New home, same calling for Ukraine’s teachers
In Romania, teachers are creating an oasis of stability for children who have fled the war in Ukraine.
BUCHAREST, Romania – Anastasiia remembers the scenes at the train station in Bucharest in the weeks after she arrived in Romania. She had fled to the city from her hometown of Odesa, in southern Ukraine, with her two-year-old son Kyril as the conflict intensified. Anastasiia left behind her husband, her parents, and her job as deputy principal of a primary school.
“I look around now and I remember my town and how life used to be. We thought it was boring,” she says. “It was happiness.”
But as more and more refugees arrived in the Romanian capital seemingly by the hour, Anastasiia went to the station with some of her colleagues who had also fled from Odesa to make it clear that while their surroundings may have changed, their desire to help children had not.
“We are teachers, we want to teach,” she recalls shouting. “Let us teach somewhere. For free, of course. Just give us this opportunity and we can help the children.”
In less than a week, their call had been answered. With the support of the Romanian Ministry of Education, around 50 Ukrainian children aged 5 to 10 were being taught to read and write in Ukrainian and English, as well as taking classes in mathematics and science. In the days that followed, that number continued to grow as more children arrived in the city. By the time Anastasiia and her colleagues were ready to start teaching in classrooms at a high school in Bucharest, almost 230 refugee children were ready to attend classes supported by UNICEF and local NGOs.
“You can imagine me and the head teacher running around counting chairs, trying to figure out where all the children will go,” Anastasiia says.
UNICEF is supporting host governments and municipalities to extend access to quality education services to Ukrainian children in national school systems, including Romania, along with alternative education pathways such as digital learning. But while giving refugee children the opportunity to continue learning is important, especially in the wake of two years of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, classes such as those led by Anastasiia provide something else: a crucial sense of structure and safety, as well as a place to spend time with other children.
Anastasiia says that some of the hardest days are those during which children find out that one of their relatives has been killed in the war. She says that such news is a constant reminder that children’s emotional well-being is a critical part of the learning process and that teachers need to strike a careful balance between being honest about the reality of the situation and also providing a nurturing environment that allows children to heal and grow.
“What we’re trying to do, my colleagues and I, is to give children strength,” she says, including the strength not to feel hate. “They have all the right to hate, but it is ruining them from the inside.”
“Hate is not the solution.”
Walking into a classroom, Anastasiia is greeted by rows of bright faces, and she is soon animatedly teaching her students English through games and songs. The joy in the children’s faces, and the effortless way in which Anastasiia engages with the class, make it easy to forget for a moment the horrors that these children have experienced over the past few months.
The composure Anastasiia has displayed when meeting high-profile visitors to the school, including US First Lady Jill Biden, means it is also easy to forget that Anastasiia is herself a refugee managing constantly changing personal circumstances.
As the school day draws to a close, and parents arrive to pick up their children to take them back to their temporary homes, Anastasiia says she hopes at some point to return home to Ukraine to help with the rebuilding. But she adds that while in-person classes are over for today, she still has work to do – when she gets back to her apartment she’ll be conducting online classes for children still living in Odesa or who have fled to other parts of Europe.
Pavel grew up in Odesa and taught physics there before emigrating to the United States to work as a programmer. After working in the United States for 20 years, he decided to return to Odesa, where he opened an elementary school.
“I had wanted to be a teacher all that time,” he says.
Like Anastasiia, he was forced to flee when the war started and is now teaching in Bucharest.
“I decided to leave Ukraine with everybody who I knew who also wanted to flee the war,” Pavel says. “So, we organized some buses to carry about 40 people – families, children, their mothers – and moved to Romania. We also moved a lot of teachers from our school.”
Pavel says that the disruption has taken a heavy psychological toll on many children. There are “a lot of different reasons. The father is [in Ukraine], the mother and children are here. Or somebody in the family has been killed or somebody lost their house,” he says. “There are different situations.”
Olena, the principal at an elementary school in Odesa, also fled when the war started and says she encouraged other families to do the same.
“When my family arrived…I realized that many of my students and my colleagues were [still] in danger,” she says. “So, I started urging them to leave and explained how to get here. We found a big bus which evacuated people from unsafe places.”
“We started settling here because safety was the primary need.”
Olena agrees that ensuring children have access to school is about more than ensuring that they don’t fall behind academically. “I understood we needed to place them in a familiar context, so that they could do things they were used to doing every day – a routine,” she says.
She is now working with other colleagues from Odesa who are teaching at the school in Bucharest, helping children there to learn and navigate the complex emotional challenges they now face.
“This school is not [just] about knowledge,” she says. “It’s about saving.”