Sunday, August 31, 2014

Refugees Start School

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - Many refugees are still not officially registered with schools because parents are still struggling to establish firm roots.

             'I came here only with the clothes you see me wearing', said Alexander ,tugging at his tee-shirt to demonstrate the point. Alex, a firm, honest, hard-working miner, who has a wife and two children, seemed upset but still managed to retain a calm composure. And no wonder he is upset. He has just arrived in Moscow only to be informed by phone that his street from the village had been pounded to a heap of smoldering rubble and dust. His beloved green-house which he had lovingly tended had been destroyed.

             To add insult to injury, Alex complained 'I have not been paid for two months!' When asked, 'Do you miss your village? Would you like to return?' He quickly answered 'Yes, I would like to return'.

             Like many refugees, Alex's world has been rudely and wrecklessly turned up side down rendering his family rootless and a stranger near Moscow in a huge city which must appear alien. For now, Alex, who has two children, one aged 12 and another 2, must confront many immediate questions, 'How to quickly get work?' 'Where exactly to live?' 'Where can my 12 year old son get an education?

             As befitting a miner, an ideal job would be to train as as a Moscow Metro driver. Like mining, driving in the Metro is an underground job. There was just one snag.

             It is unlikely that the Moscow Metro would employ him without either registration, a work permit or prospeeska.

             The Russian Federal Migration Service is refusing to grant political refugee status in Moscow and the local militia are also refusing to give registration. This is now official policy. Moscow is not the only city refusing to do this. This in effect means that refugees in the Moscow region are being left in the limbo of an almost semi if not fully illegal existence. They could in theory be stopped, detained and fined for simply being Ukrainian refugees.

             In deed, at present, I was informed that refugees from Ukraine are being forced to work illegally. Even if they do attain promised work, they can find themselves being used as 'slave labour' on some building sites where they are not even paid.

             I spoke to Vladimir Berkin, a director of a Moscow based charity organiser who works for 'predania' which helps refugees. He told me it is not always easy finding suitable accommodation for refugees from the Ukraine because some of the conditions attached to residence are difficult.

             'Not every refugee can live in an Orthodox monastery. When we helped send around 35 refugees to one monastery the refugees could not handle the strict conditions, especially the rule on 'no-smoking'. As many as 18 refugees quickly left the Monastery because of this.

             Vladimir told me he is worried that some of the refugees might retain too high expectations of life in Moscow and instead of looking for work, sit back and become too     dependent on work. 'Some  can often take to drinking all the time and I agree with you that this is a psychological problem that needs to be addressed.' Nevertheless, Vladimir's         group has effectively helped a lot of refugees obtain a place to stay and work in the other regions of Russia.

             He told me, 'Many of the refugees are women and children because many of the men prefer to stay behind to either take care of things or even fight in the war.' Vladimir stated that it is just impossible to establish accurate figures on how many refugees there are from Ukraine. He doubts the United Nation's estimate of 730,000. Since maybe an estimated one-third of refugees consists of children, their education remains a top priority for the Government and aid groups.

             The Ministry of Education has prepared at least 80,000 places for children in schools from the first of September.

             Yet many problems abound! For instance, most refugees don't have documents confirming the level of their education.

             Perhaps a much more pressing problem is that most refugee children don't know where they are going to live never mind which school they will attend. Their parents won't be able to find them a fixed address by the First of September. How will the children who do attend pay for the textooks and clothes?

             At present, in many regions of Russia, there is a dire shortage of kindergartens. Parents have to queue up for free places. This problem existed before the war.

             Parents of refugees who come into a region with their children won't have legal rights to place their children in local kindergartens unless the government intervenes to bend the rules.

             The financial costs of supporting refugees seems huge.

             According to some local government calculations; every student from the 1st-4th level costs 85,000 rubles a year, a student from the 5th to 9th class 107,000 rubles, a student from the 10th to 11th class,123,000 rubles. The financial cost of supporting a child at a kindergarten seems more complex as it can range from between 110,000 rubles to 120,000 rubles.

             It is fair to say that it is impossible to underestimate the huge cost in funding education. When it comes to financing free education at further education institutions, the situation grows even more mind-numbingly complex. Obviously preparing medical students will be more expensive than funding students of the humanities.

             Often universities provide a fixed quota of refugee students who are permitted to enter the institution for free of charge. For example, the Rector of Voronezsky State University Dmitri Yendvitsky stated he has provided 50 places for students from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The rector stated, 'They have chosen the most different fields, from engineering to the humanities. Although their knowledge is fully         adequate their psychological state represents a very complex component. Entering an institute of education won't just give them the right to carry on studying but socialising.' The Rector was at pains to explain the institute was no panacea for all the problems of the refugees as they may also require work to keep themselves going.

             Can the government, institutions and people rise to the challenging occasion of preparing refugee children for school?

             What is clear is that many charity organisations are attempting to fill the gap in the shortage of finance by widely appealing to the public to bring in stationary equipment such as notebooks, pens and textbooks to special pick-up points so they can be then redistributed to refugee families.

             They are often working hand in hand with the Russian media who have been actively publicising the plight of refugees every day. Just switch on a government channel and you can watch a refugee being either interviewed or helped. According to an F.O.M opinion poll, 74% of Russians would be happy to help the refugees in some way. Of course, some people are cynical about this aid. A sociologist called Leonti Bizov claims it is only the mass propaganda of the Russian state which stimulates compassion for the       refugees. Without this, Russians would be less likely to help refugees and might even find them annoying.

             Not everyone agrees with this. When I spoke to a coordinator at one Orthodox church Irina, who works to help the homeless as well as refugees through the charity 'Miloserdie,' she told me, 'Moscow is a city with a huge heart. When we asked local people to offer presents to poor people at Christmas, we got a great response where people brought over a 1000 presents ranging from macaroni to washing machines!'

             The softly spoken, attractive  and warm woman helps manage a collection point where locals can come in and leave all kinds of school equipment to help children on Church territory at Nikoloyamskaya street near central Moscow. Although not as many       people have come in to donate things, I did notice they had collected some material which was not too little. 'I'm hoping that when the church-goers come on Saturday and Sunday that we will get a response,' Irina told me. In fact, I was relieved to hand over around 40 Russian textbooks on 'How to be Polite in Russian'. I did not think many refugees would take kindly to a foreigner handing them such a textbook. It might appear offensively condescending.

             I asked Irina, 'Is not helping the homeless different from working with refugees?' She retorted, 'But there are many refugees amongst the homeless.' Then my mind started to be plagued by awful visions of homeless refugees wandering aimlessly  around the streets of Moscow, begging for rubles and being harassed by militia.

             Many of the refugees have found accommodation with relatives in Moscow but charity workers are wondering whether the patience of their hosts might be strained by their presence as stress after stress arises. I recently spoke to Olga , a woman who had     put up some relatives from Luhansk, who told me, 'I don't know how we are going to support them. We are poor ourselves and they are running out of money.' Her very words reminded me of the Greek author Xenophon who had penned the 'Memoirs of Socrates'. In one such dialogue, Socrates come across a distraught friend called Aristarchus. Socrates states, 'You look as though you are weighed down by something, Aristarchus. 

             'You ought to share the burden with your friends. Perhaps we can even relieve you a little.' Aristarchus explains that because of a civil war, he has had to offer shelter to 14 of his relatives and he doesn't know how he will keep them.

             The atmosphere is becoming too tense. Socrates says, 'Why don't you use their skills at weaving and spinning to help bring in an income? Buy wool and set them to work   and they will happily be obliged to make themselves useful.'

             Aristarchus follows Socrates advice and solves all the problems. Everyone in his household becomes much happier.

             When I last spoke to Olga, her husband had found a job and a place to stay for his refugee relatives in another Russian town. They seemed to have applied an old Socratian solution!

             Acknowledged sources

             1. (See Xeonophon, Conversations of Socrates,

              page 127, Memoirs of Socrates,2.7.1 Penguin


              the full details of this story which I adapted)

             2. I'm obliged to the paper Kommersant and

              author Aleksandr Chenikh's  article of 11th

              August, titled 'Preparing Refugees for the

              School  year'.

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