This Polish School In Warsaw Offers Hope For Ukrainian Refugees : Consider This from NPR A Polish school in Warsaw has taken in Ukrainian refugee students and teachers. The school provides safety and a place of hope as the war between Russia and Ukraine continues.

Poland's minister of education says the country has absorbed more than 75,000 Ukrainian students into Polish schools.

NPR's Ari Shapiro visited schools in Poland and spoke to teachers and students about what their life is like right now.

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They Fled The Most Traumatized Parts of Ukraine. Classrooms Are Offering Them Hope

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Ask any elementary school teacher what they see on a typical day and you'll get a similar answer. Kids shout, play and run around. But that's not what art therapist and teacher Oksana Vakhil saw when she met her students for the first time.

OKSANA VAKHIL: I saw just empty eyes.

SHAPIRO: Vakhil is one of three principals at Poland's Ukrainian School in Warsaw. Nearly three months ago, when Russia attacked Ukraine, people began flooding into Poland. A group of Ukrainian educators used money from nonprofit organizations to open a school for refugees in just 24 days. When Vakhil escaped the war, she planned to keep going west to Cyprus, where she has relatives. Then the founders of this school contacted her, and her plans changed.

VAKHIL: They called me and told that they need help and they have got an idea to make Ukrainian School. And I have...

SHAPIRO: She thought she'd stay a month. And more than two months later, she is still in Warsaw helping traumatized kids come out of their shells.

VAKHIL: I teach my English through creative movement all the time, through art, so I get use to move, to see the reflection of bodies. And I didn't see the reflection of body. They were just sitting, looking in. And this is the first grade. When you see the first-graders, whose nature is to move, to shake and not to freeze, and you see that they are frozen, they have no emotions, and you try to do this material, that material and you see no reaction, it's really scared.

SHAPIRO: When the school had to decide which students to admit, they prioritized kids from the hardest-hit parts of Ukraine - Mariupol, Bucha, Izyum. They are among the most traumatized. And over time, Vakhil has seen them rebound.

VAKHIL: And now when we come, it's noise. Wow. It's noise, they are shouting. They are fighting.



SHAPIRO: These 7- and 8-year-olds are singing along to a tune that every Polish child knows. The kids touch their eyes, ears, mouth and nose as they sing. It's the Polish version of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." The children are just starting to learn the language. They've only been in the country a month or two.

VAKHIL: This school is about support, is about love. This school is about just, you are not alone.


SHAPIRO: Three hundred teachers applied for 22 positions here. Four hundred kids applied for 270 slots. And all of them - teachers, staff and kids - are refugees. The kids at the school are between the ages of 6 and 18. Art covers the walls. A lot of it in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

VAKHIL: Our school - we about Ukraine. We about humanity. We about troubles and the ways to cope with them.


SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - Ukrainian kids in Poland may be safe from the war, but Russia's assault is always on their minds, even as they try to focus on their education.


SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro in Poland. It's Thursday, May 19.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. At Warsaw's Ukrainian School, one of the kids has drawn a tree with the days of the week. There are leaves and branches for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. But Thursday, instead of a leaf or a branch, there's a missile, and it says the 24 of February. The missile is hitting the trunk of the tree, and the tree is bleeding because Thursday, February 24 was the day Russia attacked Ukraine. It's a chilling reminder of what is unfolding just east of this school.


SHAPIRO: Ukrainian refugees in Poland are trying hard to live normal lives - going to school, working online - even as many have left behind relatives who are still in the war zone. David Miliband is CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and I spoke with him about the global response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

DAVID MILIBAND: The Ukrainians are clear, just like many other refugee populations - they want to go home when it's safe. The trouble is, they don't know when it's going to be safe.


SHAPIRO: That uncertainty looms over Diana Norchak. She's 15, and she's been uprooted from everything she knows. As a Ukrainian refugee in Poland, Diana is surrounded every day by people speaking a foreign language. And so when she gets to this school each morning, it's a relief to feel a bit like she's back home.

DIANA NORCHAK: We have just a little piece in Warsaw, a little piece of Ukraine. Because here is people from my native city, from my native country that speak my native language.

SHAPIRO: She tries not to think about the war.

DIANA: Every time when I come in to Instagram or Telegram, I see the news with what's wrong in the Lviv, what's wrong in the Kyiv, Kharkiv. And it's broke my heart. So I try to focus on the learning, studying.

SHAPIRO: One thing that is on her mind...

DIANA: First of all, I must have prom this time. Yes.

SHAPIRO: You are determined to have a prom?


SHAPIRO: Along with everything else she has to deal with, being a refugee means she might not get to have the prom she's always dreamed of.

According to the U.N., half the people who fled Ukraine are children. Poland has taken in more than a million Ukrainian kids. And they're not living in refugee camps, which is a good thing in many ways, but it means that kids are spread out all over the place, so providing education is more of a challenge. Many are still taking classes with their Ukrainian teachers online. Poland's minister of education says the country has absorbed more than 75,000 Ukrainian students into Polish schools.


SHAPIRO: This is a Polish public school in Warsaw. It had a student body of 300. Then the war started, and the school added 100 Ukrainian kids. All the students here have special permission to use their phones for Google Translate.

Fourteen-year-old Masha Zamoros sits down with us in a classroom where the walls are lined with homemade posters of Ukrainian flags and the desks have been painted yellow and blue for Ukraine.

MASHA ZAMOROS: (Through interpreter) Sometimes, when I have break, I think about Ukraine. It's very hard. But then there is another lesson up there that...

SHAPIRO: That must be really difficult.

MASHA: (Through interpreter) Yeah, it's hard because if everything were normal, it would just be different. But now, with the war in Ukraine, I have to think about my home. Is it still standing, or did a bomb fly through it? It's like roulette.

SHAPIRO: She came to Poland with her parents, but her 28-year-old brother stayed behind.

MASHA: (Through interpreter) He's staying at home because he can't get any job now. And sometimes he goes to the shelter when there are sirens.

SHAPIRO: When do you hope you will be able to see him again?

MASHA: (Through interpreter) I have no idea when I will see my brother because, when the war started, my mom just took me, but she was not able to take him because he's an adult, so he just had to stay there.

SHAPIRO: Men of military age aren't allowed to leave Ukraine, and so little kids struggle to understand why their father or their big brother isn't around. Inna Demchenko is the mother of a 9-year-old boy whose father is still in Kyiv.

INNA DEMCHENKO: Oh, of course I'm trying to create some stories because he doesn't need truth. But I always say, tomorrow, in a few weeks, in a month, everything will be OK, and then we'll - you'll see your dad, and you'll see your grannies, and you'll see everybody, your friends. And for some time, of course, it helped. The longer he stays, the less he thinks about the situation.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Is it helpful for him to talk to his dad, or does that just remind him of the distance and the separation?

DEMCHENKO: It depends because, sometimes, of course, he plays and he forgets about everything. He contacts his father and just telling him about his day. But in a few hours, when he goes to bed, of course, he remembers that, a few months ago, he stayed with him and slept with him and spent time with him.

SHAPIRO: I was here two months ago and saw how welcoming Polish people were, and I wondered, before I came back this time, whether people would have started to lose patience.

DEMCHENKO: No, they don't lose. I'm really surprised, but they don't. They really help, even now. Even, I think - I don't know for how long it will continue, yeah, but I'm impressed.

SHAPIRO: It doesn't seem like anybody is losing patience, but you can see the strain. Eva Dudzinska is an English teacher at the Polish public school.

EVA DUDZINSKA: It's a really big challenge, and they were not prepared for this.

SHAPIRO: She says her classes are not too different, since she always conducts them in English, but some of her colleagues who teach in Polish are struggling.

DUDZINSKA: It was like the - when the pandemic started. We needed to, you know, go through that new era of online education. And we did it well, but it took some time for us to learn how it functions and everything. And now it's the same. I mean, nobody predicted that. Nobody told us that it's going to be like that. Nobody asked them if they want to do it. I mean, it's kind of like we were - maybe not forced - it's not a good word - but we don't have much choice.

SHAPIRO: All across Poland, kids, parents and teachers are trying to adapt, struggling to stay flexible without knowing how long they'll have to keep this up.

At the all-Ukrainian school, kids from California sent homemade cards to the refugee students. They hang on a string, and kids open them to see what's inside. There are rainbows, hearts, and one with a Ukrainian flag on the front and a short story written inside in a child's uneven scrawl.

(Reading) Once upon a time, there was a man, and that man went to a country and said, this country you live in is actually my country, and you will have to live with my rules. And what the people that lived there said, no, we are brave, we believe in ourselves, and we are strong. But the man still wanted the country, and he tried to go to war. But then the people that lived there said, no, we are independent, we support each other, we are strong. And who won? Well, you'll have to figure that out by yourself.



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