Seven hundred thousand Ukrainians (and counting) in need of hope. What now?
14 May 2022, by Adelaide Di Maggio
On writing a report on educating refugee children for the Polish Ministry of Education
Seven hundred thousand people. This estimate was made by the Polish Education Minister to indicate the number of child refugees of school age who fled Ukraine between 24th February and 22nd March.
What now? That is the question my Polish peers and I, an Italo-Pole with Ukrainian family ties, asked ourselves on the morning of 24th February, as news of the invasion broke.
Finding a place
In the first few days that followed, I felt torn. What was my role in all of this? My peers in Poland were organising humanitarian help for Ukraine on the ground and were joined by friends from the UK. I wanted to follow them, yet I had my responsibilities here in Cambridge. All I could seemingly do was to nervously share all the calls for humanitarian support in my area I could find. This internal battle between everyday academic responsibilities and helping my neighbours was paralysing. What an irony it was – I wanted to bring peace to others, when I was in turmoil myself!
Thankfully, what I learned through my spiritual development and the work of CPERG is that the right answer to our dilemmas is the one that brings you inner peace. One way to reach it is to replace pride with humility. True action does not need to be on the forefront, it needs not be most noticeable. I do not always have to be the most helpful, bravest, a ‘hero’ or a ‘saviour’. I also depend on others, and I need to be the best I can in every task I am entrusted with, even if, considering war and suffering, it seems to be less important.
Such a realisation was liberating, and ultimately brought me the gratitude and motivation needed to embrace a different sort of challenge.
A chance to contribute
Meanwhile, the influx of Ukrainian refugees to Poland increased massively day by day. A week after the invasion, the numbers per day had increased threefold (Istel, 2022). The mass effort to provide our new guests with shelter in Poland was extraordinary. Many organisations and individuals started thinking of how they can be useful in not only helping refugees save their present, but also rebuild their future.
I got involved in such efforts through an organisation of which I am an alumna, The Transatlantic Future Leaders Forum (TFLF)  programme. As we were all students or recent graduates, we brainstormed on ways in which we could provide long-term relief in the field of education. Formed through my studies in Cambridge I believed that our task should be not only to help Polish schools become a place where Ukrainian children could find peace and hope again, but to also help create a place where they are encouraged to forgive.
Our solution: producing a report for the Polish Ministry of Education
Finally, some of us came up with the idea of creating a report for the Polish Ministry of Education and Science (MEiN) with recommendations on how to integrate Ukrainian refugee children in Polish education. Observing the efforts of some of the organisations in the field of education and understanding the difficulties that all parties would have to overcome in integrating refugee children, we wanted to suggest systemic and long-term solutions based on our research. The outcome of these solutions would ideally be beneficial both for Ukrainian children, but also Polish schools.
For this purpose, we gathered co-authors both from inside and outside our network. These included experts on education, law, business, and technology, students from Harvard University, but also former and current students of the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. The initiator of the project, along with two others, coordinated our work from the partnerships, administrative and academic sides. The academic coordinator drafted the initial structure based on similar reports. We focused on outlining the Ukrainian system and refugee education practices. We also looked at the challenges of the Polish education system and on what schools and other entities can offer, to make sure we could provide realistic recommendations. Instrumental for gathering feedback data were also insights from one of our alumni in welcoming Ukrainian children to her Polish school, taking into account parents’ and children’s experiences.
Additionally, the coordinators succeeded in connecting with high-standing officials at the MEiN. Due to the urgency of the matter, they recommended we deliver the report as soon as possible. The first version was written in almost four days, with subsequent drafts being completed in the following week and a half.
During that time, we gathered feedback from Ministry officials, several educational NGO representatives, and teachers in Poland, mainly working with Ukrainian refugees as well as Ukrainian educational governmental and non-governmental experts, one of them from the University of Cambridge. We also collected first-hand reflections on refugee education from other contexts, including ones from the headteacher of Beacon High in London, on the experience of integrating Afghan teenage refugees. We found that many of our first thoughts and suggestions matched their experience, such as the importance of including refugee children and their families in the life of the school, the pivotal role of relevant training for staff, or the possibility of recruiting refugees as staff and teaching support.
The original report in Polish can be found HERE.
An executive summary of the report in English is available HERE.
NB: It does not include chapters on challenges within the Polish context and our outline of collaboration opportunities with other bodies for the MEiN.
The report itself
All this background work led to the release of a fifty-page report in Polish on 16th March. The report encourages the Ministry to prepare a systemic response to support the integration of new students and puts forward recommendations on how to do it. It is based on research on Ukrainian education and refugee education in the OECD context, as well as solutions for the Polish educational context. The table of contents below shows how the report was structured.
The most important part of the report is the recommendations section, where we draw on our findings and give a detailed account of how we think integration could be best brought about. These have been categorised into four areas: integration, cooperation, communication, and logistics. What we propose is an opening up of opportunities for working together with refugee children, their parents, Ukrainian teachers, and the government.
Reflections on the preparation process
My task was to co-write the section on the Ukrainian educational system, define some of the challenges relating to mental health support for pupils in Poland, and map the academic expertise available. I also contributed to brainstorming recommendations. The experience of being an observant member of CPERG has helped me to bring in a peace-focused education perspective.
The most important discovery I made while preparing the report concerns the Ukrainian educational system. I was struck by the innovativeness of the reform launched already in 2018, called the “New Ukrainian School” (NUS), meant to educate “patriots, innovators and individualists” (NUS, 2017). The system puts more emphasis on acquiring competencies than just memorising content, by enabling an ‘activity-based’ approach and ‘project-based learning’ (MON, 2022). One of the most important aspirations of this concept – which I align with – is to educate active members of society. I felt that in Poland, the public started truly reflecting on this issue only during the pandemic. I was therefore tempted to make the radical suggestion of integrating Polish schools into the NUS framework, as opposed to integration Ukrainian students into the Polish system! Moreover, the NUS has its own website with guidelines and resources. Its authors collaborate with forward-thinking educational NGOs, such as the Ukrainian organisation ‘Smart Osvita’ (‘Smart Education’). Collectively, they have been very active and creative in trying to keep up children’s morale and provide emotional and psychological relief from the war. From the start of the invasion, they have been posting a variety of articles with psychological advice, practical tips, or games that kids can play in hiding. They have also tried to create a sense of solidarity with other children across the country by organising online meetings. These initiatives display high level of resilience and courage in the face of tragedy.
Writing the report was both an intense and joyful endeavour. Despite our concern for refugees and those fighting in Ukraine, what fuelled us was the solidarity and fraternity between our two nations. Most of all, we were glad that this national effort brought us Poles together, long struggling with polarisation and division.
Releasing the report
The responses to the report were very positive. It was shared on social media by representatives of leading educational organisations in Poland, private companies, and influential educators, as well as one of the former ministers of education. The team of coordinators also led a successful press campaign. Leading media platforms, including radio and online newspapers in Poland, released content focusing on our report, as well as mentioning it in several texts that relate to Ukrainian refugee education. Our report was also referenced in an open letter from educators in Poland to the Prime Minister and political party leaders, asking to scrap final exams for Ukrainian refugee children. We were contacted by people from abroad, such as a Romanian Member of Parliament, who were interested in reading the report.
Currently, we are working on promoting our report among Polish parliamentarians working on educational issues, as well as at the Council for Refugee Education at the Education Ministry. We also produced an executive summary of the report in English, mentioned above, where we shortened some of the chapters and removed the fifth and sixth chapter. As we continue to promote the report, we are hoping it will be used not only by governmental agencies, but also NGOs and other entities working with refugee children from Ukraine.
Regardless of whether this will come to fruition, for me, it is enough that I was able to contribute and fully employ what I have learnt as a student at the Faculty of Education. The experience reassured me of the need for humility and a quiet acceptance, as well as embracing of our daily challenges and opportunities, without the need for heroics. Teamwork was at the core of our endeavour. We all depended on each other and kept lifting each other up, despite the relatively short timeframe of the project. I hope that this report will be a tool to lift up Ukrainian refugees in Poland and abroad, and those who are helping them.
Transatlantic Future Leaders Forum (TFLF). (2022). Recommendations for the integration of refugee children from Ukraine in the Polish education system. Transatlantic Future Leaders Forum. https://transatlanticforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/TLFL-Raport-o-integracji-dzieci-z-Ukariny_web.pdf
Kropiwiec, K. (2022). MEiN rekrutuje chętnych do pomocy edukacyjnej dla dzieci i młodzieży z Ukrainy. Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. https://serwisy.gazetaprawna.pl/edukacja/artykuly/8372320,pomoc-dla-ukrainy-nauczyciel-nauczanie-mein.html
Istel, M. (2022). Ilu uchodźców z Ukrainy wjeżdżało dziennie do Polski? Dane od początku wojny. Konkret24. https://konkret24.tvn24.pl/polska,108/ilu-uchodzcow-z-ukrainy-wjezdzalo-dziennie-do-polski-dane-od-poczatku-wojny,1100170.html
NUS. (2017). Випускник нової школи. Нова Українська школа. https://nus.org.ua/about/graduate/
MON. (2022). New Ukrainian School. Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. https://mon.gov.ua/eng/tag/nova-ukrainska-shkola#:~:text=The%20New%20Ukrainian%20School%20is,apply%20it%20in%20real%20life.
 TFLF organises internships for Polish students in the US Congress and the UK Parliament and has gathered a network of resourceful alumni over the years which they now decided to bring together for a better cause.
 TVN24 (the biggest private news platform in the country), Gazeta Wyborcza, Radio FM, as well as OKOPress, to name a few.