Ukrainian students say language, friendships, memories toughest hurdles to overcome


"[The] first day was awful for me."

"English is not my second language, it's my fourth language. So it's really hard to keep all languages in my mind at the same time."

"When I hear some loud noises, like fireworks, for me it's kinda like I can feel something inside me which I can't explain it, can't describe it."

These are just some of the comments made by Ukrainian students attending a three-week boot camp to learn English at Western Canada High School in Calgary.

Each one shares the challenges they face learning a new language, understanding a new school system, making friends and worrying about those they left behind when they fled the war-ravaged country.

CBC News spoke to them recently during one of their lessons run by the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth. The organization started offering the after-school program for all grades last fall.

The foundation's program director says the initial focus was on providing additional language and cultural supports based on families' requests. It wasn't until months later staff noticed other issues emerge and realized they needed to provide mental health supports, too.

a girl in a green sweater sits at a desk in a classroom

Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth says it's seeing a rise in requests for mental health supports to help Ukrainian students settle and address trauma. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

"So when kids come, they might come with guilt or with shame or with embarrassment or just feeling like they don't want to be here," said Lorraine Kinsman.

"Kids might want to run away, they might not want to come to school. I mean, sometimes you get a child who says, 'I don't want to live anymore.' And so those are the kinds of issues that you don't want to just let go."

First-hand experiences

Illia Bykov, 17, arrived in Calgary last June with his mother and two brothers from a small town in Ukraine, not far from the Romanian border. 

He says it wasn't easy for him at first, calling his first day of school "awful" because he didn't understand what was going on.

"I was so confused because of language because, well, I used to study it in Ukraine before, but maybe because of accent I was struggling to understand people," said Bykov.

And with that lack of understanding, he said, came a lack of connection.

a boy sitting at a desk wears a grey sweatshirt. he is smiling

Illia Bykov says his first day at his Calgary high school was awful because he was confused and didn't have friends, but a lot has changed since then. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

"It was a big problem for me because I don't have enough confidence to making new friends here. It's hard when you're not speaking English really good to make friends."

School officials say there have been about 40 Ukrainian students attending Western since the start of the year. And about 15 of them, including Bykov, attend the after-school program.

Mariia Stailovska, 15, came from Mariupol with her mother and younger sister via Poland last July.

She says she also struggled at first because of a language barrier.

"English is not my second language, it's my fourth language. So it's really hard to keep all languages in my mind at the same time," said Stailovska.

Stailovska says the school system is completely different in Ukraine — another source of confusion.

"I really wish that someone from Ukraine or who speaks Ukraine would just explain me everything," she said.

For some of the students who spoke to CBC News, it's thoughts of home that weigh on them.

"I try to support my friends who are in Ukraine, of course, and that's why sometimes I can be sad because of it. But mostly I try to live here, not in Ukraine," said Anna Cherkasova, 17.

Cherkasova, an only child, says the war had been going on for about eight months when they initially fled to France before moving to Calgary. She said she still gets triggered by loud sounds such as fireworks.

"For me, it's kinda like I can feel something, something inside me which I can't explain it, can't describe it. But now I feel comfortable. And yeah, I try not to think about it. "

Requests on the rise

The Bridge Foundation says that since December it's seen an increase in requests for mental health support among Ukrainian students.

Kinsman says it's especially difficult for the older students who are in search of a peer group. 

Kinsman calls them mostly "settling in" issues, related to language, culture and belonging. But she says there are also those who need help with emotional trauma.

"(We're) just at the tip of the iceberg, starting to figure out what those mental health issues might be," said Kinsman.

"Sometimes they look like they could be a trauma issue when really they're just a belonging issue. And so it's about making connections with kids and helping them build relationships. To me, that's the most important piece."

The foundation has one social worker who can provide guidance and assistance to the schools. They also have two mental health workers who can be connected to parents if needed.

But they say they could always use more. They expect a similar influx of Ukrainian students next year, and even more the following year.

Bykov believes personal counsellors are an important resource for Ukrainian students. 

"Definitely you struggle with some mental problems sometimes, and you need some support. And it's totally OK to have someone who can support you in these hard moments in your life when you arrive into new country," said Bykov.

'Stick to their own' at first

The teenagers who spoke to CBC News said having a support network of other Ukrainian students has been key to their ability to excel and fit in. 

And as their language and confidence improves, school officials say they see these students beginning to branch out.

"At the beginning of October, they really stuck to their own, to their own group, which makes sense. It's security, it's comfort, and it's a way to rest your brain," said Dina Fedotova, a teacher at Western Canada High school.

"(Now) I'm seeing them starting to interact more and more with students who speak other languages and integrate into the rest of the student body," Fedotova added.

Stailovska says that while she still misses Ukraine every day, she now looks forward to building her future here, where she says she has more career opportunities.

"I haven't decided yet, but I think it's probably medicine … maybe dentist," she said.

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