Many children at a summer language camp arrived in Slovakia months ago but are yet to attend local schools. From Dennik N.

Children sit in a circle, passing an apple around. Whoever holds the apple must speak. And they have to speak Slovak, which nobody feels much like doing. They would much rather enjoy the summer holidays at home with their friends and family, the way they like best – in Ukrainian.

Instead, they are now in Zilina, in northern Slovakia, spending time in the Zaymusova elementary school. They have already given up hope that the war will soon be over and that they can start the new school year in Ukraine. Local activists in Zilina have organized a daily camp for some 400 children, who can meet friends there and practice their Slovak. Among other reasons, to make their return to Slovak schools in September easier.

When the camp teacher asks the kids how their weekend was, the answer she gets is the one that’s linguistically easiest – it was “good.” Only one boy say it was better than good. “Father came,” he says, and everyone understands all the things hidden behind that answer. Other kids now find it easy to say that they spent the weekend “at home,” even though in reality they are a long way from home. Many of them have been in Slovakia for close to six months now, and the initial shock is gone. They are getting used to their new life, behaving like normal kids anywhere – looking bored in class, running down corridors, not listening to the teacher.

Still Kids, but Growing Up Fast

Even though many of the children have already spent months in Slovakia, they still need to work on their Slovak quite a bit. For example, so that they can study history or geography in the new language, alongside their peers from Slovakia. That was one reason for the camp in Zilina, to get them ready for September.

“Who understood what I said? Raise your hands,” asks teacher Hana Malgotova after explaining a task to the kids. Most hands are raised, but a few stay down. Then Olya steps in: “Kto neponimaje?” she asks (“Who doesn’t understand?” in Ukrainian). Again, many hands are in the air. It is clear the kids are not quite sure what’s going on.

Olya is only in the ninth grade, but she takes over the teacher’s role and explains the task. Calmly and with authority, she explains how kids should color in different parts of the body. Her brother Sasa, of a similar age, is meanwhile telling children in the back to be quiet.

Ukrainian teenagers can no longer afford to be children. “Parents are working, providing for their basic needs. Older children want to help them, [they] take care of younger siblings. They are accepting their responsibility,” special educator Malgotova says.

She can see this especially with boys like Sasa. When she had to go grab something from her office, she tasked him with looking after a group of children. Sasa watched over them, keeping them quiet, and when they walked down the corridor, he lined them up in twos. “Most refugees are moms with kids. If there are sons in the family, they are taking over the role of the father – they feel a responsibility,” says Renata Dubec of Camp Zilina, the camp operator.

Memories of Blood and Guns

When Ukrainian children entered Slovak schools in March, they were frightened, in shock, and did not know what to expect.

“This has already passed. They are children just like any others, you have to keep providing them with stimuli so that they don’t get bored,” the teacher says. She works as a special educator at the Jarna elementary school in Zilina, which has accepted some 40 children from Ukraine.

Some have adapted better, but others got stuck and are refusing to speak Slovak. “It all depends on how they coped with the fact of their leaving. Some of them do not want to accept that they have been taken out of their homes, and do not want to speak Slovak. They say they find it pointless, because they will soon be going home anyway,” the teacher says. She recalls a boy from Odessa who showed her photos of himself surfing. A child that didn’t know life without the sea now has to get accustomed to life in an inland country – his home, friends, and all interests have all been taken away from him.

Two sisters from Kyiv attend the camp, They came to Slovakia immediately after Ukraine was attacked. Neither of them wanted to speak. Not Slovak or even Ukrainian. The younger one was in the first grade and  fiercely resisted going to school. She wanted to fight, didn’t want to let anyone near her, responded by shouting and crying.

Malgotova would take her to her office, where they would draw together. The teacher drew a city – streets and roads. The six-year-old girl drew in blood stains, broken windows, people with machine guns.

“Once she let all that out of her, she started to communicate a little,” the teacher says. Her older sister doesn’t speak either, but the teacher considers it a great success that she recently smiled at her. “It is not realistic to ask children with this type of trauma to learn Slovak,” she says.

Hundreds of refugees from Ukraine have already passed through the Zilina refugee camp. Renata Dubec and her husband opened the camp when the war started. At first, they provided for basic needs such as food, heat, and shelter. “Later we started looking for long-term accommodation, then jobs. Even before we hit that point, an important need presented itself – language courses,” explains Renata Dubec.

So far some 700 Ukrainians have gone through the intensive course, studying Slovak for 90 minutes a day. “We found out that many mothers want to attend the courses, but they have nowhere to place their little children, because they haven’t been accepted in nursery schools,” she says. That prompted them to start providing child care for the children of mothers attending the courses.

But it’s not just adults who need language courses. “Children in Zilina can get into schools easily. But they have a problem with adaptation,” Dubec says. They don’t  understand Slovak, so they typically sit at their desks quietly, as Slovak kids learn geography.

More Ukrainian Pupils in September?

And so some 400 children from Ukraine joined the day camp in Zilina.Each week, up to 120 kids attend. Some only go to the camp for a week, but there are also many who stay for the full five weeks of planned activities. In the morning they have Slovak classes in the classroom; afternoons there are activities aimed at learning Slovak indirectly.

Even after spending close to six months in another country, many children still don’t really speak Slovak. Many children in the camp have never attended a Slovak school. Data all over Slovakia show a similar picture. The Center for Education Analysis estimates that more than half of the refugee children are not attending any elementary school in Slovakia. In May, almost 8,000 children were attending Slovak schools, but the total number of children with temporary protection in Slovakia is twice as large.

Ukrainian pupils in Hana Malgotova’s classroom.

Many children in their new country have instead preferred online classes, connecting with their Ukrainian teachers. “They were relying on the idea that the war would be over by September and that they would return home,” Malgotova says. She believes schools should plan for many more children from Ukraine trying to enroll in September, as online education will no longer be enough for them.

The Education Ministry, however, sees things differently. Citing data that the number of Ukrainian pupils in Slovak schools fell by 20 percent from May to June, the ministry says it expects fewer Ukrainian refugee children to attend in-person classes when the new school year begins.

Ukrainian children, however, do not as a rule go to school in June – their school year ends in May. That could be one reason why the June figure was lower. Ukrainian refugees are under no obligation to enroll their children in school here, which is something the Ministry of Education is not planning to change in September either. Compulsory school attendance does not apply to foreigners who do not have permanent residence in Slovakia, the ministry explains.

Starting in September, however, Malgotova thinks schools should get ready to put in much more effort to integrate Ukrainian children. “Teachers thought that this would pass, that the kids were only here for a short period of time. But it turns out this is not the case,” she says.

First of all, schools should offer welcome classes, she proposes. This is common practice in schools in Western Europe. Children who do not speak Slovak are not immediately “thrown into the pool,” but first spend several weeks adapting to the new environment. “Over here, we wanted too much from the kids too soon,” she explains.

Once children move to regular classrooms, she says, each class with Ukrainian children should have a teaching assistant.

In her view, Ukrainian children need to learn Slovak as a foreign language. “When Slovak children studied pronouns in a Slovak class, Ukrainian pupils were just sitting there, with no idea of what was going on,” she explains. These kids have to study Slovak in a different way – just as they would, for example, English.

Malgotova says teachers would ideally also be familiar with Ukrainian school curricula, giving them an idea of what their pupils already know and what they need to learn. This would help the children adjust to Slovak classrooms and, once the war is over, help them continue with their education in Ukraine.

This article originally appeared on the Slovak news site Dennik N. Republished with permission. Translated by Matus Nemeth. Photos by Tomas Benedikovic.