Credit: Mike Maguire/Flickr

A rally for peace in Ukraine takes place in front of the White House in Washington on February 27.

As Ukrainian families begin to arrive in California, they will find some of the best-prepared schools in the country to help children who have fled violence abroad and are trying to adjust to life in a new country.

School districts across California, from urban centers to rural outposts, have long served immigrant students from war-torn areas and have well-established programs to help these students thrive. This includes mental health counseling, English language learning support, summer programs, assistance with financial and academic aid applications, and other services to help refugee students and their families. . Some districts, including Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified, even have schools designed specifically for newcomers.

“This work is in our blood,” said Lydia Acosta Stephens, executive director of Los Angeles Unified’s multilingual and multicultural education department. “We see that sincere smile and that desire they have to learn. That twinkle in their eyes. And we will bend over backwards to make those dreams come true.

The number of Ukrainians who have come to California since the Russian invasion is unknown, but more than 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants lived in California in 2020, the second largest population after New York, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Most of these immigrants lived in the Sacramento area, but thousands more lived in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, more than 11 million people have fled the country as shelling continues unabated. The United States plans to accept at least 100,000 under official refugee programs, but thousands more seek asylum at the US-Mexico border or arrive by other means.

Sacramento City Unified has welcomed at least 12 new Ukrainian students since the war began. The district offers a wide range of support for immigrant students, including a free vaccination clinic, mental health counseling, English classes, and services for families, such as help with job search and installation in the United States. Afghan refugees who arrived last fall found similar support in Sacramento, Elk Grove and other neighborhoods.

At St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, staff are busy helping newcomers and rallying support for those still in Ukraine. At Easter services last month, the church had more than 1,000 people in the pews, about four times more than usual, Reverend Vasile Sauciur said.

Many of these families plan to stay in the United States only temporarily, until the end of the war, but as their children acclimate to school and make friends, it will be more difficult to leave, Sauciur said.

“Children won’t feel homesick because if their homes have been bombed, there’s nothing for them to come home to. Home is just a memory,” he said. “But they might be a little scared because the schools here are different. There are new rules, new expectations. It’s hard. Teachers and classmates will need to be patient. But these children are very strong.

Los Angeles Unified is also seeing a slow influx of Ukrainian students, as well as Russian students. LAUSD has a long history of supporting students fleeing violence abroad and has one of the strongest programs in the state for immigrant students and their families. About 25% of students in Los Angeles are immigrants and 20% are learning English. The We Are One LA Unified website offers information on deferred action for child arrivals, school registration, meals, and other resources. The district offers English classes in Spanish, Armenian, Mandarin, Korean, Filipino, Russian, Afghan, and native Guatemalan.

Additionally, most teachers in the district of 600,000 students have training in bilingual teaching and recognizing students who have experienced trauma. Typically, students who need help are matched with mental health counselors or others who can help them deal with the challenges the children or their families are facing.

“Traditionally, LA Unified has been a gatekeeper — and a mirror — to what’s happening in the rest of the world. We’re seeing arrivals from wherever conflict occurs,” said Pia Escudero, the division’s executive district director. of student health and social services “Many have seen excruciating things in their homes or on their travels, but trauma does not define them. We strive to stabilize the factors so that children can thrive and be their whole what they may be.

Many students have high hopes for their new lives, she said.

“They want to be doctors, firefighters, business leaders. Immigrants contribute enormously to our city and our country,” she said. “If this country has taught us anything, it’s the importance of welcoming international newcomers.

Another important aspect of welcoming students from war zones is a curriculum tailored to the experiences of students and their families, said Roxanne Makasdjian, director of the Genocide Education Project, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps schools to teach human rights and genocide. By teaching all students about the violence and horrors that have occurred in various pockets of the world, such as the Holocaust of World War II, the Armenian Genocide, and the repeated wars in Ukraine, students can gain empathy and tolerance for their newly arrived classmates, she mentioned.

“When students understand the struggle for human rights, it can reduce people’s ‘otherness’,” she said. “It can validate student identities and personal stories and help students connect with each other. It can help build understanding and inspire humanity to help each other. … It can be a lifesaver.

Makasdjian’s organization has helped more than 6,000 secondary school teachers across the country teach about genocide, war and human rights.

At St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Cathedral, Sauciur made a similar point. When it comes to schools, he said, the story transcends the experience of individual Ukrainian refugees.

“It’s not just about Ukrainians displaced from their homes,” he said. “It’s about humanity.”

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