“Swiss Schools Are The Glue That Holds Our War-Torn Lives Together”

(MENAFN- Swissinfo) There are approximately 13 000 Ukrainian school children in Switzerland. Most don't know when they'll go home. Both children and schools are learning how to adapt.

This content was published on March 31, 2023 March 31, 2023 minutes

Born and raised up in Russia, became a journalist in the late 1990s reported on humanitarian and political issues travelling to different regions of the Russian Federation. Later worked as a parliamentary correspondent in Moscow. After completing post-graduate studies as a media specialist in the University of Geneva in 2007, Lioudmila start working as a multimedia online journalist and joined Swissinfo in 2013. She speaks French, German and English.

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A young Ukrainian girl Katya and her teacher in school in Aubonne. swissinfo.ch

Natalia Voidiuk, 42-years-old psychologist, and her daughter Olexandra arrived in Switzerland in March 2022, just weeks after the war in Ukraine began. They crossed Polish border on foot in eight hours, overnight in Krakow and took a bus which in 22 hours brought them in Switzerland.

"We were very tired. With one hand I was holding my daughter, with the other carrying a suitcase of belongings," the mother recalls.

Six-year-old Olexandra had a backpack with schoolbooks. In Kyiv she had just begun primary school. She finished her first year of school in Murten, a small town in western Switzerland.

Natalia is trying to analyze her situation.“Our big problem is an emotional and information overload,” she says referring to Ukranian refugees in Switzerland.

“Ukrainian women are constantly watching military and political news from home. They are involved in the flow of information and worry about their loved ones. This makes it difficult to adapt to a new country.”

But in the year, she has been here, school has been a lifeline to both Natalia and her daughter.

“Those who have children of school age live more organised lives. School sets rhythm and gives stability and hope. Swiss schools are the glue that holds our war-torn lives together,” says Natalia.

Six-years-old Olexandra Voidiuk in front of her new school in Murten. She is proud to show a figure of "Ryzhik", her red cat left back in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian children miss not only their family members but also their pets. swissinfo.ch

Olexandra remains in contact with her former classmates, many of whom are now living and studying abroad. According to statistics of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, as of December 2022, there are about 2.25 million children attending schools and kindergartens in European countries, or a total of 43% of all Ukrainian kids.

There is currently approximately 13 000 Ukrainian students Switzerland, according to the new edition of the School Barometer, a research project led by the Institute of the Management and Economics of Education (IBB) of the University of Teacher Education in canton Zug.

Every year the study focuses on an important topic of school life. This year, it was titled“One year of war in Ukraine - One year of the situation of child refugees and young people from Ukraine”.

Schooling in the castle

Canton Vaud hosts around 1200 schoolchildren from Ukraine, and there are around 94 000 students in the entire canton.

“In March 2022 we expected a large but short-lived wave. The first arrivals were clear that they wanted to return home as soon as possible,” Nathalie Jaunin, deputy director of the cantonal educational department tells SWI swissinfo.ch.

But what was meant as a temporary experience soon extended as the war dragged on.“As the situation evolved, more and more of the people we took in were trying to project themselves here over time.”

To meet some of them Serge Martin, the Director of a primary and secondary school in Aubonne, on the Lake Geneva coast, invited swissinfo.ch journalists to his school situated in a 12-years old castle.

Caroline Besson, dean of Aubonne school, greets chilren in a school yard. This castle building has seen many students over more than a century. swissinfo.ch

This 12-century castle situated in the middle of the town of Aubonne at the Lake of Geneva, has already for hundreds of years serves as a school building. Many generations of children used to walk on its stones-paved yard beneath ancient vaulted walls The school has also a long history of being the first point of contact for immigrant children in the canton. Over the past year it has welcomed around 50 Ukraine children; thirty of which are still being schooled today.

This video reportage tells us about their experiences:

Heavy cognitive load

One of the first tasks of school is to teach children the local language. While younger children are directly integrated in regular classes, teenagers are first offered intensive language classes.

“Our goal is to have the children learn French and social rules as quickly as possible, so that they are as comfortable as possible. It is also particularly important to give them confidence by showing them that we have recognised their skills in math, English and other subjects. This is so that they can progress and not be focused on the fact that they do not speak the language of the school yet,” Natalie Jaunin says.

On top of attending a local school many children also attend a Ukrainian school online. The School Barometer study leader Stephan Gerhard Huber explained this in a phone interview: "Children have a lot of homework to do from the Ukrainian school, then the Swiss language courses and attending normal classes. These three together represent a heavy cognitive load.”

He says the intense course load risks that the normal child's life - playing, entertainment with friends, cultural leisure and sports - is left behind. And this fourth aspect is very important for integration and for living a normal childhood.



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Cultural relays

How to integrate these children by offering them the psychological and emotional support they need whilst ensuring they can attend classes as soon as possible with Swiss classmates has been a challenge for schools. At the beginning lots of voluntary bilingual Ukrainians and Russians who have been living here offered their help to newly arrived refugees.

Now one of the relays between the children, their families, the school, and the authorities are community interpreters.

Children from Mariupol are now attending school in Aubonne. swissinfo.ch

“Schools work with several agencies that provide interpreting services. Generally once a trusting relationship has been established, the same families and schools work with the same interpreters. Fortunately, the canton has increased the school budget to pay for additional school materials, and hire more teachers and interpreters,” says Nathalie Jaunin.

In Switzerland, school attendance is mandatory. The most frequent problem of new pupils looks harmless for others but bad for themselves: it is truancy. They got used to online classes during the two years of the pandemic, which was superimposed on top of the stress of moving abroad. To prevent difficulties and misunderstandings children and their parents are invited to a meeting with the school principal, teacher, mediator, and interpreter.

"Often during such a conversation, the student is filled with pride that 'all these people are here for me, they listen to me and discuss my future,' and it has a positive impact on his studies and life,” shares Yulia Gigon, a community interpreter from Bhasha translation service, who has been living in Switzerland for two decades.

“For Swiss school inviting parents is a part of the educational process,” she says. And the teacher is likely to praise the child and list his successes.

How to talk about war?

Among those young people many have traumatic experience or are worried about their fathers in Ukraine. Will it help if the topic is openly discussed, or should school be kept as a neutral space? There are currently no rules to respond to this difficult question.

The School Barometer study states that the“Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022” ...“has consequences far beyond borders”.

Ukrainian students of Aubonne school (from left to right) Yorema, Amir, Marta, Karina and Dariia feel already confident speaking French. swissinfo.ch

“Swiss media and the Federal Council use words such as 'war' and 'invasion', and we cannot pretend it has not happened in front of children and parents who are all well informed,” explains Huber.

The official website of the canton of Vaud refers to the war as a“conflict”.

“There is no political position behind terms such as invasion or conflict,” explains Nathalie Jaunin.

“As far as terms like invasion or conflict there is no position behind it, nor is there any guidance on the political interpretation given. During a history or civil education class a teacher is free to thematise this subject.”

She says educational authorities are“particularly attentive to maintaining a good school atmosphere.” As an example, she cites the siren drills which occur on the first Wednesday of February as part of regular security exercises.“We were very careful to inform all the teachers and parents of the Ukrainian students not to worry as we try to anticipate what can be traumatic for them.”

Another concern for schools was potential tensions between Ukrainian and Russian school children. Teachers and educators interviewed by SWI say that they did not witness any tension between the two.

To date, 7.8 million Ukrainians have been forced to leave and remain in Europe, 90% of those displaced are women and children.

In Switzerland there are about 75 000 Ukrainians with protection status S. There is no exact count of schoolchildren here, but their number is estimated at about 13 000.

In addition, there are about 5 000 young people from Ukraine at the age of 15 to 20 years, and many of them have begun their vocational training or will start it this summer. The State Secretariat for Migration decided on March 1, 2023, to allow them to continue their studies in Switzerland until they graduate.

End of insertionGoing home

The question of a possible return when the war ends mean parents are keen for their children to continue learning their native tongue. This has also been a topic of concern for the Ministry of Education of Ukraine, as almost a half of all Ukrainian children living in European countries.

The Ministry agrees that "rules of the educational process are determined by the national legislation of the country of residence” and that grades obtained overseas be recognized, but that leaves the open question of the native language.

Natalia Voidiuk, Olexandra's mother, wants her daughter to learn to read and write in Ukrainian. She is asking for courses right after school hours.

“For the moment, Ukrainian language courses do not exist, but this possibility is not excluded. We need a motivated community and the support of the Embassy,” explains Nathalie Jaunin.

In her canton as in many others,“communities via their embassies and associations could organise what we call an LCO, or Language of Culture of Origin Courses. The schools could provide premises to organise these courses on Wednesday afternoon or Saturday.” This has already been the case for Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, Croatian, English, German.

Stephan Gerhard Huber explains: "Two-thirds of Ukrainians literally seats on their suitcases. And from us to say,“give up your Ukrainian education” is not a good way.”



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