young people, enabling them to connect with peers who share similar interests, exchange experiences, implement successful strategies, and pursue their own initiatives, organising peer support for each other “to distract themselves from the war”;
  • providing psychological support and establishing a sense of safety;
  • ensuring the protection of rights and facilitating integration by actively listening to their voices, promoting social connections, aiding the integration of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and creating an environment where young people can explore and express their identities without judgement;
  • recognising and appreciating the significance of volunteer work, being involved in volunteer projects, cultivating a sense of value and purpose among young individuals;
  • access to non-formal education, civic education, basic military training (focused on self-defence), workshops on providing first aid and civil protection, working with counter-narratives on pro-Russian narratives and propaganda.

Youth work plays a pivotal role in this scenario, offering crucial support for young individuals to navigate the extraordinary circumstances they face daily. It serves as a safe haven for youth affected by the war, allowing them to preserve their youthfulness and receive assistance in the process of integrating into host societies. Through youth work, young people can develop their self-confidence, resilience and the ability to build positive relationships, including with their peers. This form of support necessitates flexibility and a capacity to embrace ambiguity while striving to integrate youth into society.


 Internally displaced youth: nurturing integration and resilience through youth work

Youth work provides a dedicated space for young individuals to express themselves and actively participate in society. Furthermore, it offers an opportunity to uncover and recognise the unique talents and contributions that young people bring to their communities. Importantly, youth work serves as a vital stakeholder in fostering cross-sectoral collaboration among various services involved in the integration of young refugees and IDPs, spanning areas such as legal assistance, education, housing, employment, and more.

According to official statistics, Ukraine currently registers 4.8 million IDPs, but the actual number is estimated to be nearly 7 million. In addition to the people who are internally displaced inside Ukraine, more than 8 million Ukrainians left the country and became refugees (UNHCR 2022). Many young people who have relocated to new communities have experienced feelings of disorientation and isolation. In the spring and summer of 2022, in collaboration with the Donetsk Youth Debate Centre and youth centres from five different regions of Ukraine, we initiated a project with a primary focus on providing mobile youth work and support in shelters for IDPs. The project aimed to facilitate the inclusion of the internally displaced young individuals into their host communities and support their participation in the life of the communities.

Youth workers faced multifaceted challenges when operating in conflict-affected settings. These challenges necessitated the development of specific competencies and skills, including:

  • Intercultural competence: the ability to listen, reflect, empathise, tolerate ambiguity, understand young people’s group dynamics, display cultural sensitivity, and recognise the presence of oppression or discrimination.
  • Understanding conflict dynamics: proficiency in comprehending conflict dynamics and possessing conflict analysis skills, along with an awareness that any involvement in conflict-related situations makes one an actor within that conflict.
  • Mental health and trauma: knowledge of mental health and trauma issues among young people affected by conflict.
  • Inclusion: creation of inclusive safe spaces for young people with different backgrounds and addressing intersectionalities.
  • Access to social rights: ensuring access to social rights and enabling participation in local community life.

Furthermore, youth work practitioners required opportunities for sharing best practices and thematic capacity building to strengthen the above-mentioned competencies and skills. To facilitate this work, youth workers needed tools and resources, since they often lacked prior experience in working with IDP young people.

In collaboration with our colleagues, we developed a manual for youth workers titled Youth work in wartime. This manual contains theoretical content, practical tips and guidance for youth workers, along with a collection of practical activities. It was greatly enriched by educational resources drawn from materials produced by the Youth Partnership, specifically related to conflict transformation, a trauma-informed approach and the access of displaced young people to rights, which are theoretically and practically provided in materials earlier mentioned in this article. The most useful were practices related to tackling mental health and trauma. 

The examples of the forms of work with young refugees gave ideas for activities which were organised by the youth workers for young IDPs in the hosting communities: integration quests with local young people getting to know the new environment, engaging young IDPs in initiating projects with local young people, engaging young IDPs in emergency response, peer support and buddy activities bringing together local young people and IDP youth, providing a safe space for young people organising their own initiatives and activities for local young people in the youth centres and spaces. All these initiatives shifted the perspective from providing humanitarian support to IDPs to involving young people who had arrived in new communities to participation in the life of the hosting communities.   

The practices related to the work with young IDPs, which included a trauma-informed approach in youth work, was in high demand from the community of youth workers in Ukraine.  The Youth Partnership translated into Ukrainian a series of their publications at the request of the Council of Europe project Youth for Democracy in Ukraine which was based on the results of a series of meetings of youth workers from Ukraine in April 2022. The publications which were translated are: T-Kit 12: Youth  transforming conflict, Step-by-step together: support, tips, examples and possibilities for youth work with young refugees and separate chapters of Youth Knowledge Book #24: Between insecurity and hope: reflections on youth work with young refugees. Additionally, a special series of Under 30’ podcast episodes was launched in solidarity with Ukrainian young people and the youth sector. The Youth Partnership also published an issue of Coyote magazine dedicated to young people and conflict.

The Youth for Democracy in Ukraine project launched the development of the educational programme Trauma-informed Youth Work. We developed the programme and the Guide on the educational course of trauma informed youth work. Some of the materials, related to the practical cases of trauma-informed youth work, were adopted from the Youth Knowledge Book #24: Between insecurity and hope. Reflections on youth work with young refugees” of the Youth Partnership.


 Two dimensions of youth work in conflict settings 

In November 2022 we started the long-term international project Youth Work for Rehabilitation of Young People Affected by War and Armed Conflicts, which was a reaction to the crisis in Ukraine and the accumulation of efforts of the international community of youth workers from eight countries (Kosovo, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine) who work with young people either in the conflict settings or with those who are affected by the conflict (such as refugee young people). Building on the experience, we put youth work in conflict settings into two dimensions, based on the perspective of its reply to the challenges faced by young people:

 1. Emergency youth work, which takes place during violent hostilities 

In emergency youth work, the efforts of youth work are put towards the support of young people dealing with the crisis they face, linking young people with different services, returning normality to the life of young people, providing psychosocial support, as well as supporting internally displaced young people and refugees in the process of integration. The role of youth work in this context is also about making the voices of young people heard. Youth work reacts to the conditions and changes accordingly in order to support young people in emergency situations and the crisis caused by the war. Being a youth worker in Ukraine in wartime, I see the importance of youth work as a social practice. 

 2. Long-term youth work, which mainly takes place in pre- and post-conflict settings 

In long-term youth work in a conflict setting, the focus is put more on the work that is implemented in the post-conflict phase. Various types of youth work activities directly address the conflicts young people experience or are affected by, regardless of the conflict setting. These activities encompass trust building, peacebuilding initiatives, projects focused on reconciliation, and efforts to promote non-violence, among others. Youth work is a tool for conflict transformation, as the role of young people in peacebuilding and conflict transformation is inevitable. 


 Key topics

Having the consortium of international youth organisations, we identified the key topics which have to be considered when working with young people affected by war and armed conflict (young people in the communities of a conflict, refugees/IDPs, local young people), either in emergency or in long-term youth work: 

  • Identity: addressing identity and diversity, focusing on understanding own identities, their dynamics, feeling safe in practising the identities young people have and at the same time appreciating and dealing with diversity in the communities. 
  • Maintenance of the relation between past and future and dealing with uncertainties: the post-war period brings uncertainty about the future, making psychological support and engagement in local projects crucial, especially for young people. These initiatives focus on providing hope, normality and a sense of identity. They encourage individuals to rediscover past interests and work, seek financial support for their plans, and promote professional identification. Community involvement, including language clubs and joint activities, is emphasised, along with physiological support for war-affected youth.
  • Socialisation and integration in communities: developing skills of intercultural sensitivity, conflict transformation, creating spaces for sharing joint activities (leisure, sport, cultural activities), living libraries, training on human rights, city quests, implementation of joint projects involving local and IDP/refugee young people.    
  • Empowerment in front of violence: offering workshops on peacebuilding, media literacy,  countering propaganda and combating hate speech, providing training in non-violent communication, conflict transformation, along with information on legal procedures in cases of violence,  supporting long-term resilience and the normalisation of “normal life”, raising awareness about institutional violence, public radicalisation, and power dynamics, educational programmes on violence prevention, conflict transformation, human rights and gender equality, providing psychological support to victims and witnesses of violence, educating against stigmas related to gender, ethnicity and other factors, advocating for rights and amplifying individual and community voices through memorialisation, art, culture and storytelling.
  • Outreach of young people affected by armed conflict: implementation of street and outreach youth work, building trust in the places where young people are.
  • Building the social fabric and network of help.

In conclusion, the experience of the community of youth workers in Ukraine and other countries working in conflict settings and working with young people who are affected by conflict shows the paramount importance of youth work as a social practice. Youth work supports the empowerment of young people, creating opportunities for their active citizenship, self-realisation and participation in their communities. In a conflict setting,  youth work also brings a sense of normality, belonging and engagement of young people in the process of decision making on why and how to engage with conflict, and how to transform it into something meaningful and beneficial for the individuals and communities concerned. However, the integration of conflict-sensitive and trauma-informed approaches is vital both in the context of emergency and long-term youth work.  Another aspect which should not be forgotten and which needs to be taken into consideration is the well-being and security of youth workers working in conflict settings. 

The practical and theoretical materials of the Youth Partnership, which is mentioned in this article, can be a support for frontline youth workers and bring added value in different realities. However, we should consider the principle of not harming when applying any tools and methodologies and adapt them to the context. 








 Issue 36 

 25 years: 
 Youth Partnership 



Youth work is Yuliya's passion.