Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Languages in the community - welcoming Ukrainian families to Edinburgh

In an updated article, we hear from the award-winning Ekaterina Popova and her students about helping Ukrainian refugees adjust to life in Edinburgh.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the displacement of nearly six million people across Europe. By spring 2023, around 3,000 Ukrainian refugees were living in Edinburgh, and 500 Ukrainian children were registered in the city’s schools.

Photo of Katia Popova at Old College, University of Edinburgh. It is a head and shoulders shot; she is looking at the camera.
Katia Popova photographed at Old College by Andrew Perry ©

When she heard of the first of these arrivals in late March 2022, Katia Popova’s thoughts immediately turned to the education of those fleeing the war. In the months since, supported by Russian-speaking students at the University of Edinburgh, she has helped scores of refugee children with learning and music tuition, and young adults with language exchange and befriending opportunities.

In this article - updated from one published in 2022, and originally written for Edinburgh Impact, Katia 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

Katia (shortened from Ekaterina) is a Teaching Fellow in Russian Studies. Born in Russia, she is of Ukrainian heritage.

Knowing the value Ukrainians place on education, she has been keen to ensure that displaced children’s schooling has not been derailed by war. When people’s most basic needs have been met, she says, education comes next.

Like most refugees, displaced Ukrainians are a vulnerable group often difficult to access through official channels. In the first months of the invasion, Katia used social media groups set up for and by Ukrainians to reach new arrivals and identify their needs.

Although she does not yet speak Ukrainian (she is learning), she understands it, and was able to broker relationships between the many Scottish people who wanted to help and those who needed it. “I really admired people’s response to this crisis” she says of the Scotland Ukraine Host Support Group and of the numerous other organisations who rallied to help. “I’m really proud to be part of this community.”

A learning curve for students

Prior to coming to Edinburgh, Katia taught English. When thinking about how to support younger Ukrainian children, she drew on the techniques she had used with other early learners, particularly Russian-speaking migrant children in Germany. She was also able to tap into the experiences of an enthusiastic group of her University students, some of whom had previously worked with children and were keen to volunteer. From drawing and singing to playing local and traditional games and going on trips, the emphasis was on learning through action and fun.

Katia and her team of volunteers have provided services for families at various stages of their journey, including helping children prior to their placement in schools, in-classroom language assistance, translating in school meetings with parents, and after-school activities. With University funding in 2022, they were able to secure more than a dozen summer holiday club places for Ukrainian refugee children in Edinburgh and to help the children participate.

“For many of the University students, it has been their first experience of working with displaced people,” says Katia, reflecting on the opportunities and challenges the students have faced engaging with young people whose lives have been so impacted by trauma. “It has been a learning curve for them, and they have had to adapt; learning to help, but also when and how to withdraw.”

“You can’t impose help,” Katia is keen to point out. This is particularly true when working with older children. It has sometimes been the case that a school has identified that a pupil needs help, but the young person does not see it or simply wants to be independent. In these cases, the approach has been to help the whole class and not single out the individual.

There have also been lots of opportunities for befriending between young Ukrainian adults and University students, those who already spoke Russian and those who are learning it as part of their degree programme.

Over the summer, I volunteered as a teaching assistant in a beginner English class, and worked with a Ukrainian tandem partner. I decided to take up these opportunities to help Ukrainians in need and to make them feel more comfortable and welcome in their new host country. I felt like a lot of the students connected with me and confided in me, more so than if I didn’t know any Russian. At breaks or after class, they would often chat to me in Russian about, for example, life in Scotland or even life in Ukraine, as well as other things. I met some of the kindest people I have ever come across and learnt a lot about the nature of Ukrainian people and their culture.

Year 3 Russian Studies student
Photo of a young man playing a reproduction piano at St Cecilia's Hall. He is seen seated, from the back.
Daniil, a young Ukrainian musician, playing a reproduction of a piano dating from 1794 at St Cecilia's Hall

Aside from the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Katia has prioritised access to music tuition for displaced Ukrainians. It is important, she says, because playing music is commonplace in Ukraine, including as an after school activity.

For the refugees she helps, being able to practice music regularly is about much more than playing an instrument –  it is about building routine, familiarity and structure into an otherwise disrupted life. It also has mental health and child development benefits, Katia stresses, emphasising how music can help people of all ages address and overcome challenges and build resilience.

There are a lot of moving parts to the various projects Katia has co-ordinated in such a short space of time, in addition to her day job.

What’s been the most challenging part? “Not being able to do more,” she says simply. She is energised by the Ukrainians she and her students have been able to reach, “seeing them progressing, becoming independent in a completely new environment, successfully adapting to their lives in Scotland, breaking barriers”.

There is always more to do, however, and more to learn about how to do it. But, as Katia says, “it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, otherwise how do you find out how to make the world better?”.

In May 2023, Katia Popova won a University of Edinburgh Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Award for her "extraordinary effort to support displaced Ukrainians, volunteering time and resources to help create a caring community". She was also shortlisted for The Community Impact Award in this year’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science’s peer award programme, the CAHSS Recognition Awards.  

I was paired up with a Ukrainian girl [and] now consider her a good friend. We often take walks around Edinburgh, talking about all sorts of topics in English but also in Russian. The experience has been a great way to develop conversation skills for both her English and my Russian.

Year 3 Russian Studies student

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

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Related links

Read this article in full on Edinburgh Impact

Find out more about our work in the community

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