Europe’s schools scramble to make space for more than 1.5 million children fleeing the war in Ukraine, writes Emma Batha for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Among the crowds of Irish revellers lining Dublin’s streets for St Patrick’s Day stood a small girl in pigtails with Ukrainian flags painted on her cheeks and an oversized green hat – a gift from her new school.
Eight-year-old Varvara Koslovska is among more than 1.5 million children who have fled the war in Ukraine, which began one month ago, triggering Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War Two.
From Ireland to Poland, countries are expanding classes, fast-tracking the registration of Ukrainian teachers, translating curriculums and offering online lessons to ensure children uprooted by the war do not lose out on education.
Varvara, her brother Platon, and cousins Ivan and Egor started at their new primary school just days after arriving in Ireland, at the end of a long journey from their home city Kyiv.
Bubbly and confident, Varvara has only a smattering of English but was all smiles as she described her new life.
“All the girls want to be friends with me. Everyone wants to help me – we’ve had loads of presents,” she said, holding up her new blue school bag patterned with stars, a gift from her head teacher.
UNICEF said getting children back into school quickly was crucial not only for their own development, but also for the future of Ukraine.
“In the short term, it provides them with the support, stability and structure needed to cope with the trauma they’ve experienced,” said UNICEF spokesman Joe English.
“In the long-term, school equips children with the knowledge and skills they need to rebuild their communities once the conflict is over.”
More than 3.6 million Ukrainians have fled the war, about half of them children, according to UNICEF, with the largest refugee inflows into Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary.
Ireland, which waived visa requirements immediately after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, was until recently home to about 5,000 Ukrainians. That number has since more than doubled.
Its government is prioritising the registration of Ukrainian teachers arriving in the country to support refugee children.
“I’m trying to keep things positive and hope they will remember this as an adventure”Tatyana Koslovska, Ukrainian mother and refugee
Some refugee experts have raised concerns about a shortage of language support teachers and psychological help for traumatised children.
Many, like Varvara, have fathers fighting in the war, and relatives who have stayed behind. Others have witnessed shelling or lost loved ones.
“I’m worried because the children still hear the news, they know what’s going on,” said Varvara’s mother Tatyana, adding her daughter missed her father very much and spoke to him every day by WhatsApp.
Varvara’s grandfather, a paediatrician at a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, has been treating children injured during Russia’s bombardment of the southern city of Mariupol.
“On the day we left, Varvara was crying constantly,” Tatyana said. “We told her it wouldn’t be for long. But the truth is no one knows when, or if, they will see their home again.”
Education departments in Ireland, Poland and Britain said they would provide mental health support, but it was unclear whether any services would be available in Ukrainian.
Acute housing shortages in Ireland – like many European countries – mean many refugee children may be settled outside urban areas with less access to specialist support, refugee charities said.
Varvara’s new school has tried to place the refugee children into classes with other pupils who speak their language.
But she says breaktime is hard despite the warm welcome.
“We get upset because no one understands us,” she said, adding she was trying to learn more English on a language app.
Varvara is keen on maths and picking up new words every day. Her mother says school has helped restore a sense of normality to her children’s lives.
“I’m trying to keep things positive and hope they will remember this as an adventure,” Tatyana said.
This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.