Poland has been the country that has welcomed the biggest number of refugees coming from Ukraine since the start of the conflict. Indeed, the response of the Polish government and the Polish people has been very supportive. Out of all the refugees who have arrived in Poland, there is also a great number of children who have been enrolled in Polish schools and became part of Polish childcare institutions.
Thousands of Ukrainians leave their country
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia on the 24th of February of 2022 has led to one of the biggest refugee crises in Europe and to a grave humanitarian crisis. Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has continuously violated international humanitarian law, by directly targeting civilians and vulnerable groups (Amnesty International, 2022).
Consequently, millions of refugees have left Ukraine, and have moved to neighboring countries or have been internally displaced within the country. According to UNCHR, 8,046,560 refugees have been recorded across Europe since the beginning of the war (UNHCR, 2023).
The war has had an extreme impact on children. As UNICEF Chief Catherine Russell has stated “the war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War Two” (UN, 2022). Just one month after the war, more than half of Ukrainian children were displaced (out of 4.3 million children, 2.5 million children were displaced inside Ukraine and 1.8 million arrived in other countries) (UNICEF, 2022).
The main destination for Ukrainian refugees has been Poland (UNICEF, 2022). Nearly 1.4 million people have arrived there (UNICEF, 2022), of which more than 40% are children (Notes from Poland- NFP, 2022). Thousands of children have also been arriving in other countries, such as Romania, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia (UNICEF, 2022).
The response of the Polish government regarding the conflict
Both the Polish central government and the Polish people have demonstrated a great degree of empathy and solidarity with Ukraine. The government of Poland has allowed all Ukrainians to cross the border, even those who could not identify themselves because they lacked an identity document.
During the border crossing, the Commander of the Border Guard issued a permit that allowed Ukrainian citizens to stay in Poland for fifteen days. After that period, Ukrainians had to decide if they wanted to stay for a longer period of time (STATISTA, 2023). Moreover, reception points have also been established to provide refugees with a temporary place to stay in Poland, as well as basic medical care and some food. In addition, Polish trains have offered free tickets for Ukrainian citizens.
Ukrainian refugee children in Polish schools
According to the Polish Press Agency (PAP), there are approximately 700,000 to 800,000 refugees from Ukraine at school age in Poland. However, it is not clear if these numbers are accurate or if the vast majority of these children do not attend Polish schools (NFP, 2022).
The number of Ukrainian children enrolled in Polish schools is much smaller since many children are following online courses from schools in Ukraine, and several children have moved to other countries or have even returned to Ukraine. In September 2022, only 185,000 Ukrainian refugees were enrolled in Polish schools; the number increased to 200,000 throughout the school year (NFP, 2022).
The uncertainty that Ukrainian children have been dealing with, due to the fact of leaving their homes, friends, and family behind, can have a serious impact on their physical and mental health (UNICEF, 2022). Education has carried out a major role in the lives of Ukrainian children; it has restored a sense of normality, hope, and stability in their lives (UNICEF, 2022).
The role of teachers has been essential in making children at ease in these new school settings. Therefore, multiple games and all kinds of activities have been implemented to enable children to relax and feel the support of their new teachers and colleagues (UNICEF, 2022).
It is also important to note the existence of Ukrainian schools in Poland. These schools follow the Ukrainian curriculum for those children whose families desire to go back to Ukraine, as soon as they can (UNICEF, 2022). However, the demand for these schools is much higher than the vacancies available. In September 2022, there were 1,500 children enrolled in these schools (Unbreakable Ukraine, 2022).
Difficulties faced by Ukrainian children in Polish schools
The barrier of the Polish language
Several difficulties faced by Ukrainian children in Polish schools are the result of an under-resourced education system of lower quality, partly due to the Covid-pandemic (NFP, 2022). One of the biggest barriers that Ukrainian children have faced is the Polish language; especially for those fourteen years old Ukrainian children enrolled in eighth grade. These children had to take the ‘primary school exams’ which are necessary to access secondary education.
Around 7,100 Ukrainian refugees have taken these exams (NFP, 2022). Even though some allowances regarding Ukrainian pupils were made (they were given more time and were allowed to use dictionaries, among others), these pupils were at a clear disadvantage compared with Polish pupils who were familiar with the content of the exam and mastered the language. To prevent this situation, some NGOs in Poland implemented some summer camps to provide support to refugees so that they could improve their Polish and, also, get to know other children; more than 100,000 children have taken part in these activities (UNICEF, 2022).
The decreasing number of teachers
Another hurdle that the Polish education system had to face was the decrease of teachers. This problem arose before the war in Ukraine. In 2022, there were approximately 689,000 teachers in Poland, which is 6,000 less than the previous year (NFP, 2022). In addition, multiple teachers have declared that the Ministry of Education did not provide them with sufficient help and adequate educational tools and materials to deal with the arrival of these refugees who required special needs (NFP, 2022).
In spite of all these difficulties, the excellent welcome of Polish schools to Ukrainian refugees has even been acknowledged by the Polish Education Minister, who has stated that the reception of Ukrainian children by teachers and students has been outstanding and that not a single problem has been perceived between Polish and Ukrainian pupils. (NFP, 2022) Some NGOs have been supporting teachers in providing psychosocial assistance to children, as well as hiring Ukrainian teachers and translators to make communication easier (UNICEF, 2022).
Childcare institutions in Poland helping Ukrainian children
Children from institutions are one of the most vulnerable groups; thus, Polish authorities are striving to make sure children are fully protected and taken care of. Polish childcare institutions are very different from the ones in Ukraine; childcare institutions in Poland have much higher quality (Open Democracy, 2022). In fact, Poland does not have large childcare institutions anymore because they are not considered adequate forms of care for children’s development and well-being.
The current Polish policies guarantee that children are taken care of in either foster families or small childcare institutions (also called ‘family-style group homes’) (UNICEF, 2022). In these institutions, children can learn, play and grow; they are also enrolled in local schools. Caregivers from Ukraine have been hired too. Ukrainian children have acknowledged a much more individualized treatment in the Polish childcare institutions; children are asked for their opinion and the carers talk to them one by one. They also have more time for leisure and play (Open Democracy, 2022).
Ensuring a safer future for Ukrainian children
It is essential that this solidarity that has been shown to Ukrainian children continues. The Polish government should keep collaborating with NGOs and other countries to ensure that these vulnerable children are protected; by providing them with assistance and psychological support. More access to education is necessary, and it is crucial to help Ukrainian refugees to be reunited with their relatives.
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Written by Marina Pérez Ortega
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