Part II: Education Under Siege
Written by: Sharmishtha Rawat. Edited by: Clary Estes
The right to education: A fundamental right to human existence, empowering us and helping us realize our dreams and potential. A right that creates the foundation for a tolerant and prosperous society. A right now violated by the vagaries of war.
As Katya narrates the story of her family’s forced exile in Cyprus, her young daughter, Alisa, curious to see who her mother is talking to on the phone, pops into the video call for an instant. “You can talk if you want, but you have to speak English,” Katya says good-naturedly. Her daughter shyly shakes her head, smiles, and runs off-screen to continue playing.
The conversation naturally turns to the topic of Alisa’s education. Alisa is one of almost 5 million Ukrainian children (both inside and outside of Ukraine) whose life has been uprooted by the war. It is believed that almost 2 million Ukrainian children have been forced to find refuge in other countries, and the rest remain internally displaced. This war has put their educational needs in crisis. The war is a double hit coming off of two years of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alisa, like millions of Ukrainian children, is attending classes at her Ukrainian school online. For many of these children, studying in a safe and secure environment seems a distant reality as hundreds of educational facilities across the country have been closed, and others left in ruins. With it being unsafe to take classes in-person, most schools have been forced to transition to online platforms like Zoom or Google Meet. Teachers and students alike are signing in to classes from different parts of the country, or different countries altogether, trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in a very abnormal and volatile situation.
Yet the shadow of war is ever-present. Classes are often disrupted by air raid sirens. When the sirens wail, students and teachers pause their classes to find shelter. A sense of what happens in these classes can be gleaned from Katya’s experience teaching English virtually to adult students. “Whenever the sirens start, the students say, ‘Sorry, I need to get to a safer place. I need to go hide somewhere.’ So they leave class. The same is happening with the kids and their teachers.”
However, not everyone has a safe place to shelter. Sometimes all that is available are some flimsy walls. As Katya explains, “Some people go to a shelter if it's close, but some people do not have a shelter close by, so they just stay in a closet, basement, or bathroom. They shelter wherever they have two walls separating the outside world and themselves.”
The current armed conflict has halted strides previously made to ensure quality education for children. Programs like the New Ukrainian School, for instance, were implemented to modernize the older Soviet education system that had been in place in Ukraine. Aiming to maximize the potential of each child, this program had undertaken steps such as training quality teachers and improving the curriculum. Now it seems that the ramifications of the unprecedented destruction of educational infrastructures and the large-scale displacement of teachers and students will be felt for a long time to come.
Yet, this is not the first time a war has impeded educational progress in Ukraine. In fact, for hundreds of thousands of school children in eastern Ukraine, studying in a conflict-ridden atmosphere has been a constant reality for years. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, children and their access to education on both sides of the ‘contact line’ have been the innocent victims of the constant fighting between government forces and the pro-Russian separatist groups. Schools have been indiscriminately attacked and used as bases of operations by both parties who have left behind nothing but broken facilities and dangerous ammunition, deeply impacting the children's overall wellbeing.
For their part, EU countries playing host to Ukrainian refugees are providing, within the Temporary Protection Directive, access to free education to children under the age of 18. However, issues such as the language barrier could make integration into host country schools a challenge for Ukrainian children. In Alisa’s case, continuing to take classes at her Ukrainian school along with her old classmates is the best option as attending a Cyprian school seems difficult for now. Although Alisa speaks some English, the English schools in Cyprus are extremely expensive. Also, she does not speak any Greek, which rules out the other schools as well.
And so, like all parents, Katya worries about the education and the overall social development of her young daughter. On the one hand, Katya is grateful that Alisa has access to her school and her friends, albeit from afar. Yet, on the other hand, as Katya explains, the entire situation is far from ideal. “It's frustrating because I'm really for offline schooling and kids physically going to school rather than just sitting in front of their laptops. I understand it's still studying, but it's not truly what it should be.”
Her frustration is magnified by the fact that for the last two years they have been forced into online schooling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just when things seemed to be getting back to normal for Alisa, the war hit. Now, not only is Alisa studying online again, she is doing it from outside of her home country. Yet, as Katya says, for now, “it’s the best option we can offer her.”