New class, new country: Children escaping war in Ukraine get ready to start school in Manitoba

Maksym Okhrimenko, 5, will be starting kindergarten in the English-Ukrainian bilingual program at Winnipeg's Prince Edward School in September. He and his mom fled the war in Ukraine earlier this year. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)
Maksym Okhrimenko, 5, will be starting kindergarten in the English-Ukrainian bilingual program at Winnipeg's Prince Edward School in September. He and his mom fled the war in Ukraine earlier this year. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)

Like many other five-year-olds, Maksym Okhrimenko is getting ready to start kindergarten. But for him, that means more than just getting used to a new class or teacher.

Maksym is getting ready to learn in a new language, in a new city, in a new country.

"He doesn't speak any English and it's really a problem now, but I think it will be fast when he starts" school, said his mom, Yuliia Okhrimenko.

"Everything will be OK."

She and her son are among the more than 6,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Manitoba in recent months, following Russia's invasion of the country. That includes more than 800 children, according to a spokesperson for the Manitoba government.

While it's too early to know how many newly arrived Ukrainian students will enrol in Manitoba schools this fall, an organization that's been working with families estimates that number could be in the hundreds.

The provincial spokesperson said the province is expecting this year's school registration numbers to be high, due to the number of Ukrainians who have gone through the provincial reception centre.

Jeff Stapleton/CBC
Jeff Stapleton/CBC

Yuliia and Maksym Okhrimenko landed in Winnipeg in May. She finally made the difficult decision to flee Ukraine after spending more than a week sheltering underground.

"It was not possible to live with my son underground," said Okhrimenko.

Her husband, not allowed to leave the country, stayed behind.

She didn't know anyone in Manitoba but made the decision to move to the province because of its large Ukrainian community.

Manitoba Parents for Ukrainian Education, an organization that advocates for the English-Ukrainian bilingual program offered in 11 Manitoba schools, helped her navigate the school system here, Okhrimenko said, and Maksym will be attending the program at Prince Edward School this fall.

'They've been through a lot of things'

Mariia Nevoit, a special initiative co-ordinator with Manitoba Parents for Ukrainian Education, spent the summer connecting with families like Okhrimenko's to answer questions about the bilingual program and school registration.

Nevoit said most of the families she's talked with have been interested in schools that offer the English-Ukrainian program. The program is not available for high school students.

"One of the main reasons why people choose our program, especially right now, is because the English-Ukrainian program is less stressful for kids who already are stressed enough," said Nevoit, who was part of the program herself when she moved from Ukraine to Winnipeg in 2013, at age 14.

"They've been through a lot of things. I've heard awful, awful stories from war, and these kids don't need any more stress."

The bilingual program offers "a softer way to … get into Canadian society," she said.

Her organization has been running an initiative called Backpack 4 Hope, which aims to ensure young people who have recently arrived from Ukraine get a backpack full of items such as school supplies, books, hygiene items and a toy.

The organization said since the end of April, more than 700 kids age five to 17 had been registered for a backpack.

Nevoit said some children who arrived in the spring weren't ready to enrol in school right away, but she believes they will register for this school year.

She worries there could be challenges for families, such as having to wait for a school assessment before starting classes or the English-Ukrainian bilingual program not being able to accommodate all the families who choose it.

School expands bilingual program

In Winnipeg's Seven Oaks School Division, work has been underway over the summer to help families new to Winnipeg get ready for the school year.

Jana McKee, who heads the division's settlement service, said several staff who speak Ukrainian have been hired over the last few months to work with families, whether that means helping them register for schools or with support outside of school.

"Our goal is to have students be in their classrooms with their classmates and their teacher on Day 1," said Adam Hildebrandt, the principal of H.C. Avery Middle School, one of the schools in the Seven Oaks division that offers the English-Ukrainian program.

Students in the program have a Ukrainian language course three times a week.

Tyson Koschik/ CBC
Tyson Koschik/ CBC

Within days of opening registration last week, eight students who recently arrived from Ukraine had registered, Hildebrandt said.

Registration numbers for the English-Ukrainian program at H.C. Avery are typically in the low- to mid-20s, but the school expects closer to 40 this year, he said.

For the past five years, the program has been taught by one of the school's Ukrainian-speaking teachers. This year, there will be two teachers.

At this point, H.C. Avery students who have recently arrived in Manitoba will be in a homeroom classroom with a Ukrainian-speaking teacher, he said.

"I can't imagine what it must be like to go through an experience where you have to move countries and move to a new school … under the circumstances of war," he said.

Tyson Koschik/ CBC
Tyson Koschik/ CBC

The hope is that "if they can land in a school where there's a language that's familiar and there's a population of students that understands the culture and has a strong affiliation with that culture … it helps them feel welcome," he said.

Support teachers are ready to work with students on any academic or emotional challenges they might be facing, said Hildebrandt.

At R.F. Morrison, the other school in the division that offers the bilingual program, principal Andrew Volk said 18 students who have recently arrived from Ukraine were registered as of last Friday. That's in addition to 12 students who attended the school at the end of the last school year, he said.

The school is working to support families in a number of ways, including additional training to help kids who have experienced trauma, Volk said in an email.

Jeff Stapleton/ CBC
Jeff Stapleton/ CBC

Yuliia Okhrimenko said she's glad that her son will get the opportunity to learn in both English and Ukrainian when he starts school at Prince Edward, in the River East Transcona School Division.

She's getting settled in Winnipeg, and is now working as a florist. But it's been difficult, she said.

"I cried a lot," she said. "I needed to organize my life. It was not so easy."

For now, her plan is to stay in Canada with her son, but she can't help but become emotional when asked about her husband.

She's not sure when they will be able to see each other again. So for now, they'll celebrate the first day of school by sharing photos and phone calls.