By Emma Batha
LONDON, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Among the crowds of Irish revellers lining Dublin's streets for last week's St Patrick's Day parade stood a small girl in pigtails with Ukrainian flags painted on her cheeks and an oversized green hat — a gift from her new school.
Eight-year-old Varvara Koslovska is among more than 1.5 million children who have fled the war in Ukraine, which began one month ago, triggering Europe's fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War Two.
From Ireland to Poland, countries are expanding classes, fast-tracking the registration of Ukrainian teachers, translating curriculums, and offering online lessons to ensure children uprooted by the war do not lose out on education.
Varvara, her brother Platon, 5, and cousins Ivan, 9, and Egor, 7, started at their new primary school just days after arriving in Ireland, at the end of a long journey from their home city Kyiv.
Bubbly and confident, Varvara has only a smattering of English but was all smiles as she described her new life.
"All the girls want to be friends with me. Everyone wants to help me — we've had loads of presents," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call, holding up her new blue school bag patterned with stars, a gift from her head teacher.
Ukrainian refugee Varvara, 8, attends the St Patrick's Day Parade with her uncle Andriy Koslovskyi in the Irish capital Dublin on March 17, 2022.
The UN children's agency UNICEF said countries across Europe had promised to integrate Ukrainian refugee children into schools within three months of their arrival.
It is a vast operation for education systems that are often already struggling with tight budgets, large class sizes, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many refugee children will also need specialist language and psychological support.
UNICEF said getting children back into school quickly was crucial not only for their own development, but also for the future of Ukraine.
"In the short term, it provides them with the support, stability, and structure needed to cope with the trauma they've experienced," said UNICEF spokesman Joe English. "In the long-term, school equips children with the knowledge and skills they need to rebuild their communities once the conflict is over."
More than 3.6 million Ukrainians have fled the war, about half of them children, according to UNICEF, with the largest refugee inflows into Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Hungary.
Ireland, which waived visa requirements immediately after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, was until recently home to about 5,000 Ukrainians. That number has since more than doubled.
Its government is prioritising the registration of Ukrainian teachers arriving in the country to support refugee children.
Germany is also considering hiring Ukrainian teachers in its schools, which are already strained by teacher shortages and high levels of COVID-19 sick leave, according to national media.
Poland, which is hosting more than 2 million Ukrainians, has changed the law to increase class sizes, is boosting funding for education, and has set up a hotline for parents.
It has registered more than 100,000 students, with about half of Polish schools now containing Ukrainian children.
Those who speak some Polish are entering mainstream classes. Others are taught separately while they learn the language.
The government has also waived normal hiring rules to allow Ukrainians who speak Polish to work as teaching assistants.
"If necessary, we will change the law and change the organisation of schools to help every child," said education ministry spokeswoman Anna Ostrowska. "We've seen huge solidarity. It's very touching."
Some refugee experts have raised concerns about a shortage of language support teachers and psychological help for traumatised children.
Many, like Varvara, have fathers fighting in the war, and relatives who have stayed behind. Others have witnessed shelling or lost loved ones.
"I'm worried because the children still hear the news, they know what's going on," said Varvara's mother Tatyana, adding her daughter missed her father very much and spoke to him every day by WhatsApp.
Varvara's grandfather, a pediatrician at a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, has been treating children injured during Russia's bombardment of the southern city of Mariupol.
"On the day we left, Varvara was crying constantly," Tatyana said. "We told her it wouldn't be for long. But the truth is no one knows when, or if, they will see their home again."
Education departments in Ireland, Poland, and Britain said they would provide mental health support, but it was unclear whether any services would be available in Ukrainian.
Acute housing shortages in Ireland — like many European countries — mean many refugee children may be settled outside urban areas with less access to specialist support, refugee charities said.
Varvara's new school has tried to place the refugee children into classes with other pupils who speak their language.
But she says breaktime is hard despite the warm welcome.
"We get upset because no one understands us," she said, adding she was trying to learn more English on a language app.
New Digital Tools
The introduction of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic could help many children keep up with lessons while awaiting school places.
Despite the war, some schools in Ukraine are still running online lessons which pupils can access from outside the country.
Children in Poland who want to follow the Ukrainian curriculum are being offered support to get online, the education ministry said.
European Union education ministers are also exploring how to pool digital content to help refugee children.
In Britain, the Oak National Academy, a charity set up during the pandemic to offer online education, has already translated 10,000 lessons into Ukrainian — in theory allowing children to complete the English curriculum in Ukrainian.
In contrast to its EU neighbours, Britain has come under fire for its slow response to the crisis and cumbersome visa process.
The government has said it is ready to take 100,000 children, but had only issued 18,600 visas to Ukrainians as of Thursday.
The education department said schools are ready to absorb children when they arrive, adding that they had quickly found places for children evacuated from Afghanistan following the Taliban's takeover last August.
Back in Ireland, Varvara is keen on maths and picking up new words every day. Her mother says school has helped restore a sense of normality to her children's lives.
"I'm trying to keep things positive and hope they will remember this as an adventure," Tatyana said.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Sonia Elks and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)