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How a school in Warsaw is educating kids of Ukrainian families who fled to Poland



At a school in Warsaw, 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.


SHAPIRO: It's the Polish version of "Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes." These children are just starting to learn the language. They've only been in the country a month or two. All of them are refugees from Ukraine.


OKSANA VAKHIL: This school is about support. It's about love. This school is about just, you are not alone.

SHAPIRO: Oksana Vakhil is one of three principals here. When the war broke out and people began flooding into Poland, a group of Ukrainian educators used money from non-profit organizations to open this school in just 24 days. It's in an unused college building. Three hundred teachers applied for 22 positions. Four hundred kids applied for 270 slots. All of them - teachers, staff and kids - are refugees. The principals had to decide who to accept.

VAKHIL: We decided that we would take, firstly, children from the hottest point of Ukraine, like Mariupol, like Bucha, like Izyum - students who has no possibilities to learn in Ukraine, because if it's more safe place in Ukraine, they have got online lessons with their teachers from Germany, Italy, from any part of the world.

SHAPIRO: That means the students at the school are also among the most traumatized. Principal Vakhil was trained as an art therapist. She opened a language school near Kyiv before the war, and she remembers the first day she taught a class here.

VAKHIL: I saw just empty eyes. You know, I am teacher for 20 years. I teach my English through creative movement all the time, through art, so I get used 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 scary.

SHAPIRO: As the weeks went by, they began to open up. They started to play and make friends.

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

SHAPIRO: In the hallway between classes, kids run up to hug the principal. They range in age from 6 to 18. Art covers the walls.

One of the kids has drawn a tree with the days of the week. And 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. And the missile is hitting the trunk of the tree, and the tree is bleeding because February 24 is the day that Russia attacked Ukraine.

Diana Norchak is 15. That's a challenging time in anybody's life, but especially when you've been uprooted from everything that's familiar. She says it's a relief to be able to show up at this school and feel a bit like you're 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: When you're at school, do you try to focus just on learning and studying and doing the work or is there also an opportunity to think and talk about what everybody is going through in this difficult time?

DIANA: I try to not focus on this theme because 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: Not all of her distractions are related to war.

DIANA: First of all, I must have prom at 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 the kids are spread out all over the place. So providing education is more of a challenge. And so the Ukrainian kids in Poland are not all in special schools that were built for refugees.


SHAPIRO: This is a Polish public school on the other side of 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 after 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 nine months, 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 help. The longer he stays, the less he thinks about the situation.

SHAPIRO: 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 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, 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 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.

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 live 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.


SHAPIRO: Tomorrow on the program, we'll talk to three Polish young adults about how this war has changed their generation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Those five days were the most intense days in my life. After that, when I came back to Warsaw, I needed to reevaluate everything that I do in my life, actually. I have a corporate job, so now I just want to quit my job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.