Displaced by war, Ukrainian children start school year in US


NEISD in San Antonio, Texas, helps children from several countries, including Ukraine adjust to the U.S. education system through its Newcomers program.

(NewsNation) — Seated at their desks, six students in crisp white polos and plaid dresses sang in Ukrainian to a piano playing faintly from a classroom inside Chicago’s St. Nicholas Cathedral School. The school, nestled in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, has opened its doors to dozens of students displaced by war in their home country.

The school took in about 75 students who left their homes in Ukraine during the previous school year. This year, the school has already accepted another 20 refugee students and classrooms are filling up fast, Principal Anna Cirilli said.

“The doorbell even just yesterday was ringing pretty much non-stop — still people are coming,” she said. “We’re just unfortunately at that point where we only have a few classes that we can take students in.”

It’s been a community-wide effort and a lesson in flexibility. Supplies were purchased through an Amazon wish list. Tuition was donated. Part-time teachers became full-time. Parents took teacher roles and the school brought on additional ESL staff and counselors.

Ukrainian flags are mounted along a fence in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village in March 2022.

In the gymnasium, a kindergarten-age girl began her school day coloring with a marker while she kicked her frilly-socked feet in a pair of Mary-Janes. Later in the day, a teacher in the same room would pull students aside to work with them on their English.

There are a lot of new faces at St. Nicholas Cathedral. Some students who attended last year graduated or moved over the summer. Others returned to Europe.

“I feel like it’s probably one of our first typical days of the school year,” Cirilli said. “Last week was still kind of new. It was our first full week.”

It’s unclear exactly how many Ukrainian children have filtered in and out of U.S. schools since the war began. This Chicago school is just one of many that have undoubtedly taken in child refugees after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

In San Antonio, Texas, North East Independent School District’s Newcomers Program has helped refugee and asylum-seeking students acclimate to a U.S. education for the past five years. Students can participate in the program for as many as two years to develop their language skills and transition into U.S. academia.

“When I came to North East, we knew that our refugees were being placed in a general ESL classroom and they were getting lost in the mix,” said Kerry Haupert, the assistant director of the district’s bilingual/ESL programs.

Ukrainian students have joined the Newcomer Program, though most participants are from Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haupert said.

(Photo courtesy of NESID) A group of North East Independent School District students pose together.

“(W)e also recognize that they’ve been through traumatic experiences,” Haupert said. “By creating this Newcomer class, it creates a safe learning environment where they feel at ease, acquire the language, learn about the culture and also hold them to high expectations to learn the academics and be as successful as we know that they can be in a newly adopted homeland.”

To date, Russia’s war in Ukraine has internally displaced about 6.6 million people, according to figures from the UN Refugee Agency. President Joe Biden announced in March that he would welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the U.S.

Still, about 13 million people are estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave because of heightened security risks. The ongoing war has hindered the start of a new school year for about 4 million of Ukraine’s children.

“Schools in Ukraine are desperate for resources to build bomb shelters instead of playgrounds, with children being taught about unexploded ordinances instead of road safety,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in an official statement. “This is the stark reality for Ukrainian students, parents and teachers.”

Thousands of schools across Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed and less than 60% of schools are deemed safe and eligible to reopen.

Student capacity is limited in some areas, depending on the size of the school’s bomb shelter.

In the U.S., things are calmer, but resources are also waning.

A sign showing support for Ukraine is displayed in the window of a business in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. One of the local schools, St. Nicholas Cathedral School, has taken in Ukrainian students who came to the U.S. after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

The school day at St. Nicholas Cathedral seemed typical, as students waded through hallways lined with lockers and name tags on their way to sun-lit classrooms. But little about the past school year has been typical.

“There’s some families that were fortunate and were able to save so they’re not feeling as stressed,” she said. “But there are some families here that are just struggling, not knowing what tomorrow will bring or how to survive financially.”

St. Nicholas Cathedral is a private school and relies on tuition and donations to meet its needs. The education, uniforms, and supplies for many refugee families have been provided for free. They also help families coordinate safe travel for those still in Europe, and offer English lessons to adults.

“We’re doing this in the moment because we know it’s the right thing to do,” Cirilli said. “But I hope that it has an impact on the people that are receiving the support. And even the people that are reading this story — that they’re going out and doing something kind for someone else, because at the end of the day we wouldn’t be in this situation if people were just a little bit more kind.”

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