Faya Radynska has no illusions about her fate if she had remained in Ukraine. “We would be dead, I guess, or raped, or tortured,” she said.
Instead, the 15-year-old spent Wednesday afternoon in a sunny classroom in Hungary, parsing a trigonometry lesson. Though she was nearly 900 kilometres from her home in Kyiv, she was learning in her own language, as part of a novel program for Ukrainian refugees that has been grafted onto the American International School of Budapest (AISB).
Nearly 4.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country and almost two-thirds of its children have left their homes, the United Nations has estimated. The greatest numbers have gone to Poland, where officials expect 700,000 Ukrainian students will enroll in public schools.
But in Hungary, which has seen the arrival of 434,342 Ukrainian refugees, government statistics showed that only 1,050 Ukrainian children had enrolled in local elementary schools as of April 9.
The reason is at least in part linguistic. Ukrainian speakers can make themselves understood in Poland. Not in Hungary, where the language is unintelligible to Ukrainians. So “immersion would be brutal for children who would be coming from a traumatized environment to a Hungarian school,” said Magdalen Gray, advancement director at the AISB.
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of the school’s parents and faculty opened their homes to arriving refugees. It soon became apparent that “their children weren’t engaged,” said Brett Penny, the AISB’s director. “They were at home, watching the news and reliving a lot of the trauma.”
Mr. Penny had previous experience bringing together two institutions after flooding drove another school from its home in Bangkok. Displaced students used “our school from 3:30 to 7 at night. We realized afterwards how easy that was,” he said. “Classrooms sit empty and you’ve got all the infrastructure that is not being used.”
In Budapest, too, there was room to spare.
The Ukrainian program took in its first students on March 10. The first cohort of eight included the children of Oksana Matviishyna, who taught Ukrainian language and literature at the Pechersk School International in Kyiv. After war broke out, Ms. Matviishyna came to Budapest and began looking for educational options for her own children. “It’s very important for their psychological stability,” she said.
One of her former colleagues, Felina Heart, is now a middle-school counsellor at the AISB. The two women chatted, and an idea formed: “Let’s start a school,” Ms. Heart said.
Ms. Matviishyna and Ms. Heart cobbled together a basic plan, with Ukrainian students beginning their school day outdoors at 11:30. Lunch follows, provided by the AISB. Then the students start classes, many with multiple grades in a single room. Their day finishes at 5:30.
Ukrainian authorities have made the national school curriculum and textbooks available online, simplifying the task of obtaining materials. The AISB provided older laptops and iPads, and made allowances for Ukrainian students to join online classes streamed from their home institutions.
The number of students has now swelled to 95, with dozens more on a waiting list.
“They came in waxy faced. And we’ve started to see the colour in their cheeks,” Ms. Gray said. “They’ve made friends. They’ve found community.”
Before coming here, Matvey Zinkovskiy, 16, was staying with family in Budapest “doing nothing. Sitting at home watching videos on YouTube,” he said. “I needed friends here. I had not found anyone I could talk to.”
He is from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces. Roughly half of the students now at the Budapest school have experienced the war, Ms. Matviishyna said.
The Ukrainian program began as a volunteer effort, a wartime contribution to Ukraine’s next generation. “We are in the educational field – not fighting, but just using our skills,” Ms. Matviishyna said.
Weeks later, a school fundraising effort brought in sufficient money to pay teachers US$1,500 a month, enough to cover basic necessities. The Ukrainian program – called the School Within a School – began to bring in some of the qualified people who have fled the war. It now boasts two instructors with doctoral degrees in pedagogy.
The school has begun to petition local authorities and international agencies for more funding. If it can secure enough money, it has space to host 900 Ukrainian children in a second cohort that could begin at 3:30 p.m., after regular classes end.
The AISB caters to privileged children, with annual tuition that reaches US$25,000 and students who attend class equipped with designer handbags. Most of the Ukrainian students come from public schools and families with more limited means. Few speak fluent English.
The school community, however, has been welcoming. Student clubs have devoted fundraising efforts to Ukraine. Teachers have invited Ukrainian classes to join their students’ performances. “It enhances and elevates everything we do,” said Marc Lavoie, a Canadian who is the AISB’s student life co-ordinator. For students, “10 years from now, they’ll be able to reflect on this and say, ‘I was in a school and we made a huge difference.’”
Administrators say they are prepared to continue the program for years. They have also begun advocating the “school within a school” concept as a model for others, saying it allows Ukrainian students to continue learning abroad without falling behind at home. School staff have joined local meetings by the United Nations refugee agency. Schools from as far away as Germany have expressed interest. “We do see the need for this to grow,” Ms. Gray said.
Otherwise, students will “struggle with long-term effects by not being able to access learning from their peer group,” she said.
For students, finding an educational haven in Hungary has helped to dispel some thoughts of the dark places they have left behind. But like many who have fled the fighting, they harbour hopes for a quick return.
“I really like it,” Ms. Radynska said. “But it’s not the same as in Ukraine. If I had to choose, I would pick my school in Kyiv.”
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