In a Class by Themselves

Chechen and other refugee children in class at a primary school in Coniewo, Poland. From a video by Narracje Migrantow/YouTube

Chechen and other refugee children in class at a primary school in Coniewo, Poland. From a video by Narracje Migrantow/YouTube

WARSAW | “Now, let’s play detectives! We’ve got to track down the letter A!” shouts Marina Hulia to a young boy. They both start running down a school corridor looking for A’s, then B’s and so on.

The 10-year-old requires a lot of attention and effort. He has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) along with a history of traumas that he brought to Poland from his home country. His name is Tamerlan and he’s a refugee from Chechnya.

“In Poland, being from Chechnya brings about lots of problems. If you’re a refugee child, it’s even worse,” said Hulia, a Russian expat who’s been in Poland for 20 years. “After the Boston bombings, there’s a new wave of spite against Chechens.”

Hulia works at Gymnasium No. 20 in Warsaw. Tamerlan has made great progress under her care. She teaches him Polish and mathematics while trying to introduce him to Polish culture to prepare him to study and work in Poland as he gets older.

This kind of instruction and care is not available to most refugee children who come from Chechnya or anywhere else, according to teachers and volunteers who work with them.

In 2012 a study published by the Center for International Relations (CSM) in Warsaw backed up those observations. The study says it was only in 2006 that Polish schools started to take in refugee pupils in any organized way.

Before then, school principals required documents to prove that refugee children had attended or graduated from schools in their home countries.

This was a particular problem for Chechens, who far outnumber all other refugees – 86 percent of applications for refugee status in the 2007-2011 period came from Russian citizens, most of them thought to be from Chechnya. The school transcript requirement was often impossible to meet because many Chechens lack any formal education or were unable to attend school regularly.

In general, Chechen families are by far Poland’s biggest group of refugee status seekers. Typically, Chechen refugees treat it as the first stop on their way west, taking advantage of Polish membership of the Schengen area to cross the border into Germany without documents.

The children from these families often carry wartime traumas – often the sight of their parents or close relatives killed – and no experience with organized schooling. According to the CSM study, Polish schools, while slowly getting better, remain largely unprepared to deal with refugee students.

“The unpreparedness concerns many aspects, from lack of teaching materials, financing, and educating teachers, to recognition of psychological needs of refugee children, often affected by war and exile,” the study found.

“The situation of teenagers also remains difficult. They often have gaps in their education or never attended any school. Owing to the continuing lack of methods and tools to work with such demanding pupils, [teenage refugees] often don’t take up education or abandon it when they end up [placed] with younger pupils,” the study also said.

Finally, there’s the Polish education system’s ranking of schools by achievement tests. When students complete primary, middle school (gymnasium), or high school, they must complete one of these tests. Refugees, with their nonnative Polish language skills, psychological issues, and gaps in education, can lower a school’s average scores and its standing within the system.

“Teachers are most often unprepared to work with refugee kids or don’t feel like making an effort. It’s most desired if they just keep quiet. Integration with their peers isn’t encouraged and bullying is tolerated,” said Maja Maslankiewicz, a business owner who befriended a Chechen family and helped the children enroll in a Warsaw school.

But Poland’s Education Ministry sees it differently. In a statement prepared in response to the issues raised in this article, the ministry said it has received “no direct signals of problems with the carrying out of compulsory school education or problems that [refugee children] may experience in schools.”

According to the ministry, refugee children receive ample help with their schooling needs. There are extra Polish language courses, plus opportunities to attend extra classes to help close gaps in students’ education.

The ministry also disputes the charge that teachers are unprepared to work with refugee children, citing training programs for teachers such as instruction in Islamic culture, provided since 2010 in several locations in Poland.

And yet teachers, volunteers working with refugees, and friends of refugee families bear witness to how the children continue to be left far behind their native Polish peers.

Their stories include a Chechen boy whom no one ever encouraged to open his bag, read school books, or participate in a lesson during the entire school year.

They also tell of a teenage boy from Belarus, a country culturally close to Poland, whom the school told to attend classes with primary school kids because he didn’t write Polish well. He decided to quit school.

Then there is the story of two Chechen sisters who were placed in the back of their classroom in a central Warsaw school and given colored pencils and modeling clay to keep them quiet. When they became teenagers, the glaring age difference between them and their classmates in successive fourth-grade classes forced the school to do something.

That’s when the school turned to Kaja Malanowska, a teacher who had volunteered at a refugee center and has continued working with such children in schools.

“When I took up working with those two girls, the damage proved pretty much beyond repair. Their self-esteem was very low. They learned that nothing was expected of them, their curiosity was nearly completely stifled,” Malanowska said.

Today, months after Malanowska began helping the sisters, their memories of their treatment are still painful.

“I don’t want to go back to any school,” said one sister, even if, thanks to Malanowska’s efforts, she has improved as a student.

Malanowska also used to volunteer at a refugee center, where undocumented newcomers are directed to await a decision on their status by immigration authorities.

In theory, these centers must take care of refugee children and enroll them in appropriate schools. According to Malanowska, the daily practice at the center she worked at was that no one cared if kids were still on the center’s premises when they were supposed to be in school.

The fortunes of 10-year-old Tamerlan show how non-governmental organizations and other independent groups have sought to fill the education gap for refugees.

The full name of the school where Marina Hulia works with the boy is Jamsaheb Digvijay Singh Jadeja Gymnasium No. 20. It’s private, normally costing 250 euros per month, and one of very few schools in Warsaw that seeks the enrollment of refugees and educates them free of charge.

The school takes its name from an Indian maharaja who in the 1940s took care of hundreds of Polish refugee kids who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, where they had been deported after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. “The legacy of the maharaja inspired us to bring refugee kids into our classes,” said Krystyna Starczewska, the school’s director.

“They come from many countries: Chechnya, Armenia, Georgia, Tibet,” she said. “They’re political as well as economic refugees, or sometimes simply kids of people who are in Poland for no dramatic reason.”

The school has two overall goals. One is to teach refugee children how to live in Poland. The other is to open Polish kids to their peers coming from different cultures.

One cultural issue is attitudes toward women. “I once asked a Chechen teenager to help me with some heavy packages down the stairs. He passed the task on to a small primary school girl!” Starczewska recalled.

“You sometimes need to be able to tell these children that not all that makes up their culture will be acceptable in Poland,” she said. “It’s a tough thing to do.”

There are two big hurdles to clear for the school’s goals to be attained, those who work with refugee children say. One is to compensate for the traumas that the refugee kids often bring with them from their conflict-ridden homelands. The other is to make up the educational deficits they acquire in typical Polish schools.

It seems that it will be many years to come before the latter can be corrected. Even so, Starczewska boasted of some successes.

“Many of our pupils went on to universities and toward professional careers in Poland,” she said.

It’s an added value that evolves over time and a chance to give Poland new citizens, the director says. What is unclear is when and if other Polish schools will effectively adjust to provide the education needed by Poland’s refugee children.




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