Opening of a Ukrainian school in Tbilisi
A crowd of chirping children dressed in traditional Ukrainian vyshyvankas and wines (embroidered shirts and flower crowns) dumped in the schoolyard. Teachers in festive attire rushed to herd them into groups, while parents snapped photos of the special moment in their children’s lives: the start of a new school year.
Inside, their new classmates were waiting to greet them with balloons and flags, Georgian and Ukrainian. The new students, numbering about 100, were displaced from their homes in Ukraine by the Russian invasion.
Today, just six weeks after the start of the war, a group of displaced Ukrainian educators, together with the Georgian Ministry of Education, launched a Ukrainian language school, hosted by State School 41 in the center of Tbilisi. It will teach the standard Ukrainian curriculum in the Ukrainian language to children of all levels.
“I can’t thank the administration of School 41 enough. It’s not easy to accommodate 100 children and also a group of new teachers,” said Olena Kukharevska, a Kyiv school principal who teaches physics and leads the new school, at the April 11 opening ceremony.
As Kukharevska spoke, the teachers – some of them also war refugees and others Ukrainian expats who were already living in Tbilisi – stood, holding up the number of lessons they were going to teach.
“The mission of teachers here is not just to give education, but to bring together children from different parts of Ukraine who are now scattered all over Georgia, to help them make friends with each other and with Georgian children,” Alla Timoshenko, who teaches beginner-level math and the Ukrainian language, told Eurasianet.
Since the start of the war, more than 4.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country. An estimated 25,000 of them traveled to Georgia, where they found many people eager to help.
Despite the date of mid-April, the Georgian staff have endeavored to create the festive atmosphere characteristic of a new school year in this part of the world. The school building was decorated with balloons; teachers and other staff wore sashes, headdresses or brooches in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“It’s a bittersweet moment for us,” a Ukrainian mother told Eurasianet during the opening. “My youngest son’s very first day of school is going to be here. I always imagined that this day would come to our neighborhood at home in Kharkiv, but I don’t think my neighborhood exists anymore.
“At the same time, I am incredibly touched by Georgians doing this for us. It’s so moving to see how everyone strives to make the children happy,” she added. “I hope the children will finally remember the kindness of the people, not the war and the explosions.”
Before the children entered the building, music teacher Olga Rabba, a refugee from the Donbass region, took a microphone to sing Oi u luzi chervona kalyna (Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow), an early 20th-century Ukrainian patriotic tune that became an anthem of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion. After finishing, Georgian Education Minister Mikheil Shkhenkeli took two children by the hand and walked them to school.
The Georgian government is footing the school bill and will pay Ukrainian teachers the standard Georgian teacher salary. While the curriculum will be identical to the one they followed in their home schools in Ukraine, students will also study Georgian as a foreign language to help them integrate with their new Georgian classmates.
Ukrainian students will study afternoons and evenings, in a second shift after Georgian students finish the day.
“School is a big new expense for the Georgian education system, which has many needs of its own, and it must also be difficult for the school administration – children in the morning, children in the evening – but they have been incredibly open “, Kukharevska, the new director, told Eurasianet.
The idea for a Ukrainian school in Tbilisi emerged when Kukharevska, who ran a private high-tech school in Kyiv, arrived in Georgia in mid-March.
“After the war started, we sat every day in the basement of my school in kyiv,” she recalls. “The whole neighborhood would gather there during the airstrikes and we would cook for everyone.”
As security deteriorated, Kukharevska, a handful of teachers and the dive team coach hatched a plan to get the children out of Ukraine. “A German sports school agreed to take these children, so we filled up the cars – luckily we still had gas – and drove them to Poland,” she said. “I have a lot of sources in schools all over Ukraine, so everywhere we went I would contact local schools and they would let us stay overnight or protect us from airstrikes.”
The group eventually dropped off their cars near the border and crossed into Poland on foot. Once in Germany, “the teachers said goodbye and scattered in different directions,” Kukharevska said. She headed to Georgia because she had friends who offered to help her.
When Ukrainian diplomats in Tbilisi learned that she was a school principal, they asked her to try to organize a school for refugee children.
She tested the waters by posting a sign-up sheet for a potential Ukrainian school on a Facebook page for Ukrainians in Tbilisi. “It filled up with dozens of applications almost immediately,” she said.
School 41 was chosen because it is named after the early 20th century Ukrainian statesman Mykhailo Hrushevsky and briefly offered classes in Ukrainian about a decade ago. But classes were suspended due to lack of demand: at the time, much of Georgia’s small Ukrainian diaspora preferred Russian-language schools.
“Now even those parents are coming back and putting their children in Ukrainian classes,” Kukharevska said. “Some of the children enrolled in our school are not newcomers to Georgia, but come from Ukrainian families who have been here for some time.”
“It’s part of the national awakening that we now see everywhere,” Kukharevska said. “The war has become a stark reminder that we are all Ukrainians and wherever we are, we should study in our own language.”