Petershausen: Ukrainian children attend the German elementary school – Dachau

“Bouquet of flowers,” Lukas, 9, reads and when he remembers that he always has to explain the word, he adds: “That’s a lot of flowers in one pile.” Rubina, 8, simply says to “May”: “That’s a month.” Explaining spring word for spring word – just as their teacher Magdalena Leibl instructed them – the two of them creep down the hall in front of the 3a classroom, always closely followed by Tatjana, who pushes her brother Ivan in front of her in a wheelchair.

It’s the Monday after the Easter holidays, just after 9 a.m. The second hour is in full swing. Everyone just walked back and forth through the classroom, now most of the children have bent over their brown-covered “cabbage and turnip notebook” and are writing down which spring words have stayed in their heads – only Tatjana and Ivan look a little lost. But then Magdalena Leibl comes along, hands each of them a tablet. With a lot of gestures, the teacher shows them that they have to press the colorful symbols to have the German word read to them again. Ivan presses one. A female voice reads: “Flower bouquet”.

Ten-year-old Tatjana and her brother Ivan, who turned nine a few days ago, are two of a total of ten Ukrainian children who have been attending elementary school in Petershausen for a few weeks. They fled from Kirovograd in the heart of Ukraine, like so many others without their father. Like the other eight refugee children who are now attending elementary school in Petershausen, they came with the first refugee movement at the beginning of the war. As of Monday morning, there are 251 of them across the county. Like Tatjana and Ivan, they are partly taught in regular classes, partly in so-called welcome classes or in language support classes. According to Sina Török from the district office, most of them attend primary and secondary schools, and some also attend vocational schools.

Alexandra Wolff heads the Petershausen elementary school.

(Photo: Toni Heigl)

If you ask headmistress Alexandra Wolff in advance how the newcomers are settling in, she says: “It’s quite challenging.” On the one hand, of course, there is the language barrier. On the other hand, one looks into an uncertain future. Although some of the parents would signal that they wanted to stay for the time being, many would prefer to return home as soon as possible. However, it is more than unclear whether and when a return to Ukraine will be possible. Uncertainty is gnawing at the families, the situation requires a certain spontaneity from the district schools – probably also when planning the coming school year in autumn.

At the Petershausen elementary school, everyone was looking forward to the Ukrainian children

For the students in class 3a, however, things are quite simple: they are happy about their new classmates and potential new friends, regardless of the language barrier. “Children are very uncomplicated,” is Wolff’s impression. When it became clear that her primary school would take children, the headmistress says, almost everyone would have wanted some to come to their classes. Ultimately, they distributed the Ukrainian children across all eleven classes, with a maximum of two in each class. What do you do when there are more? Then they look at it.

Wolff is not only concerned about Ukrainian school children, she would also be happy about teachers from Ukraine. She has already spoken to two of them, but she hasn’t signed a contract for fear of “not coming back” – although Wolff can assure you that no one will be forced to stay once the war in Ukraine is over is. She is hoping for support from Ukrainian teachers by the new school year at the latest.

“We can’t split into three.”

Because one thing is certain: there has been a shortage of teachers not just since the beginning of the war. So that extra German lessons could be held for children like Tatjana and Ivan, the entire timetable had to be adjusted once. One tries what is possible to do justice to all children in the best possible way, says Wolff. But she also says, “We can’t split into three.”

Meanwhile, in class 3a, classes continue. The children are now sitting in a circle in front of the blackboard, while the others have naturally made room for Ivan’s wheelchair. One after the other they can say one of the spring words, then the whole class repeats it. Depending on how teacher Leibl announces it, it is whispered, shouted or said at a normal volume. If you look at Tatjana out of the corner of your eye, you can see how she tries to repeat the words she has not yet heard.

If you later ask her with the help of a translation app how she likes her new school and whether she has already made friends, she only answers in monosyllables with “good” and “yes”, but the short smile on the young face reveals that that she is happy to be here – and that she can at least answer the questions in German. Anyone who observes her longer will also notice how attentively she listens, how she seems to absorb everything. Headmistress Wolff is certain: school as a piece of normality is important for children like Tatjana – even if she still doesn’t have the words to express it.

Petershausen: Elementary school teacher Magdalena Leibl is used to explaining things in English in class.

Elementary school teacher Magdalena Leibl is used to explaining things in English in class.

(Photo: Niels P. Jørgensen)

In Magdalena Leibl’s “multicultural class”, Tatjana and Ivan are by no means the only ones whose mother tongue is not German. A total of nine nations are represented in the classroom. It has long been a matter of course for Leibl that she has to translate a lot of things in class into English. Rubina only says: “It would be stupid if we were only Germans in the class.”

Tatjana and Ivan are not the only ones whose mother tongue is not German

Leibl speaks English, for example, so that Sanmaya understands everything. The eight-year-old only came to Germany from India in December. At home she speaks English with her parents, among other things, but even if you hear her speak German, it’s hard to believe that she hasn’t even attended elementary school in Petershausen for half a year .

Because she, like Mate, 10, who came to Germany from Hungary four years ago, can still remember very well what it was like to sit in the classroom without being able to speak a word of German, it goes without saying that the to help the two newcomers. That’s what Anna, 9, tells us, who can even talk to Tatjana and Ivan in their mother tongue because she learned a little Russian from her dad. For the time being, headmistress Wolff has to rely on the support of children like Anna, who speak Russian or even Ukrainian.

Like the rest of the teaching staff, teacher Leibl can neither speak Ukrainian nor Russian. Nevertheless, it is possible to exchange ideas with her protégés: thanks to a translation app on her cell phone, into which she and Tatjana speak alternately – Tatjana in Ukrainian, Leibl in German. The elementary school teacher can ask Tatjana and her brother whether they understood this or that, or explain that Ivan can only give out the sweets he has with him because it was his birthday during the holidays. This is a bit unusual and cumbersome, but it works. Do misunderstandings sometimes arise? Leibl laughs: “Every now and then you talk past each other.”

“I’m glad they’re here now,” says Lorena with a matter-of-factness that children tend to have. It is her answer to the question of how she thinks that Tatjana and Ivan are now going to her class. The nine-year-old says her parents told her about the war in their home country. “I want this to stop.” She doesn’t want her new friends to continue to be so sad. “We want to try to make them happy,” she says. It sounds determined.

Petershausen: Magdalena Leibl (left) and Tatjana talk using a translation app.

Magdalena Leibl (left) and Tatjana talk using a translation app.

(Photo: Niels P. Jørgensen)

This is of course easier said than done. Because it cannot be overlooked that Tatjana, who lovingly takes care of her younger brother, hardly laughs. And you can’t shake the feeling that it’s not just because she hardly understands anything that Lukas, Anna, Mate, Rubina and the others are giggling about. In any case, it’s not surprising that the Easter egg she finishes coloring an hour later in art class looks suspiciously like the Ukrainian flag: it’s yellow on one side and blue on the other. It’s cold consolation that the little girl with the pink sweater and blonde ponytail is sitting in the warm 3a classroom this Monday morning – and not in Kirovograd, where bombs could fall from the sky at any time.

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