Ukrainian lessons for refugee children are underway in the Czech Republic

Ukrainian children with their mothers enter the building of the first Slavic high school in downtown Prague. Here, children who fled Russia’s war against their country attend special classes: they are made up of Ukrainian children of around the same age and are taught by Ukrainian teachers.

I spoke to Ksenia and Dasha, two eighth graders from Kyiv.

How was the first week of school in Prague?

“I think it’s pretty cool, I liked it, because we had lessons in Czech and Ukrainian, and geography, Ukrainian and PE of course. We played basketball there.

And did you come with your families?

Dasha: “I came with my mother because we have very good friends here.”

Ksenia: “I also came with my mother to my sister’s house because she has been living here for five years. She studied here and she works here now.

One of the Ukrainian teachers, Helina, who has had permanent residence in the Czech Republic for about a decade and a half, says the children are great. She has first, second, and third graders all together in one class.

First Slavic Grammar School was the first school in Prague to offer its premises to Ukrainian classes for children fleeing the war |  Photo: Martina Kroa, Radio Prague International

“Children are children. Always naughty. But I noticed that these children are more mature, they have adult thoughts. Not thoughts these kids should be having.

The teacher can make the comparison, because on Saturdays she teaches Ukrainian children who live in the Czech Republic and attend normal Czech schools. Even though the newcomers are playing, and all is well, they are different from those she regularly teaches.

“And another thing surprised me. I just want to cry about it. We were playing all day; we did what we could. And at the end of the day, I said, ‘Kids, do you like it here?’ ‘Yes. Well, we will definitely come home after the war,” they replied. Six-year-olds say that.

Helina volunteered to teach because she loves her home country and is going back there. “Ukraine is always with us,” she said.

“I would also like to thank Czech citizens for their support. I cry when I see our flags in the street. Yesterday I came to see a man and I said to him: “Sir, thank you for your support”, and he said “no, we thank you”. We love Ukraine”. How nice it was when I looked at Wenceslas Square. Thank you for everything. So, Glory to Ukraine and Glory to the Czech Republic!

During their first week, the refugee children played, went on a trip to Charles Bridge, made new friends, did math, wrote, read and took regular subjects such as geography, history and the Ukrainian language. They liked it, the children and the teacher told me. Helina added that everything was happy as long as they are children and continues:

“Now I do what I can. We do all kinds of things, fairy tales, what have we. Not exactly what they had in school because we don’t have the textbooks yet. I look online and do it via email. At least I try to do it the right way. So that they forget the war at least a little.

Ukrainian children who fled the war are back in school in central Prague |  Photo: Martina Kroa, Radio Prague International

They want the children to continue their studies as if they were in Ukraine, but also to have space to play, paint, play sports and forget about the war.

Martin Mařan of the Children of Ukraine endowment fund (Nadační fond Děti Ukrajiny), which is in charge of the project, says he wants to focus particularly on teaching Czech to children, so that they can be integrated into regular classes. Moreover, with the increase in the number of refugees from Ukraine, schools will not be able to open as many classes reserved for Ukrainians.

Pupils range in age from 6 to 17, reflecting Ukraine’s 11-level education system, Mařan says. Of the 18 students in Helina’s class, most are from kyiv or its outskirts, like Bucha. Others come from Poltava or Vinnytsia.

Children usually have parents or at least one adult caring for them. Katya, a second-grader from Kyiv, came with her mother, grandmother, sister and a pet. A fourth-grade student from Mykolaiv, Jelisej, said his whole family moved because his mother had been living here longer. So he came with his brother, his sister, his grandparents, their dog and their cat.

The first Ukrainian language classes opened for refugees on Monday March 7 in Prague at the First Slavic Grammar School in the city centre. Martin Mařan from the Children of Ukraine Endowment Fund explains why this school was an obvious choice.

First Slavic Grammar School was the first school in Prague to offer its premises to Ukrainian classes for children fleeing the war |  Photo: Martina Kroa, Radio Prague International

“The First Slavic Grammar School in Prague was a natural partner for this project, as they were geared towards Ukrainian children living in the Czech Republic even before the war conflict in Ukraine. They have about 23 Ukrainian speaking teachers. This is the main one because for small children who have run away from home and only speak Ukrainian, a native speaker is a very good solution these days.

You mentioned they can graduate here, get a high school diploma?

“Yes it’s true. Because this first Slavic secondary school has an accreditation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, it can even provide it to its customers. But it’s just a critical situation now. The main thing is to put in place certain conditions for Ukrainian children and their parents. It is usually the mothers who run away with them. We wanted to find a kind of solution for them: they can be sure that their children are from 9 am to 1 pm at school , they have food and teachers who communicate with them, parents are then able to settle the necessary papers, administration, find jobs, etc.

Which other schools in Prague or Brno will open to Ukrainian lessons?

“We are opening more schools next week; two schools should be opened in Brno. We will also open two more schools in Prague next Monday. Here at Slavic Grammar School we focus on older children, to give them the opportunity to complete their basic education. Then they can apply for high school or university.

How many children will you be able to educate or welcome in this way?

“Sooner or later we will have to take care of all the children who currently live in the Czech Republic in one way or another. We’re just going step by step. These people came here yesterday or the day before, and we are trying to help them with the situation, to take care of their children for a few hours. In the end, this is the wrong education system, we know that. But if they get information, if they can continue to learn English or other useful subjects, for example, we will do so.

The First Slavic Grammar School was on spring break and was therefore able to offer its premises to five classes of children who had fled the war. In the following weeks, there is only one Ukrainian class left, the others will move to different schools. Mr Mařan said that private schools like PORG or Riverside will take some courses because it is easier for them to react to the current situation compared to the more rigid system of public schools.

The launch of Ukrainian classes is part of the Ukrainian Unique Classes (Ukrajinské jednotřídky) project. This is a joint action of the Embassy of Ukraine, the Children of Ukraine endowment fund, the Ministry of Education, Charles University, with the participation of the latter’s former rector, Tomáš Zima, and volunteers.

Children fleeing war do not have to enroll in school right away, as their mental well-being after experiencing such traumatic events is a priority. Ukrainian children as well as educational volunteers can register for the project via the Children of Ukraine endowment fund website:

Berta D. Wells