Sometimes, kids just need a hug.
That’s especially true of children who have endured the horrors of war. In 2006, Israeli psychologists invented a plush dog called Hibuki — Hebrew for “hug” — to help kids cope with trauma from the Second Lebanon War.
The stuffed toy, with its elongated arms and sad eyes, has expanded globally. Last year, it was introduced in Ukraine, and now Hibuki is comforting many Ukrainian refugee children who have made their way to New York, at a Brooklyn school that teaches Hebrew and Israeli culture.
At Hebrew Language Academy, educational interventionist Inna Muntyan sits down with Polina, one of the dozens of Ukrainian refugee children who have enrolled at the school since the onset of the Russian invasion. There’s a third member of their party: Hibuki.
“Let’s talk about what happens when Polina comes home from school,” Muntyan said, in Ukrainian. Polina replied that she, Hibuki and her sister play chess.
“My sister beats me, and I beat Hibuki,” Polina added, describing how Hibuki gives her a post-match hug.
“He hugs me tight. I feel it’s pleasant,” she said. “I feel love.”
Polina fled with her mother and some of her siblings to New York, while some of her brothers remained behind to fight invading Russian forces.
Valerie Khaytina, chief external officer at Hebrew Public — a charter school network that includes Polina’s new school — is herself a Ukrainian-born refugee. Khaytina has led the charge in recruiting arriving Ukrainian children to her schools, including two in Brooklyn.
“The mom had to be convinced to leave so that the other kids would have a future,” Khaytina said. “Polina is a very good kid. She has challenges in school, so Hibuki is helping her calm down.”
A Chance Encounter
Dafna Sharon Maksimov, the Israeli co-founder of Hibuki therapy, said that the doll was designed to connect with children dealing with trauma.
“Hibuki is a therapy toy. It has extra-long arms, and it’s good at hugging. It has a very sad face,” she said. “It’s a very simple and obvious emotion and reflects a child’s face. Anybody can tell how Hibuki feels.”
During a recent therapy session, Polina said that she knows the reason behind Hibuki’s sad expression.
“Because there is a war in Ukraine, and people are getting hurt,” she said, holding Hibuki’s hand with her left hand and thumbing through pages of an art book with her right.
Muntyan was showing Polina a book of famous paintings, including images that may be familiar to her from her time in Ukraine. The goal, she said, was to allow Polina to open up about her family life and emotions.
Khaytina said that a chance meeting in New Haven, Connecticut, brought Hibuki therapy dolls to Hebrew Language Academy.
She was visiting friends, who are active in the Jewish community in New Haven, and Rabbi Michael Farbman, of New Haven’s Reform congregation Temple Emanuel, was present. Farbman, who grew up in Soviet Belarus, was talking about a friend in Israel who was using Hibuki therapy to connect with kids in Ukraine.
“The light bulb just went on,” Khaytina said. “I thought that we have to bring Hibuki to our schools, not only for the Ukrainian kids. We can use them as a pilot to help all of our other children since it has also been proven effective to help kids who go through other trauma.”
‘A Lot of Research Behind It’
Among those who benefit from Hibuki therapy, whom Khaytina and Muntyan cite, are those whose parents are divorcing, who are dealing with gun violence and other crimes that trigger children’s emotions, as well as those with Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and hypersensitivity.
Khaytina secured a UJA-Federation of New York grant to partner with the nonprofit Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Muntyan underwent training with experts, as the school initiated a pilot program with four Ukrainian children and one Romanian child.
Muntyan’s training took two to three months, with some direct support from Sharon Maksimov, she said.
A box of 150 Hibuki dolls is stored at Hebrew Language Academy. The dolls wait to dole out hugs and to listen.
“He does have long ears, because he can hear everything that you’re saying,” Muntyan said. “It’s designed to be able to hug you, and when you hold him, you can pat his back and the material is very soft. And his long legs remind us of an umbilical cord. So it does have a lot of research behind it.”
She said that the therapy is especially suitable for refugee children like Polina, whose parents are consumed with their own problems, including adapting to life in a new country and environment.
“Sometimes, those kids are left alone with their emotions, and we need to help them,” she said.
The grant money helps cover the costs of eight to 10 therapy sessions per child, which collectively run around $1,500. Each Hibuki doll cost the school $25.
A small toy manufacturer in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro that was desperate for business was contracted to manufacture the Hibuki dolls.
Each Hibuki dog also has a front pocket that holds an identification booklet. The text reminds children of his roots.
As Polina looks at the ID, Muntyan asks if she knows where Hibuki comes from.
“Yes, I know,” Polina answered. “From Israel.”