Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Languages in the community - welcoming Ukrainian families to Edinburgh

We hear from Ekaterina Popova and students about helping Ukrainian refugees adjust to life in Edinburgh.

Dr Ekaterina Popova is a Teaching Fellow in Russian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She has been involved in welcoming refugees from Ukraine to Edinburgh since April 2022.

With the support of her students, Ekaterina has been leading activities to help refugee children with education and music tuition, and adults with language skills. In this short article, she tells us what the project involves, and shares her students’ reflections on what they’ve gained from the experience.

A personal response to a humanitarian crisis

Photo of a woman in a Ukrainian blouse standing outside McEwan Hall
Ekaterina outside the University's McEwan Hall

“The crisis in Ukraine has deeply affected my students and myself personally” says Ekaterina, who was born in Russia and has Ukrainian heritage.

“My immediate thought was of the people fleeing the war. Many Ukrainian families have lost everything and the children’s education has been interrupted.”

“When the first Ukrainian refugees started to arrive in Edinburgh, I approached my students and asked how they felt about using their Russian skills for humanitarian goals. They were really enthusiastic!”

“Some of the students had previously worked with children in an educational setting, so I wanted to tap into that experience too”.

Active learning

After getting to know the new arrivals in person, Ekaterina identified three key areas that they needed help with, and with which students could be involved:

  • educational support for refugee children
  • music tuition for refugee children
  • language support for refugee adults

She then set about matching students with refugees, coordinating the students’ educational activities, and communicating with the children’s parents and their Edinburgh hosts.  

Taking one particular example to explain the educational support aspect of the project, Ekaterina tells us “a refugee family with three children struggled to get places in schools. Student tutors volunteered to visit their accommodation each morning and engage the children in fun activities, from teaching basic English skills to drawing, singing and playing games.”

“When school places were secured, the students continued to visit the family in the afternoons offering after-school activities, such as help with homework and local trips. Both their parents and hosts found this arrangement very positive overall and the children had a lot of fun.”

It has truly been such a wonderful experience, and my Russian has improved a lot. Communicating with the children can be very challenging, as they speak very fast and blur their words together, but it has also been very rewarding.

Year 2 Russian Studies student and volunteer tutor

Some students were able to restore the children’s access to interrupted music tuition, for example tutoring a refugee child in piano towards a performance of "Auld Lang Syne" at a concert at the Scottish Arts Club.

Others took the opportunity to improve their Russian by setting up Russian-English tandem pairs with displaced adult Ukrainians, most of whom speak Russian as their first or second language.

In doing so, Ekaterina says, “students and refugees could mutually benefit from each other’s language skills. Overall, it has been an invaluable experience for everybody involved.”

Working with Ukrainian refugee children has been one of life's rare opportunities to engage with your community in a truly beneficial manner. Having fairly limited experience in children's education, I was initially concerned that the support I had to offer would not be of much use, however, within but one lesson there was little doubt that I could be of genuine assistance. Working with the children, I was able to develop my own language skills along with an ability to conduct lessons/activities in an engaging manner. To see the children's own development in English language was a uniquely rewarding experience and I highly recommend this work to anyone seeking to volunteer their time for a mutually good cause.

Year 4 Russian Studies student and volunteer tutor

Ongoing support

Approaching the summer months, when schools were due to close for around six weeks, Ekaterina suspected that the children might lose much of what they’d learned if they stayed home all during the break.

Funded by Edinburgh Global and the University’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, she was able to secure 12 summer holiday club places for Ukrainian refugee children in the city and, working with seven student volunteers, to support the children to participate.

Over the following academic year, she has organised befriending and language exchange between young Ukrainians and Russian Studies students and language and exam support for Ukrainian pupils at a local authority High School.

She has also been running a small-scale music project together with an Edinburgh-based independent school providing piano tuition and language support to Ukrainian children. 

Update - May 2023. We are delighted to announce that Katia has won a University of Edinburgh Changemaker Award for her "extraordinary effort to support displaced Ukrainians, volunteering time and resources to help create a caring community".  

Are you interested in studying Russian?

Spoken by millions of people in Europe, Central Asia and beyond, Russian is the language of some of the most iconic literary and cultural works in history. Study it with us, and you’ll learn the language while exploring its social, cultural and political contexts. We teach a range of four-year undergraduate degrees, with the option to continue your study at postgraduate level.

Find out more about studying Russian with us

Related links

Find out more about our work in the community

Read about Ekaterina's work and other University projects with Ukraine on Edinburgh Local