Ukrainians teach in a war zone: bombed schools, evacuations and board games | Ukraine
YesUlia Kuryliuk, a teacher in a village near Lviv, woke up on February 24 to find her country at war and gathered her sixth-grade class on Zoom. Two children tearfully asked when the fighting would end. She didn’t have an answer, but she guided her students through breathing exercises to manage anxiety and encouraged them to hug a parent, pet or stuffed animal for comfort.
With Ukraine’s education system disrupted by war, teachers are helping to provide stability for their students, as well as other forms of emergency support such as evacuation and humanitarian aid. As the Ministry of Education and Science declared a two-week break after the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia, the lessons have now resumed whenever possible, although they are frequently interrupted by the howl of air raid sirens.
According to Ukraine’s Education Minister Serhiy Shkarlet, as of April 7, around 12,000 schools were conducting online classes and 3.5 million students had resumed some form of learning.
Experts agree that education can play a positive role for war-affected children and “mitigate the psychological impact of armed conflict by providing routine and stability”, according to the intergovernmental organization Safe Schools Statement.
A few times a week, Kuryliuk meets with his students in person at the school library, where they play board games. “It’s a safe place to be with each other and to communicate,” she said, especially for children who are locked inside with their parents. She also read to her sixth graders on Zoom in the evenings. Some are tuning in from Poland, Italy and Greece, where they have sought refuge, to connect with familiar faces back home.
As Russian forces advanced, Anastasiia Luzhetska fled the small community near kyiv where she taught art stay with his family in the city of Ternopil in western Ukraine. She has since assembled a team of volunteers to organize games, crafts, parties and other entertainment for the many internally displaced children arriving in the area, creating spaces “where children can feel like children. “. When it’s time to leave, she says, the children and their parents “don’t want me or my volunteers to go.”
A video Facebook post shows Luzhetska during a recent visit to a shelter for displaced people in Ternopil, where she wanders around the room on her knees, flapping her arms like wings. A group of children sitting on the ground lean forward, shouting guessing what kind of bird she is imitating. “Swan!” a boy is crying and she comes over to give him a high five.
Yet war is never far away. “A boy, Yegor, drew a house and after that he said, ‘Oh, I think I don’t have a house anymore, because they bombed it,'” Luzhetska said. “It’s hard to hear.”
Older students also feel a deep sense of uncertainty. Before February 24, Vova, a 17-year-old from Borodyanka, a community of 13,000 northwest of Kyiv, was planning his high school graduation party and dreamed of studying journalism at university. Now, with his home and school in ruins after more than a month of Russian occupation, he has no idea what the future holds.
When the attacks began, Vova, who was raised by her grandmother, took refuge with her in their basement, where they remained for a week without electricity. He heard constant explosions as Russian soldiers fired rockets and columns of military vehicles drove through his neighborhood, firing into houses. Amid the chaos, he texted his biology teacher, Viktoria Tymoshenko, who was determined to help him evacuate and found a way out.
Tymoshenko “saved me from this hell,” Vova said, speaking through an interpreter. They fled under shelling to a nearby village before moving further west, but they were unable to get her elderly grandmother out of the Kyiv area. In March, she was killed by a Russian missile which hit the house where she was staying.
Tymoshenko now lives in a village with Vova and another student she helped evacuate. Although it is safer there, she is haunted by memories of their escape and worries for those left behind. She messages students who have internet access to register, but there are some she cannot reach, as well as several of her colleagues.
Ukrainian forces released Borodyanka on April 1, but authorities fear hundreds of residents are buried under bombed buildings. The Russian occupiers destroyed part of their school and then set up a base there, Tymoshenko said, ransacking the classroom and covering walls and blackboards with graffiti: “Russia, our beloved country!!! »
Tymoshenko and her students walk around the village trying to clear their minds about the war, but there is “a tension that you always feel and that doesn’t go away”, she said via of an interpreter. Vova is grateful to his teachers for their support, and despite everything he’s been through, he can’t wait to get back to class.
Tymoshenko, Luzhetska and Kuryliuk are scholarship holders with Teach for Ukraine, an organization that recruits and trains Ukrainians to teach in underserved schools. It is part of the Teaching for all network, which includes Teach for America and teach first UK. Since the start of the Russian invasion, Teach for Ukraine has held workshops with psychologists to equip its teachers with techniques for supporting students during the war. Most are first-time educators and have been in constant contact, supporting and inspiring each other. “We are more than just colleagues, we are family,” Kuryliuk said. “They all remind me every minute that I just have no right to give up.”
“Even under shelling, they couldn’t stop thinking about school,” said Anastasiia Holovatiuk, another Teach for Ukraine fellow serving in the nearby town. Makariv, said through an interpreter. The city was also recently liberated from Russian occupation. Her apartment was destroyed by a Russian fire, but her students, who have continued to prepare for their university entrance exams, motivate her to continue: “Looking at these kids, you understand that you have to continue and go to something else.
Educators have stepped up to keep the community together, Holovatiuk said, cooking food for Ukrainian soldiers, helping locate basic necessities for residents and checking in with their students. Yet, she said, as Ukraine has become a global symbol of resilience, its citizens have paid a heavy price. When people think of the war, she wants them to know that “20 11th graders from Makariv have lost everything.”
Holovatiuk student Masha, 17, is one of them. After fleeing the fighting in Makariv, Masha, her parents and her brother stayed with an acquaintance near Lviv, but the small apartment was soon filled with several displaced families and three cats. To free up space, Masha’s parents decided that she would travel alone to Poland, where they had found a family ready to take her in.
Masha packed a backpack and boarded a train for crowded people to sleep on the floor; she tried to rest in the space between the cars. “It was like in the Holodomor movies,” she said. through an interpreter, referring to Stalinist engineering famine who killed four million Ukrainians in the 1930s. She wasn’t afraid to go to Poland, but “you just feel like everything around you is being destroyed,” she says . “You distance yourself from your parents, and when other people are with their families, it’s not nice. You sit like you’re a puppy.
Now Masha is taking lessons with other Ukrainian teenagers, with an interpreter available to help her. She is learning basic Polish and at the moment there are no grades or homework. His new school is “a pretty picture,” with a swimming pool, large gym, “cool classrooms” and friendly teachers, but those conveniences can’t eliminate the lingering sense of uncertainty.
Masha worries about her father, who wants to return to Makariv to fix the power lines, and her insulin-dependent grandmother, whom she hasn’t been able to reach for weeks. She feels guilty for being safe in Poland, able to go out and spend time with new friends while her family sits in a basement.
Holovatiuk, who arrived in Makariv in August, was just getting to know her students when she had to flee and is furious that the war disrupted her plans to teach there for two years. She is currently staying in western Ukraine with her partner’s family, but plans to return to Makariv when it is safe and believes the school will play a central role in rebuilding the community.
“Each of us is left with nothing but hope,” she said. “You keep thinking you’ll be back, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow, or in a week, but I’ll be back.”
With translation by Alina Opriatova and Anna Doroshenko