This school welcomes children from the most traumatized regions of Ukraine : NPR


Students interact with a teacher during a lesson at the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

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Students interact with a teacher during a lesson at the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Adam Lach for NPR

It’s noon at the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland, and the teachers are doing their best to guide the students to their next lesson. The adults are outnumbered and no match for the loud and energetic 7 and 8 year olds who flooded the halls during the afternoon shift period.

The Ukrainian school is like any elementary school: student artwork lines the walls, younger students sing nursery rhymes to memorize “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” and the living room teachers is a comfort to diligent instructors. But there is nothing typical about this school.

“We decided to take children from the hottest spots in Ukraine, like Mariupol, like Bucha, like Izum,” says director Oksana Koleshyk. “Students who have no opportunity to learn in Ukraine.”

When war broke out and people started flocking to Poland, a group of Ukrainian educators used money from non-profit organizations to open the school in just 24 days.

Left: Ukrainian children look at cards sent by children from the United States; Right: Oksana Vakhil is headmistress of the Ukrainian School in Warsaw, Poland.

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It is in an unused university building in the southwest of the city. It was founded by Ukrainian refugees who developed the schedule and classes. This is where the pressure of living in a new country with a new language is eased by a Ukrainian-speaking staff and student body.

Around 300 teachers applied for 22 positions. And 400 children applied for 270 places. All of them – teachers, staff and children – are refugees.

The staff is committed to welcoming students from the biggest flashpoints of the war. But that means welcoming the most traumatized children. The teachers say that the first weeks of classes were difficult.

“I only saw empty eyes,” says deputy director Oksana Vakhil. “They were just sitting there watching. When you see the first graders whose nature is to move and shake and not freeze, and you see they’re frozen, they have no emotion, you try doing this stuff and stuff and you see no reaction. It’s really scary.

Students participate in outdoor activities at the Ukrainian School in Warsaw, Poland.

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The school has two psychologists on staff and teachers have received training in identifying and dealing with trauma.

Vakhil has been an art therapist and teacher for 20 years who uses her experience to help her students cope. In some cases, that means throwing away the lesson plan.

“We talk more with them, we draw more with them, we make music and we don’t disturb them,” says Vakhil.

More than 6 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion in late February. Neighboring Poland took most of them in and the country provided resources to help them transition into their new lives. This has meant the creation of new schools or the expansion of the student body in established schools.

Ukrainian children play on the playground near the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland.

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At Primary School No. 148, a public school located in another part of Warsaw, this meant a change in orientation to accommodate an influx of 100 Ukrainian pupils.

Desks have been painted blue and yellow for Ukraine, and Polish students have special permission to use Google Translate to communicate with their new Ukrainian classmates. But more students means more work for teachers, who already lack access to resources.

“It’s a very big challenge, and they weren’t prepared for it,” says Eva Dudzinska, an English teacher.

She hasn’t been directly affected by the arrival of 100 new students at her school, but she says some of her colleagues who teach in Polish are struggling.

Ukrainian children play on the playground near the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland.

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David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, has seen firsthand how stretched resources can be if additional aid is not allocated at all levels.

Helping refugee students and integrating them into the school system requires “extra help for the teachers, extra support for the kids, extra support for the other kids who suddenly find, like others, 10 more people in my class “, explains Miliband.

He says Europe’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis should help reframe the narrative around refugees.

“I think this response needs to set the benchmark for how the world should respond globally,” he said. “Anyone who tells you an outflow of people is unmanageable is wrong…I think our experience now is that there are good practices for doing this dispersed integration effectively.”

Eva Dudzinska is an English teacher at primary school no. 148, in Warsaw, Poland.

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Left: Pupils walk towards the classrooms of primary school no. 148 in Warsaw; Right: Masha Zamoros from Ukraine, studying at primary school no. 148.

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Dudzinska, the English teacher, agrees.

“It was like when the pandemic started, we had to navigate this new era of online education and we did it well,” she says. “It took us a while to learn how it works and now it’s the same.”

Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek said the country had absorbed more than 75,000 Ukrainian students into Polish schools. The the country is preparing for 700,000.

All over Poland, children, parents and teachers are trying to adapt – struggling to stay flexible.

Fourteen-year-old Masha Zamoros came to Poland with her parents and has been in primary school for a few months. His 28-year-old brother remained in Ukraine because men of fighting age were not allowed to leave.

Masha says her brother is running to the shelter when he hears sirens. She does not know when she will see him again. Between English and Polish classes, math and science, developments in Ukraine dominate Masha’s thoughts.

“It’s hard because if everything was normal it would just be different. But now I have to think about my house, if it’s still standing or bombed out,” she says.

Left: Inna Demchenko is the mother of a 9-year-old student at primary school no. 148, Warsaw, whose father is still in Kyiv, Ukraine; Right: Cards sent to Ukrainian children by American children at the Ukrainian school in Warsaw, Poland.

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It’s a frustration shared by Inna Demchenko, the mother of a 9-year-old pupil at the Polish school whose father is still in Kyiv.

“I try to create stories because he doesn’t need truth,” she says of her son. “I always say tomorrow, in a few weeks, in a month, everything will be fine and then you’ll see your dad. And for a while of course that helps. The longer he stays, the less he thinks about the situation.”

Demchenko says she is surprised Poles are still as welcoming today as they were when the war started more than two months ago.

For some students, school introduces structure, a sense of normalcy, and a place where they can make new friends. For Diana Norchak, a 15-year-old student, Ukrainian school restores a sense of belonging.

Left: Pupils play outside at primary school no. 148, in Warsaw; Right: Diana Norchak, 15, is currently studying at the Ukrainian School in Warsaw, Poland.

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“We just have a little piece in Warsaw, a little piece of Ukraine,” she says. “Because there are people from my hometown, from my native country, who speak my mother tongue.”

After escaping the war and experiencing the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, Norchak is finally starting to feel like a normal teenager. And now all she really wants is a prom.

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