Schools will be central to the integration of Ukrainian children

Teachers from that war-torn country continue to teach, many online from around the world

In President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's address to the Oireachtas he said at least 167 children have been killed, while 927 educational institutions have been damaged. He also said "the Russian military purposefully searched for and killed teachers in the occupied territories".

What are teachers doing in response? Some have elected to stay and either try to maintain normality for children by continuing to teach, or by teaching online.

Other teachers have fled to countries all over the world but Ukrainian refugees have told me that teachers continue to stream lessons during Ukrainian school hours, no matter what time zone the teachers are now in. This is a kind of quiet heroism that deserves to be known more widely and celebrated.

Little did these teachers think that the online teaching methods they resorted to during Covid would have such a grim application so soon.

Online teaching has been a lifeline for many Ukrainian children. Unicef reported two weeks ago that of the estimated 7.5 million children in Ukraine, 4.3 million have been displaced. Some 1.8 million have sought refuge in other countries while some 2.5 million are internally displaced.

It is one of the fastest and largest displacements of children since the second World War. In 1939 in Britain, 1.5 million children were evacuated during Operation Pied Piper, the vast majority of them without their parents. (A small number were evacuated to Northern Ireland and Éire.)They were billeted with families, some of whom had no choice but to accept them.

Many parents refused to send their children away. The children who remained behind grew taller than those who were evacuated, despite eventually living in what appeared to be much more stressful conditions with bombs falling and air-raid sirens wailing.

Impact of trauma

Propaganda songs such as Goodnight Children Everywhere were broadcast by the BBC every night, which exhorted them not to be “a kid or a weeping willow”, reinforcing the idea of a stiff upper lip. Nonetheless, the impact of trauma could not be denied when it was visible in children failing to thrive and grow at normal levels when separated from the security of a family.

We do not have to turn to first-person accounts of being displaced as children during the second World War to discover the impact of being forced to leave home. Tragically, in 2018 there were 30 million children displaced internationally. Predictably, they suffer mental health issues, including intense anxiety about those who could not get out, or difficulty processing traumatic experiences such as witnessing violence or rape.

Telegram and other social media are no substitute for dad or big brother's presence

They can also suffer in more subtle but long-lasting ways. They may have to take on adult responsibilities, for example, becoming interpreters and negotiators for adults if they have a better grasp of the language of the host country. Children can become quasi-parents not only to their siblings but to their own parents, including increased household tasks.

No substitute

Ukrainian children are being separated mostly from their fathers and brothers as all men between the ages of 18 to 60 are being conscripted (with a few exceptions, such as being the father of a child with a disability.) Telegram and other social media are no substitute for dad or big brother’s presence.

Unaccompanied minors are in a particularly distressing situation. Hassan Al-Khalaf, an 11-year-old boy, became a social media celebrity when he travelled 620 miles west by train and on foot into the Slovak Republic, with a phone number written on the back of his hand and clutching only a small plastic bag.

The Government has provided some financial support but schools are aware of their lack of training and qualifications when it comes to children traumatised by war and displacement

His story ended somewhat happily, reunited with his brother, but his mother had to remain with her disabled mother in Ukraine. Media interest will move on but Hassan will continue to suffer the after-effects.

Already in Ireland, we have a number of unaccompanied minors arriving, some as young as 12. Some have been reunited with families while some have been taken into care. Given the considerable strain both foster care and the care system is under, it will be challenging to provide these young people with adequate support.

Schools will be central to the integration of children. The Government has provided some financial support but schools are aware of their lack of training and qualifications when it comes to children traumatised by war and displacement.

Obviously, schools worry about the immediate needs of Ukrainian children but they also worry about what happens when governmental and public interest begins to wane. Meanwhile, they are giving thanks for translation apps.

Polite disbelief

The idea that Ukrainian teachers here will be fast-tracked so that they can teach in Ireland is being met with polite disbelief. Even during the chronic substitution crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic, every staffroom has a tale to tell about a teacher who was made to jump through hoops for months and even years by the Teaching Council in order to be registered to teach.

Nonetheless, not least in tribute to their inspiring counterparts who are being killed or under threat in Ukraine, and those selflessly live streaming around the world, teachers in Ireland will do everything they can to welcome and integrate Ukrainian children and teachers.

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