Principal Ewa Petrykiewicz sat quietly at a table as 18 teenagers slowly filed into her office at the St. Stanislaw Kostka school in Warsaw. Six crammed onto a small couch, while the others sat on the floor or grabbed a couple of loose chairs scattered around the room.
The students hadn’t been summoned for disciplinary reasons that Friday morning. They were all refugees from Ukraine and were here for a physics lesson.
St. Stanislaw Kostka has taken in 70 Ukrainians since early March, swelling the student population to 330. There aren’t enough classrooms for all the extra pupils, so Ms. Petrykiewicz has to make do with whatever space is available, which includes giving up her office two or three times a day. “There‘s a lot of improvisation,” she said.
All across the country schools have been struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. More than 3.3 million Ukrainians have crossed into Poland since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, and about half are expected to stay for the long term. Almost 200,000 new students have already entered Poland’s school system, according to the Ministry of Education, and the number could jump to 600,000 if the war drags on.
Finding enough teachers, classrooms and other resources to handle the intake has been a constant challenge. Most refugee children can’t speak Polish, and some arrive with deep emotional scars from what they’ve experienced.
Even before the conflict began, Poland’s education system was under pressure because of a shortage of new teachers and arguments over funding. The refugee crisis has only compounded the situation.
“We’re heading for an education tsunami,” Slawomir Broniarz, the head of the Polish Teachers’ Union, told local media when the first wave of refugees arrived in March. He added that if 600,000 refugee children entered the school system, that would represent a 15-per-cent increase and the country would need an additional 50,000 teachers.
There’s little doubt that St. Stanislaw Kostka – which has both a primary and a secondary school – is showing signs of strain. Although it’s considered a private institution, the tuition is minimal, and Ms. Petrykiewicz relies on government funding and donations for the bulk of her annual budget.
The school does have some experience with foreign students. It regularly takes in children from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. And it accepted dozens of students from Ukraine in 2014 when war broke out in the eastern part of the country.
But nothing could prepare the institution for what’s happening now.
Ms. Petrykiewicz said classes are sometimes held outdoors and the staff are constantly juggling schedules to find empty rooms. One open area that served as a meeting space has been transformed into a second lunch room. “Every day there are adjustments that we have to make,” she said. “The situation is dynamic.”
While she tries to keep costs down for the Ukrainians – they pay only a portion of the tuition and live with families across the city – the school’s finances have been stretched and the monthly gas bill has already tripled this year. St. Stanislaw Kostka is housed in a complex that includes several other educational institutions, and Ms. Petrykiewicz is hoping to rent seven more classrooms. But they won’t be available until September, and the other tenants will be looking for extra rooms, too.
For the school’s 40 teachers, the arrival of so many new pupils has forced many to change how they work.
Iwona Nowogorska-Jasinska normally teaches high-school grammar and culture. But because most of the new students can’t speak Polish, she’s been called on to give basic language lessons.
Last Friday morning, she patiently helped about a dozen refugee children between the ages of 10 and 12 learn the Polish words for “head,” “face,” “eyes” and “hair.”
“They have different experiences and learn at different levels,” Ms. Nowogorska-Jasinska said. She added that some refugee students arrive eager to fit in and begin studying, but many others are withdrawn and clearly troubled.
“We have students whose parents are still fighting in Ukraine,” Ms. Petrykiewicz added. The cleaning and cooking staff are also almost entirely Ukrainian, and many have relatives back home. “We see them crying and talking over the phone to them,” she said.
She has managed to hire three teachers and is hoping to add more in the fall, if government funding and donations come through.
One of the new teachers is Svietlana Avramova. She arrived in Poland from Kyiv in early March with her 16-year-old twin daughters. They fled the city on Feb. 28, just as Russian tanks rolled into the suburbs not far from their home. Ms. Avramova’s former husband is serving with the Ukrainian army on the front line in Donbas. Her daughters “are very anxious about the fate of their father,” she said.
Before the war she was an executive at an advertising agency. But she’d also taught math and physics years ago. That background, plus her ability to teach in Ukrainian, was enough to land her a job at St. Stanislaw Kostka – even though she doesn’t speak Polish.
She conducts her classes in Ukrainian and sometimes Russian. On Friday, she listened as her students presented their papers on refrigeration entirely in Russian.
St. Stanislaw Kostka’s students have also had to adjust to the sudden surge of new faces. Language and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome, and it’s not clear how long some refugees will stay. The school has distributed handbooks to help students talk about the war, and Ms. Petrykiewicz encourages everyone to be open about their feelings.
She’s also taken the time to introduce a few Russian students to classmates to ensure that everyone gets along. Among the Russians are Egor Dzhura, 17, and his brother, Andreii, 16. They left Ukraine on March 25 with their parents and have no idea if they’ll ever return to Ukraine or Russia.
Egor said his classmates have been largely understanding about his family’s predicament. And his own views on the fighting couldn’t be clearer. “It’s tragic,” he said. The Russian “government says negative information and lies to so many people, to many Russian citizens. And our citizens think this is the truth.” He’s hopeful the war will end soon and that “Russians and Ukrainians will be friends.”
Sawa Skrobot, 18, is also from Russia, but his family has been in Poland for six years. He’s trying to understand the war from many perspectives and keeps in regular contact with relatives in Russia and Ukraine. He has also talked to classmates about the conflict and believes “the only people who are benefiting are the military industries.”
Despite the many difficulties at the school, there are signs that a community is coming together at St. Stanislaw Kostka. The hallways buzz with activity, and it’s hard to differentiate the refugees from the Polish students.
Shortly before Orthodox Easter last month, Ms. Petrykiewicz received a note from Ms. Avramova that summed up how she feels about what the school is trying to accomplish.
Ms. Avramova had written down “(∂ + m) ψ = 0″ – a famous equation developed by British physicist Paul Dirac. It shows how “two particles meet together, and upon the meeting they too disperse themselves across the universe,” she explained. “Nevertheless, they are in some union because of the first meeting. Even though they have been disbursed they still influence one another as particles, as everlasting friendship.”
Ms. Petrykiewicz has kept the note close to her and reads it whenever she needs a little inspiration. “It’s the most beautiful wish I have ever received,” she said.
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