New Donbas volunteers together with kids and teachers at one of the front line schools Photo: New Donbas
Alex Nicholas Khan is a young volunteer from Spain who has visited more than 17 countries, including those which have suffered conflicts, such as Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Ghana, Senegal, Kosovo and Bosnia. At the end of 2015, before GoCamps had been started, he joined a similar initiative: New Donbas. The aim of the organization was to support children from schools near the front line. The volunteers brought some material aid, but most importantly, they stayed with the kids for over a week, doing various workshops with them. The goal of this was to establish a dialogue between the kids and volunteers, intending to ease the children’s stress and increase their trust in others.
Being in Ukraine for the first time, with no knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian at all, Alex went to schools on the front line as a volunteer English teacher. He volunteered in the Stanichno-Luhansk region of the Luhansk Oblast; some of the schools were located just 2-3 kilometers away from the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
“I knew that we would be 2 kilometers away, but I did not know that we would be able to see it,” remembers Alex.
He explains the desire to visit the conflict’s hot spots like this:
“It came from the curiosity of wanting to see how is it possible for human beings to inflict violence against each other. But then the desire to understand what conflict and violence feels like turned into the desire to be a part of it and to contribute in positive ways. What drives me to visit these hot spots now is just wanting to do something important with my life.”
During the volunteer mission, the volunteers had five classes a day, with children of different ages.
“I decided to focus on vocabulary because everybody can do that,” Alex says.
He admits that the local English teachers are nice, but quite often simply lack the skills to teach English:
“I would encourage young foreigners to go there because I think that the kids are a lot more interested in foreign English teachers,” Alex reflects.
Ala Morozova used to teach English in a school of Mykolayivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast. She experienced firsthand all the drawbacks of the current educational system. According to her, these are five common challenges when it comes to teaching English in Ukrainian schools:
1. Young teachers who know English well enough are not interested in working in schools because they are offered extremely low salaries.
“For this reason, we mostly have old teachers, with old methods, views, and approaches to upbringing. They are uncompromising and shout in order to provide discipline during lessons,” Ala states.
2. The universities are not preparing future teachers for reality; the theory taught there can hardly be applied in practice.
“There is also a problem that teachers work with kids aged 6-17 years old. Either you are too serious, which is unacceptable in the younger classes, or you are too funny and soft, which may not be perceived well by high school students. You have 1-2 grades in the schedule when you dance and sing, and then 10-11 right after it, ” explains the former school teacher.
3. The classes are too big:
“Can you imagine that 28 and more students can be divided into two subgroups, but 27 and less cannot be? In the best case scenario, a teacher has 1-1.5 minutes for each student,” Ala laments.
4. The quality of educational materials is low. The information is often outdated. Also, past lessons are not integrated with new topics.
According to Ala, English books used in Ukrainian schools have been rewritten several times in the past 20 years. However, in general, the information is outdated:
“There are great foreign courses like Family and Friends, Activate, Round Up, and so on. Why should we spend millions for new-old textbooks when good ones already exist?”
5. Last but not the least, there is not enough motivation for kids to study English. They are just not interested.
Alex remembers his own childhood when, because of not having enough attention from his parents and teachers, he was falling into negativity and contemplating dangerous things. There was one teacher, however, who helped him step out of that dangerous path: “All he did was give me attention and listen,” recalls Alex. As a volunteer, Alex tried to be such person, giving attention to kids who needed it.
“I saw many children in the schools who were falling into negativity. There was one child who did not want to participate in the class. He was always drawing something. When I went to have a look at what he was drawing, I saw that he had made a diagram of every type of gun. He drew each gun perfectly and correctly named each one: AK-47, AK-74, RPG96 and everything.
For me, it was a sign that he was not given attention. He was being ignored and has been made to feel unimportant. I think a lot of children feel this way. I saw it in Palestine; when children fall into negativity, they end up being soldiers or, in the case of Palestine, suicide bombers,” Alex states.
He goes on, describing how important it is to include more listening and attention in the classes:
“It makes the students feel important and lets them know that it is possible to do what you want in your life. That is important because that means you have the power to choose. Once they understand it and start putting these ideas into practice, I think they will become very powerful people. I think it was very impactful that we came here with New Donbas. It is not something that happens every day for them, so they will remember it.”
Nazar Bakukha, from Mykolayivka, studied in the school where the New Donbas volunteer mission took place.
The city experienced the war in the summer of 2014. Afterward, the volunteers came to help to reconstruct the school and to support the children. The mission gave birth to several new initiatives which involved the citizens of Mykolayivka – films, theater productions, a newspaper, and student exchange trips to different cities and even countries. The volunteer mission and the events that followed led to Nazar entering the Ukrainian Leadership Academy, an educational institution which implements a format of study which is unique within Ukraine. The academy was opened in 2015. For Nazar, the academy not only offered new ways of studying but also gave him the opportunity to travel, a luxury which is not affordable for many young people in Ukraine.
Nazar believes that practicing English abroad is one of the most effective ways to learn it. He also recognizes that Ukrainian schools can give very little knowledge in English; his peers who know the language well learned it in special centers. This is how Nazar describes the importance of knowing English:
“Five years ago, it was a big plus to your CV. Now it is expected that the average specialist in any field should know English. Open any site for job search – English is required for all the vacancies that offer mediocre salaries. I am not talking about the importance of knowing it for tourism and travels. In the conditions of total globalization, English is still a powerful bridge of communication. To put it simply, if you want to develop yourself [as a person and a professional] – learn English.”
Interaction with volunteers is not a one-way benefit. The volunteers receive an opportunity to enhance their own cultural experience; to know Ukraine not only from media but to feel the country and receive unbiased information about it.
Are you an English speaker? Do you support Ukraine and want to make something important for it? Then do not hesitate to fill the application.
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