Adam Lach for NPR
The Polish Warsaw Ukrainian school is noon, and teachers are doing their best to feed the students to the next lesson. There are more adults and they don’t match the loud, energetic 7- and 8-year-olds who flooded the hallways in the afternoon.
The Ukrainian school is like any primary school: the walls are lined with student works, the youngest sing nursery rhymes to memorize “heads, shoulders, knees, toes”, and the teacher’s school is a consolation for diligent teachers. But there is nothing typical about this school.
“We decided to take children from the hottest spots of Ukraine, like Mariupol, like Bucha, like Izum,” says director Oksana Kaleshik. “Students who do not have the opportunity to study in Ukraine.”
When the war broke out and people began to rush to Poland, a group of Ukrainian teachers at the expense of non-profit organizations opened a school in just 24 days.
It is housed in an unused college building in the southwest of the city. It was founded by Ukrainian refugees who developed a schedule and coursework. It is there that the pressure of life in a new country with a new language weakens Ukrainian-speaking staff and students.
About 300 teachers applied for the 22nd place. And 400 children applied for 270 slots. All of them – teachers, staff and children – are refugees.
Staff strive to take students from the war’s biggest hotspots. But that means taking the most injured children. Teachers say the first weeks of classes were difficult.
“I just saw empty eyes,” says deputy director Oksana Vakhil. “They just sat and peered. When you see first graders whose nature is moving, shaking rather than freezing, and you see that they are frozen, they have no emotions, you try to make this stuff and that stuff. and you see no reaction. It’s really scary. “
The school has two psychologists, and teachers have been trained to detect and eliminate injuries.
Vahil is an art therapist and teacher with 20 years of experience who uses his experience to help his students cope. In some cases, this means throwing away the lesson plan.
“We talk to them more, draw more, play music and don’t disturb them,” says Vakhil.
More than 6 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in late February. Neighboring Poland has accepted most of them, and the country has allocated resources to help them move into a new life. This meant creating new schools or expanding students in established schools.
At № 148 Primary School, a public school in another part of Warsaw, it meant a turn to accept an influx of 100 Ukrainian students.
The ports are 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 don’t have access to resources.
“It’s a really big challenge, and they weren’t prepared for it,” said English teacher Eva Dudinska.
She has not been directly affected by the addition of 100 new students to her school, but she says some of her Polish-speaking colleagues are having difficulty.
David Miliband, director general of the International Rescue Committee, saw for himself that resources could be strained if additional aid is not provided in all areas.
Helping refugee students and integrating them into the school system requires “extra help for teachers, extra support for children, extra support for other children who suddenly find, like others, 10 more people in my class,” says Miliband.
He says Europe’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis should help reconsider the narrative around refugees.
“I think this response should set a benchmark for how the world should respond globally,” he said. “Anyone who tells you that the exodus is unmanageable is wrong … I think our experience shows that there is good practice on how to effectively do this diffuse integration.”
Dudinskaya, an English teacher, agrees.
“It was like when the pandemic started, we had to go through a new era of online education, and we did it well,” she says. “It took us a while to find out how it works, and now it’s all the same.”
Polish Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek said the country had recruited more than 75,000 Ukrainian students to Polish schools. The the country is preparing for 700 thousand.
Across 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 studying in primary school for several months. Her 28-year-old brother remained in Ukraine because men of militant age were not allowed to leave.
Masha says her brother runs to the shelter when he hears sirens. She doesn’t know when to see him again. Among the lessons of English and Polish, mathematics and science in Masha’s mind, events in Ukraine dominate.
“It’s hard because if everything was okay, it would be different. But now I have to think about my house, whether it is worth it or bombing, ”she says.
This disappointment is shared by Inna Demchenko, the mother of a 9-year-old Polish school student whose father is still in Kyiv.
“I’m trying to make some stories because he doesn’t need the truth,” she says of her son. “I always say that tomorrow, in a few weeks, in a month, everything will be fine, and then you will see Dad. And for a while, of course, it helps. The longer he stays, the less he thinks about the situation. ».
Demchanka says she is surprised that the Polish people are just as polite today as they were when the war started more than two months ago.
For some students, the school introduces structure, a sense of normalcy, and a place where they can make new friends. For 15-year-old student Diana Norchak Ukrainian school restores a sense of home.
“We only have a small piece in Warsaw, a small piece of Ukraine,” she says. “Because here are people from my hometown, from my home country, who speak my native language.”
Fleeing the war and surviving 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 graduation.