Language is the door to another culture’s soul

A story of refugee integration through language learning.

Tatiana and her diverse student body at the Integration Center for Refugees. She has worked there since 2015 and has witnessed the positive impact that the language courses have had on the lives of refugees who live in Ukraine.
© UNHCR

“My life in Iraq changed completely after the war began,” reflects Razwan, a teenage Iraqi refugee who lives in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Having fled only a year and a half ago, he vividly remembers houses in his hometown being destroyed and his family becoming increasingly afraid as insecurity grew on a daily basis. As life in Iraq became unbearable, Razwan, his parents and his four brothers decided to flee. First, the family went to Turkey and from there they took a plane to reach Ukraine. “It takes a lot of courage to leave everything behind,” says Razwan. He remembers how sad it was for him and his family to leave loves ones behind.

Upon arriving in Kyiv, Rawzan and his family immediately applied for asylum, feeling that in Ukraine they could be safe, start a new life and move on from their traumatic past.

For Razwan, although he and his family found safety in Ukraine, it was still very difficult for them to adapt. Razwan missed his cousins and friends, and felt very lonely when he first arrived. Language was a major obstacle for Razwan, leaving him unable to communicate in his new country.

Language and communication is a challenge for many refugees around the world who have been forced to flee their country. That is why, in 2003, when the number of refugees in Ukraine began to grow significantly, UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) in Ukraine partnered with the International Foundation ‘Vidrodzhenia’ to establish the first Ukrainian language courses* at the Integration Center for Refugees in Kyiv.

Tatiana, one of the language teachers at the Integration Center for Refugees in Kyiv, has worked there since 2015. She has witnessed the positive impact that the language courses have had on the lives of refugees who live in Ukraine. When asked what it takes to be a refugee language teacher, she explains that “one has to be patient, caring, always approach refugees in a welcoming way and believe in their capacity.”

Since 2009, the language courses have been managed by UNHCR’s partner Rokada. According to the NGO, the language courses are designed for a diverse group of students who have different educational levels, cultural backgrounds and language abilities. Furthermore, the Ukrainian language course is combined with outdoor activities so that refugee students can also learn how to use their new language skills on a daily basis, such as ordering food or buying a transport ticket. Tatiana says this learning approach also helps refugees deal with stress and past traumas they experienced. The classes are conducted using the textbook “Ukrainian for foreigners”*, which was developed in 2016 by the Sumy State University in cooperation with Rokada with financial support by UNHCR.

As the course has been very popular among the refugee community, the number of attendance has been constantly increasing. Currently, there are 90 permanent students. Courses are also provided in another town, Bila Tserkva, where 10 students are studying Ukrainian.

This year, the student body is richly diverse. There are women and men from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, Guinea, Congo and Ethiopia, with some students being as young as 14 and and the oldest being 64 years old. Classes are held twice weekly.

According to Rawzan and other refugees who are studying at the language center, learning Ukrainian helps them discover how truly welcoming Ukrainians are. “The more we learn Ukrainian, the more we feel welcomed,” says Rawzan. He adds that with his Ukrainian perfected, he will be able to open his own business and be able to support himself. He also wants to employ and provide opportunities to other young people such as him. “The worst thing is to be depressed and not have anything to do,” says Rawzan.

UNHCR

Today, thanks to his Ukrainian language skills acquired in the course, he supports his family in Ukraine by translating for them when family members attend the hospital or go shopping. Speaking Ukrainian has also helped him make new friendships and play football with his newfound Ukrainian friends.

Razwan, who loves borscht (a traditional Ukrainian soup), says that after a year and a half in Ukraine, he already feels like Ukraine is his home. He says that his favorite thing about Ukrainians is that “when you smile, people smile back at you, when you pass through a door at the entrance of a shop or to take the metro, the person in front always holds the door until you have gone through.”

 

*The classes are conducted using the text book “Ukrainian for foreigners”, which was developed in 2016 by the Sumy State University in cooperation with “Rokada” Charitable Foundation and financial support by UNHCR. All classes are conducted in accordance with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine.