‘We’re in the same boat’: Ukrainians start new German school year | Germany

A the brief exchange between Liudmyla Mashkova and her students, during which she asks them in German to open a window because the classroom is stuffy, illustrates the progress made. “Ja klar,” Artur Ivanov replies in the same language, and there is a collective sigh of relief as everyone takes in the cool breeze.

The secondary school teacher, originally from Kyiv, has been leading a class of Ukrainian pupils aged 12 to 17 since April. They are in Potsdam, a German city just west of Berlin, where the Helmholtz gymnasium, or secondary school, has given them space and resources.

Mashkova was employed to teach German in one of thousands of willkommensklassenor welcome classes, set up in schools across the country.

She fled the war in Ukraine in early March with her 16-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, leaving behind her husband, an officer in the Ukrainian army.

Like her students, who come mainly from southern and eastern Ukraine, Mashkova had hoped for a quicker end to the war. Now they are together again at the start of a new school year, with only a few changes to the class composition.

There are a few newcomers and a few students from the Kyiv region who texted him during the six-week break to let him know they were back home.

One of their first discussions when they returned from summer vacation was to check on their families, and she recalls the relief she felt when she learned that “nothing drastic” had happened to them.

“We are in the same boat. I’m here to help them, but we’re all in a similar situation, we’re making the best of it, and for the most part, we’re able to see it as a positive experience,” Mashkova says. “We have little choice.”

Liudmyla Mashkova teaches her Ukrainian students at Helmholtz Gymnasium in Potsdam, Germany. Photograph: Kate Connolly/The Guardian

His family are among more than 150,000 school-aged children who have arrived in Germany since the start of the Russian invasion and are integrated into the school system. Mashkova is one of many Ukrainian teachers who are essential to the effort, not least because of a shortage of around 30,000 German teachers.

Opinions differ on the best way to educate them. German authorities model the accommodation of young Ukrainians on the experience of 2015, when almost a million refugees arrived from Syria.

At the time the willkommesklassen were introduced with the aim of teaching German to newcomers and preparing them for a possible transfer to mainstream classes.

Ukraine’s Consul General Iryna Tybinka, however, insisted that Ukrainian children could continue with their original school programs, due to what she called the temporary nature of their stay.

Mashkova recognizes the strong motivation of her students and their parents, with whom she is in close contact, to return home as soon as possible. But there is also realism and a desire to learn German, partly because they are aware that they could be there for the next two years at least.

Artur Ivanov, 14, from Odessa, who already spoke some German when he arrived on March 18, insists he has no intention of returning to Ukraine. “My parents found work. It’s better for us to build a new life here,” he said.

He is already taking lessons in music, physical education, art and mathematics with German students. But he is looking forward to taking his German to “B1 level” – “hopefully by January” – so that he can permanently join a regular class.

Kate Pavlenko, from Kharkiv, arrived five months ago with her mother and her pets, Robin the dog and Krosha the parrot. She describes the experience of being in Germany in her basic but solid German as “good, interesting and safe”.

Kate and her classmate Daria Ilnytstka, from Kyiv, could take additional online lessons offered by their teachers in Ukraine after their German school day is over. Instead, the 13-year-old friends take the tram to the Montelino circus school in Potsdam where they were able to resume the acrobatics they practiced in Ukraine.

Darya and Kate
Her classmates and friends Daria Ilnytstka and Kate Pavlenko, both 13 years old. Photograph: Kate Connolly/The Guardian

“After my family and friends, this is the most important thing I have here,” Daria says, describing how she spent summer vacation learning the art of aerial silks.

“I’m looking forward to making the most of this experience,” says Ksennia Okulova, 15, who enjoys “learning German and getting to know the culture” and enjoys being in a class with other Ukrainians at the moment. . .

Students can share their experiences and feelings that German students might not understand, she says – from life in a shipping container, where she has been since arriving in April, to the progress of the Ukrainian military.

Her friend from back home, Sebastian Kohan, who followed her to Potsdam, wears his grandfather’s signet ring around his neck, a gift from his father who works in the army and which he says keeps him close to him.

“It’s a relief to be here even though it takes time to get used to the German way of life,” he said. “They go to bed very early and we have to be very calm in the morning and in the evening. There are lots of rules. But they are also very tolerant of each other. I feel that here, you can be whoever you want to be.

Sebastian’s cat, Watson, is being cared for by another family at the moment because where he lives doesn’t allow pets. “We hope to get it back soon,” he said.

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