Eight-year-old Varvara Koslovska is among more than 1.5million children who have fled the war in Ukraine, which began a month ago, sparking Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II world.
From Ireland to Poland, countries are expanding classes, accelerating the registration of Ukrainian teachers, translating curricula and offering online lessons to ensure that children uprooted by war do not lose their education.
Varvara, her brother Plato, 5, and cousins Ivan, 9, and Egor, 7, started their new primary school just days after arriving in Ireland, at the end of a long journey from their hometown of Kyiv.
Bubbly and confident, Varvara speaks only a smattering of English but was all smiles as she described her new life.
“All the girls want to be friends with me. Everybody wants to help me – we got loads of presents,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call, holding up her new handbag star-patterned school blue, a gift from her homeroom teacher.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said countries across Europe had promised to integrate Ukrainian refugee children into schools within three months of their arrival.
This is a big deal for education systems that are often already struggling with tight budgets, large class sizes, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many refugee children will also need specialized linguistic and psychological support.
UNICEF said getting children back to school quickly was crucial not only for their own development, but also for Ukraine’s future.
“In the short term, it provides them with the support, stability and structure to deal with the trauma they have experienced,” said UNICEF spokesman Joe English.
“In the long term, the school gives children the knowledge and skills they need to rebuild their communities once the conflict is over.”
More than 3.6 million Ukrainians have fled the war, about half of them children, according to UNICEF, with the largest influxes of refugees in Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary.
Ireland, which waived visa requirements immediately after the February 24 Russian invasion, was home to around 5,000 Ukrainians until recently. This number has since more than doubled.
His government is prioritizing the registration of Ukrainian teachers arriving in the country to support refugee children.
Ukrainian refugee Zlata Kelba, 3, from Chervonograd, has lunch with other children in a classroom, after the Benedictine nuns’ monastery welcomed refugee children to their kindergarten, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Jaroslaw, Poland, March 23, 2022. Picture taken March 23, 2022. Reuters
Germany is also considering hiring Ukrainian teachers in its schools, which are already strained by teacher shortages and high levels of COVID-19-related sick leave, according to national media.
Poland, which is home to more than 2 million Ukrainians, changed the law to increase class sizes, increased funding for education and set up a parent hotline.
It has registered more than 100,000 students, and about half of Polish schools now enroll Ukrainian children.
Those who speak a little Polish enter the ordinary classes. Others are taught separately while they learn the language.
The government has also waived normal hiring rules to allow Ukrainians who speak Polish to work as teaching assistants.
“If necessary, we will change the law and modify the organization of schools to help every child,” said education ministry spokeswoman Anna Ostrowska.
“We saw a huge solidarity. It’s very touching.”
FEARS OF TRAUMA
Some refugee experts have expressed concern about the shortage of language support teachers and psychological help for traumatized children.
Many, like Varvara, have fathers who fought in the war and parents who stayed. Others have witnessed bombings or lost loved ones.
“I’m worried because children still hear the news, they know what’s going on,” Varvara’s mother Tatyana said, adding that her father misses her daughter very much and talks to her every day via WhatsApp.
Varvara’s grandfather, a pediatrician at a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, treated children injured in the Russian bombardment of the southern city of Mariupol.
“The day we left, Varvara was constantly crying,” Tatyana said. “We told him it wouldn’t be for long. But the truth is no one knows when, or if, they will see their home again.”
Education departments in Ireland, Poland and Britain said they would provide mental health support, but it was unclear whether services would be available in Ukrainian.
Children sit in a bus bound for Germany after fleeing Mariupol in Ukraine to Romania, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, March 22, 2022. Reuters
Severe housing shortages in Ireland – as in many European countries – mean that many refugee children may be settled outside urban areas with less access to specialist support, refugee charities have said.
The new school in Varvara has tried to place refugee children in classes with other students who speak their language.
But she says the breaks are tough despite the warm welcome.
“We get angry because nobody understands us,” she said, adding that she was trying to learn more English on a language app.
NEW DIGITAL TOOLS
The introduction of e-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic could help many children stay in school while waiting for their places in school.
Despite the war, some Ukrainian schools still offer online courses that students can access from outside the country.
Children in Poland who want to take the Ukrainian curriculum are being offered help to get online, the education ministry said.
European Union education ministers are also exploring how to pool digital content to help refugee children.
In Britain, the Oak National Academy, a charity set up during the pandemic to provide online education, has already translated 10,000 lessons into Ukrainian – in theory allowing children to follow the English curriculum in Ukrainian.
Unlike its EU neighbours, Britain has been criticized for being slow to respond to the crisis and cumbersome visa process.
The government said it was ready to take in 100,000 children, but had only issued 18,600 visas to Ukrainians as of Thursday.
The education department said schools were ready to receive children as soon as they arrived, adding that they quickly found places for children evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August.
Back in Ireland, Varvara loves math and is learning new words every day. Her mother says the school has helped restore a sense of normalcy to her children’s lives.
“I try to keep things positive and hope they remember it as an adventure,” Tatyana said.