The Devastating Impact of War on Ukrainian Children’s Education, Even for Those Seeking Refuge Abroad

by Michael Nguyen
War's Impact on Ukrainian Children's Education

Milana Minenko, a nine-year-old girl, has abandoned playing the piano. Her days are spent attending a public school in Poland, where she and her mother sought refuge from the war that engulfed Ukraine in March 2022. In the evenings, Milana’s mother assists her in following the Ukrainian curriculum to ensure she keeps up with her studies back home. The constraints of time and financial resources leave no room for anything else.

Milana’s hometown in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine fell under Russian occupation, resulting in the destruction of her house by a missile on the second day of the war and displacing her entire family. They lost nearly everything they held dear.

For Milana, this loss includes her school, the place that welcomed her with balloons on her first day, her friends with whom she can now only exchange text messages, and the teacher who brought joy to her learning experience.

Additionally, her beloved music school, where she studied piano and singing alongside her regular lessons, now lies in ruins. Milana is unsure about the fate of her primary school and wonders if it, too, fell victim to the bombings targeting educational institutions conducted by Russian forces.

According to government figures, Russian forces have destroyed 262 educational institutions and caused damage to an additional 3,019 in their invasion of Ukraine. However, the disruption to the education of Ukrainian children extends far beyond the physical destruction of buildings. Families, educators, experts, and advocates emphasize that for those who have sought refuge in other countries, schooling is being profoundly affected in unprecedented ways. The impact of war, relocation, and the challenges of adapting to a new educational system combine to compound the setbacks faced by young refugee students.

Ukrainian officials emphasize that the knowledge and skills of this generation are crucial for the nation’s post-war reconstruction. They have consistently prioritized this issue since the early months of the conflict. Officials have reported the death of at least 500 children in the war, and thousands have been forcibly deported to Russia without consent. The number of the 8 million recorded refugees across Europe who will ultimately return is uncertain.

Of these refugees, approximately 1.5 million reside in Poland, the largest host country. Many chose Poland due to its proximity to Ukraine and have aspirations of returning home someday. Unlike Germany and some other countries, Poland allows children the option of not enrolling in local schools.

According to UNICEF, fewer than half of the child refugees in Poland, which amounts to 180,000 students, are enrolled in schools. Similar to Milana, the majority of them arrived with no knowledge of the Polish language. UNICEF estimates that around 30% of Ukrainian children attending Polish schools in person are also studying the Ukrainian curriculum online.

Enrollment rates decrease among older students, with only 22% of Ukrainian teenagers in Poland attending schools in the country.

Jedrzej Witkowski, CEO of the Polish nonprofit Center for Citizenship Education, describes the situation as a “disaster in slow motion.” Francesco Calcagno, from Poland’s UNICEF refugee response office, asserts that the detrimental effects on learning and socialization will have long-lasting consequences. Experts argue that extracurricular activities like Milana’s music lessons, which are vital for development and mental well-being, are being compromised.

Calcagno points out that by the upcoming September, many of these children will have spent their third school year outside Ukraine, with some experiencing their fourth year of online education due to the educational setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The absence of face-to-face learning is a significant concern, and efforts must be made to reintegrate these children into physical classrooms.

However, Polish schools already face severe teacher shortages, and language barriers exacerbate the challenges for refugee students. Although Ukrainian and Polish share similarities, it typically takes three years to attain the necessary proficiency in Polish for academic work, as stated by Witkowski.

Having to follow curricula in two languages adds further stress to students who are already grappling with the trauma of war and displacement. Many refugee families have moved multiple times since arriving in Poland, intensifying feelings of instability.

Rita Rabinek, an intercultural assistant trained by the Polish Migration Forum and the global relief group IRC to help Ukrainian children adapt to Polish schools, has witnessed students changing schools up to five times.

Students who attempt to keep up with their Ukrainian studies witness the war’s ongoing impact in their homes. For instance, 16-year-old Polina Plokhenko left her Polish high school to focus on Ukrainian studies but continues online lessons with her school located in the frontline city of Kherson, where her teachers frequently take cover in shelters during bombings.

Polina, who aspires to study acting at a university in Kyiv and is currently preparing for Ukraine’s final state examination, experiences significant challenges. The examination is being held in 47 cities across 30 countries. To prepare, Polina attends Saturday classes at one of the three Ukrainian schools established in Poland by the organization Unbreakable Ukraine.

Viktoriia Gnap, the founder of Unbreakable Ukraine, acknowledges that the foundation’s teachers, who are also refugees, have observed a relatively low level of overall knowledge among their students. Despite facing funding cuts amid global economic struggles, the foundation remains committed to providing these students with a high-quality education. Their schools currently accommodate approximately 1,500 students.

Olha Andrieieva, a 17-year-old student who attended a Polish school, followed her former school’s classes online while residing in Balakliia, a town in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Frequent shelling and power outages disrupted her lessons.

Olha recently completed Ukraine’s final examination, a significant milestone required for university admission. The experience felt surreal to her, as there was no graduation ceremony and a sense of uncertainty loomed over everything. While she remained calm about the test, she was deeply affected by the news of the dam collapse in southern Ukraine, which marked the war’s latest humanitarian and environmental disaster.

Some Ukrainian students are becoming more proficient in the Polish language, making plans to attend universities in Poland, and forming relationships. However, others still feel disconnected from their host country. Tensions between Poles and newcomers in schools are reportedly increasing, and instances of bullying against refugees have been reported.

Milana, who can now act as a translator for her parents, takes pride in achieving good grades in her recent Polish assignments. However, she finds it challenging to keep up with the curricula of both countries, juggling homework and tests for both. Piano and voice lessons are currently at the bottom of her family’s list of priorities.

Milana’s father, Oleksandr, spent a year trapped in Russian-occupied territory before reuniting with his wife and daughter in Poland. However, he cannot join them in the temporary housing they occupy, as space is limited. He awaits paperwork that will enable him to secure employment and earn enough to reunite with his family.

Milana’s mother, Oksana, works as a manicurist. She yearns for their small home to accommodate a keyboard. Videos of Milana’s performances are now distant memories of a life before the war—a life they hope to reclaim someday.

“I truly wish to return home, to the familiar walls, so that my child can go to her teacher and embrace her,” Oksana shared. “That’s her dream.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about War’s Impact on Ukrainian Children’s Education

What is the impact of war on Ukrainian children’s education?

The impact of war on Ukrainian children’s education is severe. Not only are educational institutions being destroyed, but the disruption extends beyond physical infrastructure. Children who have sought refuge in other countries face unprecedented challenges in continuing their education, such as language barriers, trauma, and adapting to new educational systems.

How many educational institutions have been destroyed by Russian forces in Ukraine?

According to government figures, Russian forces have destroyed 262 educational institutions in Ukraine. An additional 3,019 institutions have suffered damage due to the invasion.

How are Ukrainian refugee children in Poland affected?

In Poland, where a significant number of Ukrainian refugee children reside, fewer than half are enrolled in schools. Language barriers and the trauma of war make it difficult for these children to integrate into the education system. Older students, in particular, have lower enrollment rates, with only 22% of Ukrainian teenagers attending schools in Poland.

How are extracurricular activities impacted by the war?

Extracurricular activities, such as music lessons, which are crucial for development and mental health, are greatly affected by the war. The destruction of music schools and the inability to access such activities in the host countries adds to the setbacks faced by refugee children.

What are the long-term consequences of the educational disruptions?

The long-term consequences of the educational disruptions are far-reaching. The knowledge and skills of this generation are crucial for rebuilding the nation after the war. Lack of face-to-face learning, multiple school changes, and educational setbacks due to the war and relocation contribute to instability and hinder the educational and social development of Ukrainian refugee children.

Are there efforts being made to address the challenges faced by these children?

Efforts are being made to address the challenges faced by Ukrainian refugee children. Organizations like UNICEF and Unbreakable Ukraine are providing support and establishing Ukrainian schools in host countries like Poland. However, severe teacher shortages, language barriers, and funding cuts remain significant obstacles in ensuring a high-quality education for these children.

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JaneSmith June 16, 2023 - 11:23 pm

the impact of war on education is heartwrenching. kids fleein their homes, studyin in new countries w/ language barriers. it’s tough 4 them 2 keep up n feel secure. we must do more 2 help these young ones!

BookLover83 June 17, 2023 - 12:06 am

educational disruptions from war r heartbreakin! kids losin their schools, music lessons, friendships. it’s devastatin 4 their future n mental health. we need 2 support them n rebuild their education!

Dreamer89 June 17, 2023 - 1:59 am

reading this breaks my heart. these kids deserve a chance 2 learn, grow n pursue their dreams. war shouldn’t rob them of education. let’s stand together 2 support these brave children n give them hope!

JohnDoe21 June 17, 2023 - 9:28 am

wow, this text is so sad 🙁 war destroy kids education, it’s so unfair! they need school 2 feel normal again. i hope they get the help they need!


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