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Ukrainian teenage theatre group stranded in Finland, applies for asylum

Some of the members are as young as 12 years old.

The group pictured at Jyväskylä's Huoneteatteri theatre Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

A Ukrainian theatre group team consisting of 16 teens and three instructors was participating in a drama festival when it found itself stranded in Jyväskylä as Russia launched its military action against the country.

"It feels like my head will explode from all the emotions," team leader Svizlana Goncharova said of the situation.

The 32-year-old stressed that the priority was to find a safe place for the young members to live, sleep and eat.

"We will cry together about this later, now we have to gather our strength and act," she said.

The youngest members of the group are aged 12 and the oldest have just turned 18.

16-year-old member Anna Kopiova was on her way to Jyväskylä from Kharkiv, Ukraine, when she received the first messages about the Russian attack.

The city has been the target of missiles and reported civilian casualties. All her family members are still alive, but keeping in touch is challenging due to poor network connection in Ukraine.

"It has been really tough, you never know what's going on," Kopiova said, adding however that "it is a big relief that we are here together. We are constantly hugging and supporting each other."

The theatre group has received help from volunteers in Jyväskylä. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

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Fast-track asylum-seeking process to alleviate pressure

The theatre group is now applying for asylum in Finland.

At the same time, the EU is planning a new directive on temporary protection of refugees. EU leaders will be discussing the issue on Thursday. If passed, the move would simplify and shorten the asylum-seeking procedure from an average of ten months to half a year.

This will be particularly helpful for the incoming influx of asylum applications expected in the coming months, director of the Finnish Immigration Service's asylum unit Antti Lehtinen said.

Some 185 applications have been submitted by Ukrainians since the start of the war, of which none have yet progressed to interviews.

"Of course, we do not make any rejections for Ukraine [applications] at the moment. Positive decisions will be taken so long as the conditions for international protection are met," Lehtinen said.

Theatre activities on hold

Instructor Svizlana Goncharova says that the future of the club's theatre activities is now uncertain. The majority of the 100+ members have left Kharkiv and may not return.

In Goncharova's mind, the main focus is on her family and rebuilding their heavily targeted city.

"Now there is no time or energy for art. We have to take it one day at a time," she said.

Nevertheless, the youngsters told Yle they are eager to put together a play about the experiences they are currently going through.

If activities resume, Goncharova said she wanted to help children and young people develop their critical skills by teaching them more about history, languages, politics and laws.

"These children are our future," the team leader added.