Polish and Chechen children mingle in cheerful village school
It is the first day of the school year and head teacher Barbara Protasiewicz is welcoming the children. She is not expecting flowers but, to her surprise, three Chechen girls hand her roses.
Chechen children play outside at a centre for asylum-seekers in Horbów, Poland. | © UNHCR/Rafal Kostrzyński
“How could we not give flowers? It is a sign of respect,” says the girls’ father as he watches them going into class in the village of Berezówka in eastern Poland.
The small rural primary school, only eight km from the border with Belarus, has 54 pupils. Twenty-one of them are local children while 33 are ethnic Chechens from the Russian Federation. They are brought by bus every day from a nearby centre for asylum-seekers.
“To be honest,” says the head, “our school is only able to keep going thanks to the foreign children. They help to keep our numbers up.”
“I will show them pictures and write the words on the blackboard. With the younger ones, we might try to sing a song.” English teacher Joanna Lubanska-Tymoszuk, 29, welcomes kids on the first day back at school in Berezówka, eastern Poland. © UNHCR/Rafal Kostrzyński
The Polish flag is carried in for the singing of the national anthem on the first day of the new school year in the village of Berezówka. © UNHCR/Rafal Kostrzyński
The school is run by a private association called Behind the Krzna River, whose chairwoman, Monika Dziobek, says the Polish and Chechen children mingle happily. “We have seen some beautiful cases of genuine friendship,” she says.
Today, the children and parents, all in their best clothes, are gathering in the school hall for the welcome ceremony. A Polish boy, wearing a sash and white gloves and flanked by two other children in sashes, carries the white and red Polish flag into the hall for the singing of the national anthem.
“We are pleased with the school. The teachers are good and there is a nice, friendly atmosphere.”
A Chechen mother, with her small son on her lap, gently stops him from playing with a water bottle during the headmistress’s speech.
“We are glad to be here,” says another Chechen mother. “This is a peaceful place, with freedom of speech. We are pleased with the school. The teachers are good and there is a nice, friendly atmosphere.”
After the ceremony, the children find their classrooms and teachers for the new term.
It is a legal requirement that the asylum-seekers send their children to school and this village school, catering for children from kindergarten age to 14, has shown kindness and imagination in accommodating them.
All the children follow the Polish curriculum, although the Chechens are excused Catholic religious education and observe their Muslim faith privately. There are extra language classes for those who have grown up speaking Chechen at home and Russian in wider society.
“Most of the children pick up Polish very quickly,” says language teacher Arkadiusz Rogulski.
“There are lots of complementary lessons — something like 500 a year — not only Polish language but also sport, environmental studies and crafts, all taught in Polish,” says Monika Dziobek. “We have received EU funding for this and we hope it will continue.”
Russian, needed in this border area that sees many visitors from Belarus and Ukraine, is taught as a foreign language to the older children in years seven and eight.
English is taught earlier, and a small group of seven-year-olds, with their parents, are checking out the class of English teacher Joanna Lubańska-Tymoszuk.
“English is taught through Polish, not Russian,” says one concerned Chechen parent. “So our children need to know Polish first before they can learn English.”
Lubańska-Tymoszuk, 29, beams reassuringly.
“I will use pictures and sounds,” she says. “I will show them pictures and write the words on the blackboard. With the younger ones, we might try to sing a song.”
The children are already sitting in their chairs, two Chechen girls in the front row, two Polish girls in the second row and a Chechen boy off to one side.
“Children are individuals,” laughs Polish mother of seven Jolanta Nowak. “They choose their friends according to their character and temperament. It happens naturally.”
Chechen sisters eat ice creams after school in their one-room flat at a centre for asylum-seekers in Horbów, eastern Poland. © UNHCR/Rafal Kostrzyński
"More than anything, I want my daughters to have education and opportunities for the future.” © UNHCR/Rafal Kostrzyński
The first day of school is short and by afternoon, the Chechen families are back in Horbowianka, a former hotel. Now it is run by the Polish Office for Foreigners, the government agency responsible for assessing asylum claims, as a home for new arrivals awaiting decisions on their cases.
The home houses 74 people, all from Chechnya.
Besides shelter and meals, the residents receive small monetary allowances and Polish lessons. After six months, they are allowed to work and some do seasonal or construction jobs.
One resident, who represents the Chechen community, helping to solve practical problems and smoothing any misunderstandings in the village, takes us to meet his family at the home.
“I used to visit my Mum every week. Now we only have WhatsApp.”
His wife opens the door to their cramped room. The couple have three daughters – the girls who took roses for the head.
“I never thought I would leave Chechnya but my mother encouraged me to go,” says the man’s wife. “I used to visit my Mum every week. Now we only have WhatsApp.
“I witnessed two wars in Chechnya and only finished seven years of school. I had wanted to be a nurse. Now, more than anything, I want my daughters to have education and opportunities for the future.”