School 'like a sanctuary' for Ukrainian children

Children in a line with paper plates picking food from a buffet
The school is held in Westbury-on-Trym in Bristol. [BBC]

A Saturday school for Ukrainian children has opened in Bristol to pass on their language and traditions.

It was set up because many children who came to the UK as refugees are too young to have properly learnt their native language so cannot communicate with loved ones back home.

Antonina Grebeniuk, founder of Ukraine Aid and Welfare, said: "We need to keep the traditions because one day we need to go back to our country and we want to make the transition as smooth as possible."

The school is held in Westbury-on-Trym in the north of the city.

Antonina Grebeniuk looks at the camera wearing a green top with yellow and blue balloons behind her
Antonina Grebeniuk is the founder of Ukraine Aid and Welfare [BBC]

Ms Grebeniuk, who has lived in Bristol for nine years, said: "The longer you live in the UK, you realise how difficult it is to keep your own language.

"Once they [children] are two, almost three years here, they are completely forgetting Ukrainian."

Two lines of children with some parents learning a dance
The school teaches traditions as well as the Ukrainian language [BBC]

Teenager Lisa helps out as a teaching assistant at the school.

"Even if we had to grow up early, we are children, we have our dreams," she said.

"These children are our future - if they come back to Ukraine, they will need to rebuild it."

Mariam, another teaching assistant, has two younger sisters and says one has started to be able to speak a little Ukrainian after going to the Saturday school.

Teenagers Mariam and Lisa look into the camera with balloons behind them
Teenagers Mariam and Lisa said the war has made Ukrainian children "grow up early" [BBC]

Natalie attends the school with her daughter Leila.

They came to the UK via sponsors, who Natalie said "became my second family" when Russian forces first invaded Ukraine in 2022.

She is now renting a property with her two children, but her husband and their dog are still in Ukraine.

Both Leila and Natalie wear floral headbands while drawing at a table
Leila - with mum Natalie - was a fan of the drawing [BBC]

"It's a really difficult decision to leave your homeland, leave everything behind," Natalie said.

But she added that the Saturday is school is "like a sanctuary" for the family.

"Most kids came here when they were two or three years old - they didn't even speak any of their own language and started speaking English immediately.

"It's very important for them to understand who they are. The cultural connection between generations should be saved and cherished," Natalie added.

Her daughter Leila says she enjoys the Saturday school, the drawing in particular, but does miss things back home.

"I really miss my school and my friends and speaking Ukrainian with them," she said.

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