Ukrainian students arriving in California find warm welcome at schools

A rally for peace in Ukraine takes place outside the White House in Washington on Feb. 27.

As Ukrainian families begin arriving in California, they’ll find some of the country’s most well-prepared schools for helping children who’ve fled violence abroad and are trying to adapt to life in a new country.

School districts throughout California, from urban centers to rural outposts, have long been serving immigrant students from war-torn regions and have well-established programs to help those students thrive. That includes mental health counseling, help learning English, summer programs, assistance with college and financial aid applications and other services aimed at helping refugee students and their families.

Some districts, including Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified, even have schools specially designed for newcomers.

“This work is in our blood,” said Lydia Acosta Stephens, executive director of Los Angeles Unified’s multilingual, multicultural education department. “We see that genuine smile and eagerness they have to learn. That twinkling in their eyes. And we will bend over backward to make those dreams come true.”

The number of Ukrainians who’ve come to California since the Russian invasion is unknown, but more than 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants lived in California in 2020, the second-largest population after New York, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Most of those immigrants lived in the Sacramento area, but thousands of others lived in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, more than 11 million have fled the country as bombing continues relentlessly. The United States plans to accept at least 100,000 through formal refugee programs, but thousands of others are seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border or arriving through other means.

Sacramento City Unified has greeted at least 12 new students from Ukraine since the war began. The district offers wide-ranging support for immigrant students, including a free immunization clinic, mental health counseling, English classes and services for families, such as help finding jobs and getting settled in the U.S. Afghan refugees arriving last fall found similar support in Sacramento, Elk Grove and other districts.

At St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, staff are busy helping new arrivals and rallying support for those still in Ukraine. At Easter services last month, the church had more than 1,000 people in the pews, about four times more than usual, said the Rev. Vasile Sauciur.

Many of those families plan to only stay in the United States temporarily, until the war ends, but as their children acclimate to school and make friends, it’ll be harder to leave, Sauciur said.

“The children won’t feel homesick because if their homes have been bombarded, there’s nothing for them to go home to. Home is just a memory,” he said. “But they might be a little scared because schools here are different. There’s new rules, new expectations. It’s hard. Teachers and classmates will have to be patient. But these children are very strong.”

Piedmont has also welcomed Ukrainian refugees. Here, PMS sixth grader Sophia Meyer cloaks the blue vase in a Ukrainian flag

Los Angeles Unified is also seeing a slow influx of Ukrainian students, as well as Russian students. LAUSD has a long history of supporting students fleeing violence abroad and has one of the state’s most robust programs for immigrant students and their families. About 25% of students in Los Angeles are immigrants, and 20% are English learners. The website We Are One L.A. Unified offers information on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, school enrollment, meals and other resources. The district offers English-language learner classes in Spanish, Armenian, Mandarin, Korean, Filipino, Russian, Afghan and indigenous Guatemalan languages.

In addition, most teachers in the 600,000-student district have training in bilingual instruction and recognizing students who’ve experienced trauma. Typically, students who need help are matched with mental health counselors or others who can assist with whatever struggle the children or their families are facing.

“Traditionally, L.A. Unified has been a gatekeeper — and a mirror — to what’s happening in the rest of the world. We see arrivals from wherever strife is happening,” said Pia Escudero, the district’s executive director of the division of student health and human services. “Many have seen atrocious things at home, or in their journey, but trauma does not define them. We strive to stabilize factors so children can thrive and be all they can be.”

Many of the students have high hopes for their new lives, she said.

“They want to be doctors, firefighters, business owners. Immigrants are tremendous contributors to our city and country,” she said. “If this country has taught us anything, it’s the importance of welcoming international newcomers.”

Another important aspect of welcoming students from war zones is curriculum that’s relevant to the experiences of students and their families, said Roxanne Makasdjian, director of the Genocide Education Project, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps schools teach about human rights and genocide.

By teaching all students about the violence and horrors that have occurred in various pockets of the world, such as the World War II Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the repeated wars in Ukraine, students can gain empathy, and tolerance for their newly arrived classmates, she said.

“When students understand the fight for human rights, it can reduce the ‘otherness’ of people,” she said. “It can validate students’ own personal identities and stories, and help students connect to each other. It can help build understanding and spark the humanity to help each other. … It can be a lifeline.”

Makasdjian’s organization has helped more than 6,000 high school teachers around the country teach about genocide, war and human rights.

At St. Vladimir Orthodox Cathedral, Sauciur made a similar point. In regard to schools, he said, the story transcends the experience of individual Ukrainian refugees.

“This is not just about Ukrainians being displaced from their homes,” he said. “It’s about humanity.”

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