Julia C. stands in front of her 24 10th-grade pupils at The Ukrainian School — a school in Dresden, Germany, staffed by teachers from Ukraine who are working with the sudden influx of school-aged refugees. The school’s curriculum covers nearly all the standard school subjects while also helping Ukrainian students learn German and adjust to their new lives.
The Ukrainian School program was created in April 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent influx of Ukrainian refugees and their children. The director of the newly reopened school is simultaneously the director of Dresden’s more standard German-language High School Number 116.
As of July 14, more than 5.8 million Ukrainian refugees fled to Europe, according to data from the UN Refugee Agency. Educating around 400 pupils from grades 5 to 10, eight teachers, who all escaped from Ukraine in 2022, work in the high school.
After instructing her students in German, Julia, who asked to be identified only by her first name due to fear of getting into trouble for expressing political critiques, teaches her Ukrainian colleagues the German language as well. The young woman herself arrived in Germany from Ukraine in 2009.
“Life was hard. First, I wanted to go as far away as possible, across the ocean, to the U.S.,” Julia tells Truthout. “Then I decided to stay in the area, so I can still see my family.” Before immigrating to Germany, Julia completed a bachelor’s degree in German language instruction. She also went on to study German philology at the University of Dresden.
Sofia, a teenage student of Julia’s, fled Ukraine with her mother on March 8. “In Kharkiv, we had to pass several military controls and I heard bombs,” Sofia tells Truthout. “And from Charkiw to Lviv, we were constantly controlled by military.”
Olesa, another one of Julia’s students, is from Odessa. She also escaped Ukraine, along with her parents and baby sisters. “We did not travel ad hoc; on February 24, we packed our bags, then we thought about leaving or not,” Olesa tells Truthout. “Then, on the night of March 8, we left.”
Yuliia D. is another German language teacher at the school, having arrived in Germany from Ukraine in April. Her big blue eyes seem to lose color when she talks about her experiences back home. “We got information that the war could start. Some were prepared; I wasn’t. I didn’t want to believe it,” she tells Truthout. Once the war began, she had hoped that it would end soon. “I saw rockets flying to Kyiv, over the roof of my house.” After that, she, her family and her neighbors were hiding for 16 days in their cellar, without electricity, heating or water. “The government said, ‘Stay in the cellars and just leave when there is an official OK,’ so we waited and started to believe that it was impossible to get away, and just wanted to die.”
She and her 15-year-old-daughter tried to escape once, but the Russian military did not let them proceed. The following day, they succeeded in fleeing with a little suitcase containing a folder with their most important documents and some sweaters. “I passed burning cars. [I] didn’t see deaths, but my family and friends know people who were killed,” Yuliia says. She and her daughter left from Kyiv to Lviv by train, taking a car to the border, and crossing into Poland by foot, then catching a bus to Warsaw, then a train to Berlin and then finally to Dresden.
“For me, it was impossible to stay in the country; I was mentally totally cracked,” Yuliia says. Other family members decided to stay, including her husband. “Men have to protect the country; if they escape, they will be criminally prosecuted,” she added. Three days after she escaped, her neighbors’ house was bombed with two rockets.
Before the war, Yuliia had been in Germany many times through school exchanges and as a child. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she lived in Germany for four years, where she finished 9th grade. She also lived many years in Russia.
“I speak Russian with my husband and my daughter — it’s my mother tongue, besides Ukrainian, and it’s no problem to speak,” she said. Yuliia explains that the Soviet Union prohibited the Ukrainian language, but still her mother attended a Ukrainian school in Kyiv. Julia is ethnically Bulgarian. (Bulgarians are one of roughly 10 main minority groups living in South Ukraine.)
Yuliia says her mental health situation is still very complicated, as is that of her students.
“In class, I focus on German, grammar, words, dialogues — but no politics,” she tells Truthout. “When I mention the time in the cellar, my daughter gets aggressive and says that she does not want to talk about this topic,” Yuliia says.
She also doesn’t talk about politics with the students’ parents, who just ask how their children are doing in school.
“When the kids started school, they were very silent, they were afraid of other people, but now we’ve also seen happy kids, who smile and laugh,” she says. “I’m grateful that we can learn without danger, and that I can work here in my profession. We would have never dreamt about this possibility.”
In The Ukrainian School in Dresden, pupils don’t get grades, and after an assessment of their language competence, they can switch to regular schools. In order to get a report card before Ukrainian summer vacation, the kids had to learn online. “Now parents have to decide if they want to stay or return,” says Yuliia. “If they want to return, they should continue with the online classes; if not, they should focus on getting their children into the regular schools, as soon as possible.”
Olesa and Sofia are curious about switching schools. Sofia wants to study medicine in Berlin; Olesa’s dream is to work as a psychologist somewhere in Germany. They already speak a couple of languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, a little English and a little German. They say that the differences between Latin and Cyrillic letters are not difficult for them, as they have learned either English or German since 1st grade.
As the war goes on, more blood is shed, and more land becomes dead land. “Everything that happens is because of politics, not because of the people,” says Julia.