In Poland, refugees confront tough choices as the school year starts

Media Fellowship

“Everyone is traumatized,” one teacher told National Journal after students returned to the classroom this fall.

Ukrainian child flees war in Ukraine
Teaser Image Caption
A Ukrainian child flees the country.

WARSAW, Poland—Natalia Rovytska was escaping her hometown of Mariupol when she received a job offer.

It was mid-March, and Russian airstrikes were pummeling her city, transforming it from a vibrant industrial hub into a pile of rubble. Rovytska, her husband, and her dog reached a small town near the west-central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, but they weren’t sure where to go next. Then Viktoriia Gnap, the director of the Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation in Poland, called to ask if Rovytska wanted to move to Poland’s capital to run a school for Ukrainian students.

“I left Vinnytsia in the car and went straight to Warsaw to work,” the 60-year-old former school director said.

Today, Rovytska is the director of a school with around 400 Ukrainian students located on the top floor of a shopping mall in Poland’s capital. It’s one of a handful of Ukrainian schools that have popped up in Poland since the start of the war, offering young refugees the opportunity to continue studying the Ukrainian curriculum despite having to flee their country.

Since Russia launched a brutal invasion of its neighbor Ukraine in February 2021, around 1.4 million Ukrainians have moved to Poland and registered for a Pesel number, giving them the right to live and study in Poland. Many of these refugees are women with children, and over the past months, they have been forced to make snap decisions about how to continue their children’s education.

“I think going to a Ukrainian school is better than just going to a Polish school immediately. From a psychological point of view, it is safer for them. They can transition gradually,” said Antonina Michałowska, the Polish deputy head of the Warsaw Ukrainian school, an educational project two Polish nonprofits launched in response to the war.

Ukrainian refugees have numerous options for how to continue their studies in Poland. They can attend a Polish public school and take classes in the Polish language, effectively participating in a crash course in the Polish education system. In September, Poland’s education minister estimated that around 185,000 Ukrainian refugee students were enrolled in Polish schools. Some of these schools offer separate classes for Ukrainian students or have hired assistants who speak Ukrainian and can work with kids who need extra help. But a handful of Ukrainian schools have sprung up around the country for students who aren’t ready to jump right into the Polish system.

Michałowska and her colleagues launched their Ukrainian school to allow refugee students to finish their school year in the months immediately following the start of the war. In April, they moved into a school building that wasn’t being used because of the pandemic. The building was dirty after lying empty for many months, so they rolled up their sleeves and started cleaning. They didn’t think they would be staying for very long. Now their project is already in its sixth month.

“We thought that would be it. The war would be finished, and everyone would go home,” Michałowska said. “But it wasn’t like that, so we decided to continue.”

Today the school has around 250 Ukrainian students, most of whom come from families that would like to return to Ukraine as soon as possible. For families determined to one day return home, keeping their kids in the Ukrainian school system, either remotely or in one of Poland’s new Ukrainian schools, often feels like the logical choice. It means their kids won’t be behind in the Ukrainian school year or have gaps in their education later down the line.

Some older students said they chose to attend a Ukrainian school because they feared failing the entry exams for Polish high school, known as lyceum. Students in Poland must take a test that determines which high school they can attend. This critical exam, which can decide the quality and direction of a student’s education, is known for being difficult even for students who have studied in the Polish system their whole lives. Ukrainian students are now asked to take the test in Polish despite having just arrived in the country several months earlier.

We thought that would be it. The war would be finished, and everyone would go home. But it wasn’t like that, so we decided to continue.  - Antonina Michałowska, the Polish deputy head of the Warsaw Ukrainian school

Two high school aged girls in a classroom
Two students in the school organized by the Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation: Nastasia Kyrychenko (16, left) and Maria Bondarchuk (17, right).

Maria Bondarchuk, a 17-year-old student from Kyiv, said she transferred to a Ukrainian school because she didn’t feel ready to take the Polish entrance exam. Now she’s taking Polish-language classes twice a week and following the Ukrainian high school curriculum.

Nastasia Kyrychenko, a 16-year-old student in the same Ukrainian school, said she attended a Polish school for a month. But when her classmates warned her about how difficult the exams were, she decided to switch to a Ukrainian school.

“They told me around 80 percent of Polish students don’t pass the tests, so I didn’t think I stood a chance,” she said.

school for Ukrainians in Poland
The hallway of a Ukrainian school organized by the Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation in Warsaw, Poland.

Ukrainian schools also provide a sense of safety and stability for students still dealing with the trauma of being ripped from their homes and forced to flee their country. When Katya, a 36-year-old mother of two who asked to be identified by her first name only, enrolled her sons in a Polish school for the first time, the principal warned that many newly arrived Ukrainian kids were afraid of loud noises or bright lights. They hid under their desks when the school bell rang.

Ukrainian schools are run by teachers who have experienced the same trauma as the students. During the first few months after opening her school, Michałowska said the teachers focused on providing a safe space where students could speak openly about their experiences rather than focusing on education alone. The school also employs several Ukrainian psychologists on-site.

The director, Oksana Kolesnyk, a 43-year-old from Chernihiv, arrived in Poland in March after hiding in a basement for 10 days. She eventually escaped the city by crossing the only bridge left that hadn’t been destroyed. She says she plans to stay in Poland because the future back home feels too uncertain.

She relates to many of the students who have either lost their homes or members of their families.

Ania Nazarova, a 31-year-old IT teacher from the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, decided to move to Poland because there was gunfire near her home every day. The buildings in her neighborhood were constantly shaking, and she witnessed a neighbor get blown up by a mine when going out to buy milk. She was struggling to find food for her 2-year-old son, and he was starting to lose weight.

Today she has found a refuge in teaching the same courses in Warsaw that she taught in Ukraine. But both she and her students struggle with the effects of war.

“The biggest difference between teaching in Poland and Ukraine is that everyone is traumatized,” Nazarova said. “Some of the kids are closed off or shy. Motivation has sometimes become a problem because of how traumatized the kids are.”

Diana Novchak, a 15-year-old student in Nazarova’s school, said she was terrified to move to Warsaw at the beginning of the war. The city seemed much larger than her native city of Kharkiv, and she was worried about learning Polish and making new friends. She wondered if the teachers in her new school would be strict, and she was nervous she would get bad grades. Instead, she found a school where the teachers pay attention to her emotional state. She’s started to see Warsaw as her second home.

“The teachers really care about our psychology. If I compare this school to my last school, they are so different,” Novchak said.

Meanwhile, in Polish schools, some Ukrainian kids have had trouble making friends because of the language barrier. Mothers said their children were occasionally bullied. Younger kids, in particular, are more likely to laugh at a Ukrainian student who made errors while speaking Polish.

Diana Karpenko, a 34-year-old widowed mother of three, decided to leave Ukraine because she didn’t want her kids to spend half the school year in a bomb shelter. Her children had already experienced enough trauma after the death of their father, who had participated in the fighting against Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In Poland, Karpenko noticed that her 11-year-old daughter made friends quickly despite not speaking the language. She said kids at that age find ways to play despite the language barrier. But her 14-year-old daughter faced more difficulties. She missed her friends back home in Kyiv and cried every day before going to school.

“In Kyiv, even if she didn’t want to have lessons some days or didn’t like her teachers, she was happy to go to school because she had friends there,” Karpenko said. “I keep telling her that we don’t know when [the war] will be finished, and she must study, so she doesn’t lose a year.”

Despite the difficulties, some argue that it’s better to rip off the band-aid and immerse yourself in the Polish education system as quickly as possible, especially if you don’t know when you might return to Ukraine.

“I always advise people to go to a Polish school if you plan to stay in Poland,” said Gnap, who launched the Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation’s Ukrainian school in Warsaw. “It might be hard, but life is hard.”

This article originally appeared in the National Journal on October 20, 2022. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Washington, DC.