The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War, and as the war in Ukraine continues, attacks on civilian targets occur with disturbing frequency. The humanitarian toll of the war has been closely monitored by various international organizations, and Ukraine’s education sector in particular has been severely disrupted by constant attacks on civilian infrastructure. According to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, as of March 2023, over 3100 education institutions across Ukraine have suffered bombing and shelling, with over 280 of them having been completely destroyed. Millions of Ukrainian civilians have been forced to flee their homes and evacuate to neighboring countries, with the vast majority of these refugees being women and children. As of November 2022, over half a million Ukrainian children are currently studying in schools across the European Union. While the conditions may vary depending on the host country, some of the overarching challenges Ukrainian children face in European schools include language barriers, integrating into the local cultures, and coping with psychological trauma after fleeing their country. In order to address these challenges, it is imperative that the integration process of Ukrainian children and access to quality education is improved upon, especially since the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending for the foreseeable future.
Germany stands out among its fellow EU countries in that it offers strong refugee support programs, and has taken in over a million Ukrainian refugees since the start of the invasion. Like other host countries, the majority of Ukrainian children residing in Germany continue to participate in online classes being broadcasted from Ukraine while also attending German schools, as required by local law. Even if the conditions are not ideal, it is beneficial for Ukrainian children to engage in some form of social interaction with their Ukrainian teachers and peers so that they can be connected with their home communities and maintain a sense of normalcy while living abroad. In spite of the challenges these families may face with German schools, many of their children enjoy certain advantages in German and EU schools that they did not have in Ukraine. Some of these advantages include being shown greater respect by being treated as equals to their teachers, participating in a more progressive learning environment, and developing practical skills. While many Ukrainian parents have expressed concern over their children maintaining a balanced workload between host schools and their regular Ukrainian lessons, teachers on all sides must continue to promote this hybrid style of learning so that children can integrate into their host communities more effectively while maintaining a sense of national identity.
Next to Poland, Germany has taken on the second largest number of Ukrainian refugees in addition to refugees from other countries. However, this has been a source of controversy; since the invasion of Ukraine, priority has been given to Ukrainians over other refugee groups as a result of the Temporary Protective Directive, which allowed Ukrainian refugees to enter the European Union without a visa and without formally requesting asylum. Social benefits vary depending on the host country, but Ukrainian refugees residing in Germany have been incorporated into the local welfare system and are entitled to many government benefits, such as access to public health insurance, permission to seek gainful employment, child care benefits, financial assistance for students, and retirement benefits. By comparison, refugees from other countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, or Iraq receive less, and various organizations that promote refugee rights have criticized this unequal treatment. Regarding refugee education and integration, the German government has created special “welcome classes” to help Ukrainian children integrate and learn German in a manner similar to the surge of Syrian refugees Germany experienced in 2015 and 2016. While it is clear that priority was given to Ukrainians due to the EU’s proximity to Ukraine and the vast number of refugees expected to flow into countries like Germany, local authorities and policymakers must work to ensure other refugee groups receive equal treatment without compromising the pressing needs of Ukraine’s refugees.
Even though Ukrainian children have access to the German education system, German schools already faced significant challenges prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, particularly a shortage of teachers and a lack of space in schools. Over 200,000 Ukrainian children are currently attending German schools, and the refugee crisis has overburdened the German education system. Addressing the teacher shortage is an urgent matter for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and would help to alleviate some of the strain on German schools. As for meeting the needs of Ukrainian children, German schools should also focus on recruiting teachers or interpreters that can communicate in Ukrainian or Russian, as well as child psychologists that specialize in trauma. According to Michael Schwägerl, chairman of the Bavarian Philologists’ Association, teachers and education specialists are experts in their subjects, not interpreters for Ukrainian or Russian or trauma experts, and their time quota does not allow them to provide psychological support in individual cases. In order to resolve these issues, refugee education must continue to be a priority for policymakers, and measures such as additional funding and the hiring of more teachers, interpreters, and trauma specialists can have a positive impact on Ukrainian children enrolled in German schools.
Fortunately, volunteers and non-profit organizations have been able to support refugees in ways that government authorities and educational institutions have been unable to. Since the beginning of the invasion, grassroots organizations have been at the forefront of providing support to Ukrainian refugees on multiple fronts. Organizations such as SOS-Kinderdörfer have provided critical aid to Ukrainian refugees such as transportation, psychological support, and accommodation in temporary shelters while refugees try to find long-term housing options. Some organizations have been involved with the education and integration process for Ukrainian children residing in Germany and have created supplementary German classes for Ukrainian children to assist with language acquisition and adapting to German society. For instance, the Halle-based organization Save Ukraine in cooperation with its affiliates has organized additional German language classes for Ukrainian refugee children, which help to develop their skills in German, as well as provide assistance with homework from their classes in German schools. While funding is a consistent challenge for these organizations, another factor to consider for improving their efficiency is spreading awareness through advertising, as some refugees might not be aware of such organizations and the resources that they provide in their host communities.
The German response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has shown a lot of positive results, but supporting education of refugee children should be given greater priority, since children are the most vulnerable group during times of conflict, and stable education can provide a sense of safety and stability. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, education systems in host countries like Germany must consider holistic approaches to supporting refugee students, since they can also provide social, emotional, and health services in addition to academic services. Encouraging Ukrainian children to stay connected with their peers through online learning while integrating into German society will allow them to maintain a sense of national Ukrainian identity as they navigate their new environment. With the Ukrainian refugee crisis still in the public’s eye, German authorities should also work to provide equal treatment to other refugee groups to ensure them that their needs also have not been forgotten. As for reducing the burden placed on schools, providing more funding and hiring more specialized staff will help to integrate Ukrainian pupils more effectively. Lastly, humanitarian action through grassroots organizations must also continue, as organizations play a key role in supporting refugees.
Val Stutz is a Fulbright Research Grantee at IFHV, and is an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service. His current research topic is understanding the impact of the war in Ukraine on education and how the German education system supports Ukrainian students. His research background includes topics such as post-Soviet conflicts, international negotiations, human rights, and justice and security sector reform. While pursuing his master’s degree, Val also worked as an intern at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, where he wrote and published multiple articles connected with the Ukrainian conflict. Before beginning his master’s program, Val taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Moldova and went on to teach English in Ukraine.