Back to school, back to hope
How refugee families in Poland navigate the education journey in their new home
Back-to-school is a huge day in every child’s calendar. Filled with anticipation, emotion and excitement for the new year. For refugee children, even more so – this day can mark the start of a returned sense of normalcy to uprooted lives.
For Karina, 8, this is the second back-to-school day in her new home where she is starting second grade at a primary school in Warsaw along with 13 other Ukrainian children. Karina speaks excellent Polish and excels in her schoolwork. “My favorite subjects are reading and ethics,” she says. “I have so many friends here, and I really like the headteacher.”
Karina and her parents, Olena and Vitalii, left Kyiv, Ukraine in March 2022 and plan to go back home after the war. But for now, living in Poland seemed like a better alternative for the family and for Karina’s education.
“When Karina first went to school, I remember asking her how she communicates with other children. And she said: ‘Mum, I speak in Ukrainian, and they respond in Polish. We understand each other’,” Olena says smiling. “Luckily, she did not have any problems with integration. It was all very smooth.”
In Poland, there is currently a Ukrainian refugee child in one in three classes. Many refugee children who are enrolled in Polish schools also follow the Ukrainian curriculum after hours, which can be very tiring for children. Karina studies with a Ukrainian tutor up to three afternoons per week.
For the love of learning
It is important that children and young people who’ve had to flee the war are given the opportunity to continue their education and maintain their love of learning.
“The children are incredibly hard working, motivated to learn and curious,” says Karolina Kotowska, the headteacher of Karina’s school. “It usually takes me two to three days to assess the level of Polish language amongst my Ukrainian students, and then I go from there.” While describing her teaching method, she highlights the importance of being flexible and the ability to compromise. She focuses on integration and inclusion. She says this has taken the students far in their schoolwork and interpersonal relationships.
“Parents also play a key role in their children’s education. And these parents are fantastic to work with – very cooperative and open,” she adds.
During first grade, Karolina had support from Zoriana, a Ukrainian-speaking teaching assistant. While Karolina focused on the transfer of knowledge, general education and integration, Zoriana supported the children with their language difficulties. She was also an invaluable link between the school and the Ukrainian parents who did not speak Polish yet, making it easier for them to understand how to navigate the education system.
Around 55 per cent of Ukrainian school-aged children in Poland are not enrolled in national school systems. The unenrolment rate among secondary school students is even higher at 79 per cent not enrolled. This can be attributed to frequent movement to and from Ukraine, the fact that the Ukrainian curriculum and schools can be accessed online and obstacles like language barriers and adaptation issues at school, as well as lack of information on education opportunities.
Many parents make the decision to leave Ukraine for their children. They worry about their future. Tetiana, who came to Warsaw from the Kyiv region with her two sons, wanted to ensure their education continued uninterrupted.
“All schools in the region are closed and children can only get online education,” says Tetiana, a mother of Matviy, 7, who is starting the second grade taught by Karolina. While online education is a good alternative, it is challenging both for the children — to focus on school, and for the parents — as care work increases.
Here in Warsaw, Tatiana has found her own rhythm and met other mothers who are here on their own just like her. They help each other and keep each other informed.
“From all subjects, I like the common room the most,” laughs Andrzej, 8, from Dnipro. “Oh, and the swimming pool!”
Mariia, his mother, laughs alongside him as she accompanies him to the back-to-school assembly on the school’s soccer field. “Andrzej learned the language quite fast and keeps up with his schoolwork really well. The teacher is happy with his performance,” she says.
“I get a lot of As!” he adds.
During the first grade, Andrzej was happy to receive support from Zoriana, who would meet with him two or three times per week, helping with homework, translation, and answering any doubts that might have popped up. “She was really helpful,” says Mariia.
Mariia works near the primary school and found out about the school enrollment from her boss. She is planning to stay in Warsaw long-term, as the situation in Ukraine is still very uncertain. She is glad to have Andrzej back to learning with Karolina and her class.
To support children’s education, UNICEF’s Refugee Response Office in Poland is working with the Ministry of Education and Science, 12 municipalities and civil society partners to increase access to quality learning for children in Poland. The support provided to the primary school mentioned in the article was possible thanks to the generous donation of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration of the United States.