Students from St. Martin Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton welcome Ukrainian refugee newcomers to their school. Photo courtesy St. Martin School

Schools manage influx of Ukrainian refugees

By 
  • May 12, 2022

St. Martin Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton has so far welcomed 39 refugee students from Ukraine over the last two plus months since Russian troops  invaded their country.

It’s a number that is expected to grow as the war continues. 

One of four Ukrainian bilingual schools in Edmonton Catholic Schools, almost the entire staff and student population at St. Martin has family roots in the war-torn nation. Staff have come together as a community to support fellow Ukrainians.

Handling the large influx of students has not been easy. Absorbing them into pre-existing classrooms, principal Angela Zapisocki has been working to manage the increased workload on educators and recently hired two new staff to help accommodate the increasing numbers.

“I did talk to my teachers (at the beginning of the crisis) and said we could have very full classrooms,” said Zapisocki. “I asked, ‘How do you feel about that?’ and their response to me at the time was, ‘We don’t care, we’ll make room.’ This is very close to home for them, and they want to do everything they can.”

Zapisocki said it will be a challenge now, but the school should be better prepared for the next school year.

“It’s a blessing that we are looking at the last weeks of school, so the impact right now is temporary,” she said. “In September with the increase in enrolment, we’ll be able to make sure that we’ve got everything in place to meet the demand.”

For the young newcomers, being surrounded by a Canadian community that speaks their language, understands their culture and empathizes with the trauma they are going through has helped to foster a sense of comfort, said Zapisocki. The new students seem to be adjusting well to the system and routines.  

So far, 96 Ukrainian refugees have entered Catholic schools in Edmonton since the Russian invasion and are mostly distributed between the four Ukrainian bilingual programs, which also include St. Matthew’s Elementary School, St. Brendan Junior High School and Austin O’Brien High School. 

One World… One Centre has been providing intake, assessment and support services to newcomer families who would like to attend an Edmonton Catholic school. A division of the school board, manager Karen Fabris says newcomers are primarily living with Canadian family members or unrelated hosts who have opened their homes to refugees. Through the program families are offered a program at an English-speaking school in closest proximity to where they are living and are also given the opportunity to attend a Ukrainian bilingual school. All but 10 families have chosen the latter. 

A Ukrainian-speaking intercultural liaison has been working with families to navigate the school system. The school board is also hosting sessions offered by the Ukrainian Congress for staff on how to talk to children about war.

“Many in our school councils, parishes, parents and community have stepped up to support these students, whether that be through hosting them personally, helping to drive them from the airport, doing fundraisers in the school or collecting clothing,” said Fabris. “Whatever they are able to do, they are doing. I’ve seen a lot of positive in that way where our communities are coming together to support this group of students and families… We’re just hoping we can do everything we can to help them settle and be comfortable and positive. And of course, praying for them and praying for the end of (the war).”

Since the beginning of the conflict, the mental health of the school community has been a primary concern, said Zapisocki. Many staff and students have experienced challenges because they have family in Ukraine.

Within a few days of the invasion, the school recognized trauma support was needed. The crisis management team at the school board was deployed which includes the religious education director, the bishop of the Edmonton Ukrainian Eparchy and the district chaplain for the Ukrainian Catholic Church. They arrived within days and spent time visiting classrooms, answering questions and praying with students. The priests at St. Basil’s Ukrainian Catholic Church have also spent time with staff and students.

“From the perspective of the staff, they love that (spiritual support),” said Zapisocki. “When they go into the staff room and they’re having those (difficult) moments and that person is there who understands what they’re feeling and understands their trauma, because they’re also experiencing it, you can see them visibly relax. You could see the stress reduction. They know that there’s somebody there that understands.

“We’re getting such great wraparound resources from the entire community. From Catholic Social Services to United Way to local businesses, it’s been amazing to see how people have stepped up to support our community.”

Alberta Health Services has a mental health therapy program which the school has access to to provide immediate triage support for students and families. They have also added a counsellor to staff who is at the school two days a week to provide social and emotional support to students one-on-one and in small groups. A family school liaison and social worker are acting as a bridge between families and the community to help them to find additional resources, including mental health and job search supports when needed.

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