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For Displaced Ukrainians, A Troubled Return To School

  • Claire Bigg
  • Melanie Bachina
  • Igor Gogin

Eduard Leontiyev is gearing up for the first day of school in Ulyanovsk, his new home city.

The teenager moved to this Russian industrial city, 700 kilometers east of Moscow, last month after fleeing the fighting in eastern Ukraine with his parents and four siblings.

The conflict has turned his life upside down, but Eduard is putting on a brave face. He says he's looking forward to starting school in Ulyanovsk. "It's a great school, I like it a lot," he says. "It has new plastic windows, spacious corridors, and two gyms."

For most families forced out of their homes by the violent clashes pitting the Ukrainian government against pro-Russian separatist rebels, the new school year is fraught with uncertainty. As they scramble to rebuild their lives, many parents still don't know whether their children will be able to start school on September 1.

"I want my children to go to school, but I don't have any answer from schools yet," says Marina Kononova, who recently arrived in the Siberian city of Tomsk and lives in a packed dormitory with other Ukrainian refugees. "This uncertainty is really frightening."

School supplies are also a major worry. Parents who have secured a spot for their children usually have no money to equip them for school and rely on donations.

Far From Home

According to the United Nations, more than 700,000 people, many of them children, have fled Ukraine for Russia in recent months.

Under the quota system established by the Russian authorities, refugees are being dispatched to cities and towns across the country. With little say in the matter, many have ended up in remote, economically depressed areas thousands of kilometers from home.

Ukrainian refugees arrive in the Siberian city of Magadan on August 26.

Ukrainian refugees arrive in the Siberian city of Magadan on August 26.

This week, more than 180 refugees arrived on a special flight to the northeastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, known as the world's coldest city. The plane then dropped off another 200 Ukrainians in Magadan, the capital of an isolated region that once hosted a vast network of Soviet prison camps.

"We were asked to choose between Yakutsk and Magadan, I picked Magadan," says refugee Irena Gracheva. "It's still better than sitting in a basement under the bombs with my son."

Starting Over

In Ukraine itself, the conflict has also displaced scores of children -- more than 29,000, according to official figures. And with the fighting showing no signs of abating in Ukraine, internally displaced children there, too, are hastily being transferred to new schools.

Anna Huz fled Donetsk in June with her 12-year-old daughter, Irena. The family has been offered temporary accommodation on the outskirts of Kyiv, where Irena will start school on September 1. "It was very distressing for her at the beginning, she didn't want to leave Donetsk," Huz says. "She said that's where her friends are, that's where they go to school together."

Irena has since befriended other displaced children, which has helped ease her fears about the new school year. "When we arrived in Kyiv she was disoriented," Huz says. "But we live alongside other refugee children, some of whom will go to the same school. So things are a little better now."

Irena went to a Ukrainian-language school in Donetsk -- a city where the majority of pupils are taught in Russian -- meaning she can at least continue studying in the same language in Kyiv.

Many Schools In Ruins

Many schools in eastern Ukraine have sustained extensive damage during the fighting. At least 117 schools have been either completely or partially destroyed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- almost one in 10.

In the areas controlled by Kyiv, local authorities, aid groups, and volunteers have joined forces to fix the damage. "Most schools in Slovyansk are already repaired, work is in full swing," says Fedir Menshakov, who leads a volunteer initiative to rebuild a local school. "I think most schools will greet students on September 1. In towns that have just been freed, things are not as encouraging."

Lack of funding, however, is hampering reconstruction efforts. Even in the school Menshakov is helping restore, only the walls, roof, and basic furniture will be ready in time for the new school year.

In addition to being shelled, the building was heavily pillaged -- computers, beds, schoolbooks, and even doors were looted. The school has also had to hire new teachers to replace those who fled the region.

Bystanders watch a fire consuming a school in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on August 27.

Bystanders watch a fire consuming a school in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on August 27.

In large swathes of rebel-held territory, however, the first day of school has been postponed until further notice due to ongoing hostilities. Ukraine's education minister announced on August 29 that half the schools in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, almost 900 institutions, will not reopen on September 1.

And with many of these schools in ruins, the first day in the classroom remains a distant prospect for thousands of Ukrainian children.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​