English without tears

Teaching the language to Ukrainians escaping war requires a whole new set of skills – and subjects not to be mentioned, writes Emma Goldman

Thursday, 2nd June — By Emma Goldman

Ukrainian refugees and Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman, pictured centre with some of the Ukrainian doctors, administrators, beauticians, technicians and university professors who now find themselves refugees in London


A FRIEND who has been living in Kyiv sends me a link to the Ukrainian Institute in London. It’s looking for people to teach English to Ukrainian refugees. Soon, I am spending my weekends being trained to recognise the signs of trauma and PTSD, listening to and questioning a psychologist who has worked with displaced Syrian and Afghan refugees, studying textbooks, and practice assessing recorded students.

I have been a teacher in a state secondary school for 20 years. The other 15 appointees also have backgrounds in education. Almost all of us have studied either Russian, Ukrainian or both and have at some point lived in one or the other country. Several have worked in Africa and Asia. One is a published poet. A couple are Ukrainians who only a few weeks ago were teaching English back home.

We learn that the refugees on our 12-week course range from the young to the middle-aged to the elderly, and classes will range from beginner, to elementary to lower intermediate. The majority of the students will be women because, unless they have a health issue or are over 60, Ukrainian men have to stay behind in case they are called up to fight. Although not conscription, I picture the gentle Rupert Brooke of the First World War.

The course is being funded by British Land, a real estate company who were approached by the Ukrainian Institute’s deputy director, Maria Montague. British Land have provided not only the building and funding for running costs, but also all of the extras such as printing, photocopying, textbooks. Rob Stickland, their estate director, has helped with everything from swiftly securing the grant, to printing name badges, and coordinating volunteers from the company to set up tea, coffee and biscuits for students after class.

There are 225 enrolled students and 3,000 on a waiting list now currently closed.

The beautiful British Land building is at the side of the canal in Paddington Basin and is truly state of the art, with floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting trees and water. Students will sit around large, wooden tables, and my assigned room even has a kitchen the length of the left wall. Everything is spotlessly clean. Someone says that after the arduous journey here the students will have a culture shock.

Surveying my room and thinking of most inner-city state schools, I think they’re not the only ones.

On the first day of teaching, the sun runs through the trees and barges bob in the light. The canal is packed with narrowboats festooned in flags and bunting. It’s the weekend of the Canalway Cavalcade, which celebrates communities that live on the waterways. The towpath and pavements hold stalls and friendly faces. It looks like a welcoming committee. The fates have been kind in this astute combination of events.

The registers come through and I have been assigned an elementary group. The information makes what has been nebulous real and my class begins to take on a physical form.

The faces I have tried for so long to imagine begin to arrive in my classroom and time, that slow creature in anticipation, becomes swift in actuality.

Minutes, hours, days and weeks gather speed. Back home, the 15 halting students around my table were doctors, administrators, beauticians, technicians and university professors running departments. Here they are cleaners, because cleaning doesn’t need language, and get up daily to visit local job centres; anything to give structure to the day. But despite our good intentions, it is their old lives they describe. Clumsy, loving sentences on Kharkov and Kyiv.

One evening, a student stays behind. She tells me I remind her of the grandmother of her childhood. She asks if she can photograph me. I wonder about that grandmother. Later, try to picture her and think of my own great-grandmother who fled Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century, escaping the pogroms.

The questions in the textbooks have had to be adapted. You can’t ask refugees escaping war to describe families or homes that may no longer exist. Instead, they can describe the families providing shelter and the places they live now. Such families will be either relatives, or those hosting under the government scheme.

Classroom doors must be kept open throughout lessons so that anyone feeling anxious or agitated may quietly leave for time alone. If students are given a task you must not approach from behind to look at their work.

“Why not?”

“You don’t know what they’ve experienced. A front approach is non-threatening.”

War must not be discussed. The classroom is for teaching and learning English, a safe space where, for 90 minutes at a time, displaced people can pack their troubles away. We are told that some students are seeing the move as an opportunity, others barely registering what has been lost.

• If you want to support displaced Ukrainians go to the Just Giving page and search Support for Ukrainians displaced to the UK – https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/displaced-ukrainians-support

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