44% of the Ukrainian parents interviewed have noticed a negative change in their children's behaviour since arriving in Poland.
Almost 50% of Ukrainian refugee children are currently enrolled in the Polish education system, with 30% of them also attending online classes in Ukraine, according to UNICEF.
“Losing the whole world” is the dominant narrative emerging from conversations with Ukrainian children.
Warsaw, Poland, 30 August 2023 — Social isolation, lack of language proficiency, and the effects of trauma and displacement still constitute significant barriers for Ukrainian children trying to integrate into the Polish education system, reveals a recent survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
As the third academic year following the escalation of the war is about to start on 4 September, premature transition into adulthood and a lack of certainty about the future continue to impact many of the more than 170,000 Ukrainian children currently enrolled in Polish schools.
Alan Moseley, IRC’s Poland Country Director, said:
“As we embark on the new academic year, each of the 85,000 Polish classrooms will welcome at least one refugee child. Our new report reveals that despite the initial welcome offered by the host community, Ukrainian children still encounter distinct barriers when trying to assimilate into schools. They mention that it is hard for them to make friends with their peers due to cultural differences and their lack of proficiency in Polish.
“The IRC’s survey highlighted several concerning issues. One mother shared that her child faced bullying at school, hearing comments like 'Go back to Ukraine.' Another parent expressed concern about her son with special needs being singled out due to his nationality and disability."
A 14-year-old survey participant living in Siedlce, Mazovia district, told the IRC:
“I attend a Polish school. There are six other Ukrainian children in our school, along with a girl from Belarus who arrived a few years back, but we don't have much contact. [...] We don't interact with Polish children. They ignore our presence at school. This is the second school I've attended. At first, I went to a different one here in Siedlce. On the first day, all the Polish children were super excited that Ukrainian children were their classmates. They asked about our Instagram pages and started following us. But it quickly vanished.”
“Considering that many adult survey participants were unsure about their future, it can be assumed that this uncertainty, compounded by actual or perceived discrimination, may impact children’s motivation to learn the language and integrate. That's why it is crucial to put even more emphasis on inclusion, bringing Polish and Ukrainian children together, fostering an atmosphere of understanding, and encouraging mutual learning. As noted by a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine, improving his Polish helped him become part of a group at school.”
The IRC is actively engaged with children, students, and teachers in the pursuit of a more inclusive school environment. Collaborating closely with the Polish Migration Forum, we support intercultural assistants who act as bridges between Ukrainian families and the Polish school community. The assistants play a crucial role in aiding families to recover from challenging experiences and adapt to their new reality.
Below, you will find excerpts that underscore the challenges Ukrainian children encounter in Poland, as revealed in the IRC interviews. The comprehensive IRC protection monitoring report will be accessible later on this month.
Long-term Distress and its Symptoms
"I believe I'm more mature now and more connected to the Ukrainian context than when I was in Ukraine. I keep track of all the apps with shelling alarms for my region and often wake up at night to check the status. I become very anxious when I hear a plane or helicopter approaching. My parents put me on sleeping pills when the war started because I couldn't sleep. I also often wonder if Poland is truly a safe country." (Female, 17, Siedlce)
Some children have to grapple with the horrors of the war they witnessed in Ukraine as well as stress connected to their displacement experience. One emerging pattern identified during the analysis, possibly symptomatic of stress among children, is the occurrence of eating disorders. A 15-year-old girl from Warsaw mentioned that she has lost weight since arriving in Poland because "she forgets to eat." A 12-year-old boy highlighted the opposite issue – he resorts to stress-eating and gains weight. Other health-related issues mentioned by participants include insomnia, fatigue, and anxiety.
Uncertainty About the Future
"We used to live in a village in Ukraine, and I had numerous friends. I would spend most of my time outdoors with them. Now we live in this quiet, small town, and there's hardly anything happening here. I don't have friends and rarely go outside." (Female, 14, Siedlce)
"I used to be happier. Now, I have many responsibilities and I am confronted with decisions about my future. All of this affects me so much. I've become less communicative, less confident, more reserved, and sadder." (Female, 14, Siedlce)
"Losing their entire world" is a common narrative, particularly among the children who resided in villages and small towns before coming to Poland.
Premature Transition to Adulthood
"Initially, I always try to resolve my problems independently. I don't want to be a burden on my parents. If I can't manage, I get in touch with my mother, though she is in Ukraine. For any matters requiring assistance in Poland, I turn to my boyfriend’s mother, who also happens to be my legal guardian." (Female, 17, Siedlce)
"School is behind me now, and my intention is to start working full-time to earn money for myself and to make it easier for my parents to move to Poland." (Female, 17, Mazovian voivodeship)
Some young people feel abandoned with their problems. The interviewees noted having limited contact with their parents or experiencing the sensation of "being a burden," leading to an overarching feeling of isolation. Another 14-year-old girl shared that the person she trusts for help is not her mother but her sister, who is of the same age. She also revealed that certain situations make her feel uneasy or even unsafe, but she refrains from discussing them with her mother to prevent causing worry. Several participants mentioned feeling responsible not only for their own financial situation, but also for their parents.
About the survey
Between April and June 2023, the IRC has been conducting protection analysis through the Protection Monitoring (PM) of Persons of Concern (PoC) residing in the Warsaw and Katowice regions, encompassing 274 adult individuals.
In addition to General Protection (CP) Monitoring, as of May 2023, the IRC has initiated Child Protection (CP) monitoring. The primary objective of Child Protection monitoring is to explore the perspectives of teenagers from Ukraine (ages 12-17) regarding their situation in Poland, focusing on the psychosocial consequences of displacement, perceptions of safety in Poland, support networks (relationships with family members and peers), and integration into Polish society.
In May 2023, individual interviews were conducted with 19 refugees from Ukraine aged 12-17. The final sample comprised 12 girls and 7 boys who participated in the individual interviews, with 11 participants aged 12-14 and 9 participants aged 15-17.
Each interview is preceded by the guardian's consent. The guardian also provides demographic information, including the child's age, gender, household composition, disabilities, or chronic illnesses. Before the interview begins, the child is also asked to confirm their willingness to participate.
A total of 395 children in Polish schools have received support from 13 intercultural assistants trained and employed by the IRC and the Polish Migration Forum. The IRC has commenced collaboration with Teach for Poland on our healing classrooms model, involving 40 Polish and 12 Ukrainian teachers.