Ukraine – May 17 2022

First days of school after fleeing Ukraine: a new home, a new language, the same lunch breaks

From a war zone to Pinkafeld in Austria. A school in Burgenland and SOS Children's Villages Austria work to integrate Ukrainian children and give them a sense of security.

The electric piano is not working. The teacher is trying to fix the problem to let one of the students demonstrate his skills. Meanwhile, some of the classmates are having an intense match at the foosball table. Behind them, girls sitting on bean bags are showing each other something on their phones.

All the lunch breaks are similar in one way or another, whether it's in Krywyj Rih in southern Ukraine or in Pinkafeld in eastern Austria. But this one is special. It is the first lunch break that the children who have fled from Ukraine are spending at the school in Pinkafeld. Two classes have been set up here. One for 6 to 10 year olds, the other for 10 to 17 year olds.

Before the war, they lived in an SOS Children's Village in Ukraine. Today, 15 children and their Ukrainian foster mothers are staying in Pinkafeld. SOS Children's Villages equipped them with all the necessary school supplies.

SOS Children's Village Pinkafeld director Marek Zeliska says: "These are the first families from Ukraine who fled to Pinkafeld. Right after their arrival, they saw a doctor and we went shopping for clothes. Some of them have already asked where the church is. We find them very open-minded, warm-hearted and extremely grateful. Now, we want to let them settle in and, of course, involve them in our activities."

SOS Children's Village helps people affected by the war in Ukraine in several ways - supporting family reunification and offering accommodation, also for families with children with special needs. There is also a donation center for displaced persons from Ukraine. At Vienna's main train station, there is a child-friendly space where children on the move are looked after and can play, just being children again.

With an app and an exercise sheet

"The children should now get a sense of security and learn a little German," says the Pinkafeld school’s director Rainer Tiefengraber. This is a challenge also for the teachers, because they do not speak Ukrainian. An interpreter is helping for the time being. Teacher Markus Wagner is pragmatic: "I downloaded a translation app," he says. And because there are no suitable textbooks yet, he has put together his own exercise sheets with the most important vocabulary. The difficulty here, he says, especially with the older youth, is that they have very different levels of knowledge. While some of them speak good English, others can only read Cyrillic letters.

On the first day of school, this doesn't really matter. When the teacher tries hard to pronounce the names of his students with perfect intonation during the introductory round and fails, it makes the children laugh. And when they laugh, Markus Wagner laughs too.

And among themselves? Do the students talk about their experiences and the war? "I have not heard anything like that," says the interpreter. Meanwhile, the first German sentences can be heard in the class. "Zu mir (to me)," says a bright voice. And shortly after: "Danke (thank you)". The children are throwing a ball across the classroom.

All the lunch breaks in the world are probably similar in one way or another.

An article by Elisabeth Hofer translated from German to English.