In March Civic Assistance Committee opened Russian language courses for Syrian refugee children and adults in the town of Noginsk located near Moscow. Refugees are taught Russian and a litlle of Arabic and English. We visited Noginsk and talked to courses’ teachers.
“Build, what is to build, it is like you put a brick on a brick, you understand? Here is the building, built of logs, it is a trunk. Like this, you see? In the past, in Russia everything was biult of logs, of wood. The branches were removed from the trunk and then were placed on the perimeter. Building bridge, for example. And also we build relationships, for example. We build, I build, they build. You see?”
Syrians are nodding knowingly. Today only two people came to the class, others have been summoned for the urgent work. “Sometimes many, sometimes few, ” the teacher Irina Gvozdeva is kidding. She supplements her explanations with English words because her current students know it better than Russian. But not all Syrians speak English and then she has to pass to the sign language.
Back in March the Civic Assistance Committee with UNHCR support opened a small school for Syrian refugees in Noginsk, where children and adults can study Russian and also the basics of Arabic and English. We gathered all the necessary equipment, using all the available sources. UE Representative Office provided desks and chairs, Health and Life Charity Foundation, which is in charge of health issues of refugees in Noginsk, presented electric kettle to the school, something was brought from the evicted Center for Adaptation and Training of Refugee Children in Moscow.
Another Syrian enters the class: “How are you? How is the factory?”, asks Irina. The majority of adult Syrians work in small clothing factories. It is a very hard work but they are trying to find time for classes. “We have to go to work”, the guy is shaking his head. “No, come on, go and tell others, we start the lesson”, Irina insists. Surprisingly, in five minutes three guys arrive, sit at their desks and open their textbooks.
“Now, once you have come, let’s discuss. Do you do morning exercises?”
“No, I wake up, drink some milk, eat some cake. Well… sometimes I play football at work at night.”
Many Syrians work so much that they sleep at the factories so they can rest better. The way from home to the place of work takes time even in small Noginsk.
The history of these factories started in the 90’s when a number of Syrian businessmen from Aleppo came to work in Russia. There is a lot of sewing factories in Aleppo, it is a working city. And the textile business has always been the main occupation for Syrians from that region. In Noginsk until the mid XX century existed Morozovskiy sewing factories, which subsequently had been transformed in Soviet textile industry. In the 90s as everywhere else in the country factories premises began to empty one after another and at some point Syrians arrived, rented these premises and started the production.
“I sew… They sew”, the students repeat after Irina. “I like to sew clothes. I love sewing.”
Interestingly, the clothes are being made not by women, as it would be in Russia, but by Syrian males. By the beginning of 2011 hundreds of labour migrants worked and studied in Noginsk and in neighboring Losino-Petrovskiy. And when street violence erupted in Syria, followed by military actions, workers brought their families to Moscow region. The majority of Syrians are from 25 to 40 years old with young wives and small children.
“Many students come to classes after night shift. The lessons start at 9 in the morning, and the guys arrive at 8, at 8:30. Some of them come in the middle of the classes if they have such an opportunity. Everything depends on their work schedule. One guy was attending the courses and then stopped. He told me that he would like to but he is falling asleep all the time. And he is not the only one. They just physically can not attend classes”, Irina Gvozdeva said. She also came to Noginsk a while ago. She arrived from Volgograd to teach at the school for Syrians. Initially, she wanted to rent an apartment but then she realized that she has to stay overnight at school to be able to run two training sessions, one starts at 8 in the morning and another one lasts till eleven at night. And stayed permanently on a small sofa in school kitchen.
“Leyla (Leyla Rogozina is a coordinator of the school project) told me: take this as an adventure. You know, I’ve come to the age when I finally feel free. Because usually you live with your parents, then with your children, you work. You get annoyed. Then your children grow up, everything changes and you can finally be free and do what you really like. I came here and I have never regretted it, ” says Irina. Before Noginsk she worked in an ordinary school for more than ten years, and then for one year and a half she tought Russian to Turkish businessmen who worked in Russia. She also worked as a flight attendant. “Stressfull situations are normal for me, ” she laughs. “But seriously I am a professional. I take all difficulties as a challenge.”
At the beginning, Irina found it hard to get used to Syrians with whom she constantly failed to build any kind of system due to their life conditions; sometimes they attend classes, sometimes not. “They spend a lot of effort on the Federal Migration Service, they have to go to Moscow, spend the whole day there and sometimes even two or three days, ” she explains. “But there is some kind of system anyway, we stick to my plan. I give them some grammar, something elementary, the notion of gender, address pronouns, quotes. We study vocabulary, develop conversational skills. Because they have to go to FMS and to understand what they are told there. And there is one guy who met a girl and he asks me what he should say? And we sit down and start to work, to simulate intercouse.”
“It would be nice if the school project was extended (currently we have funding only till August 2016), ” says Irina. “I’m slowly involving into the process, I begin to understand Syrian traditions, we talk a lot about education, the guys tell me about their families, about Coran. We are friends. I often help our administrator Batul, her daughter is attending a normal school. She is a good girl, she copes with programme which not every Russian child is always able to handle. And the young man in a pink shirt is Muhammad, he is my friend too. With this guy in yellow we were listening to reciters reading Pushkin poems, we listen to romances, learn poems by heart. But I don’t give them some slack, I force them to read, to write. I crack the whip on them, believe me!”
This is your crab
Elena Lebedeva, another teacher in the school, confrims that it became prestigious among Syrians to speak Russian well. This is a question of great importance especially for her students, the children of the seniour group because for adolescents the question of prestige is very serious at this age.
Every day Elena comes to school from the town of Reutov in Moscow region. She spends for the work nearly the whole day. The lessons last from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. but the preparation, homework checks and the trip take a lot of time. “But I’m very interested in my work from the very beginning. Last year I graduated from the additional courses in teaching Russian as a foreign language and after that I immediately came here when the Civic Assistance Committee, supported by UNHCR, organised a summer school. I liked it, it was very interesting and still when I meet my ex colleagues I’m happy that I don’t work in an ordinary school anymore.” Elena doesn’t like what is hapenning with education in our country; overcrowded classrooms, endless testings, overdemanding attutude of children’s parents. “They only want to fill kids with information, all at once. Already in the first grade kids are given some excessive knowledge, the main idea is to give more. Syrian children are calmer, interested, confident. And our children already during the second year are so tired that they say: no matter what profession to choose if only never to study again.
And still: the course for children in Civic Assistance school is the preparation for studying in normal, secondary school. This is what all families aspire to but on the way they face insormuntable difficulties. Over the past year and a half the Committee did a great job trying to protect children’s right to education. In August 2015 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has finally recognized that for school enrollment one doesn’t need any additional documents, neither registration at the place of residence nor documents which confirm the legality of parents’ stay in Russia. But it did not help; we continue facing obstacles in Moscow and in regions. The problem turned to be particularly pressing in Noginsk where more than fifty Syrian children have been cut off from the general education system. The City Board of Education refused to establish contact and headtechers who wanted to admit Syrian children to their schools were threatened personally with reprimands.
The children in the class of Elena Lebedeva are learning pronouns.
“Now we pass to the masculine. Repeat after me. This is me and this is my… So, Rogat, repeat! This is me and this is my lion. This is you and this is your crab… Well, Omar! This is him and these are his potatoes.”
There is a dozen of pupils in the class, half boys, half girls. Two elder boys Nur and Omar were recently very lucky; through the efforts of Civic Assistance the Noginsk Department of Education receded its position. The children were invited to be tested in one of the town’s schools. Elena Lebedeva was with them. She says that though the children were very worried they have got very good results for the second grade. Now we are all waiting for the decision what school in the town is able to take them. This would be the second case of the access of Syrian children to Noginsk schools, the first case was the case of Fatema, a girl who was enrolled in the second grade of the school №17. The headteacher Valentina Korotkova took Fatema to the second grade at her own risk.
“You go. Where can you go?”
“Not at cafe, but to cafe.”
“To the phermacy.”
“Not the phermacy, but the pharmacy. Where? To the factory.”
Factories represent a big problem for these children. Unfortunately, traditionally the education for children in Aleppo ends on the sixth, seventh year. After that they start working; or they help their parents in family business or work together with adults in big production. Syrians brought this model to Russia where attitude to child’s labour is completely negative. Moreover, this kind of labour is strictly prohibited by law. But nobody cares about it at Syrian factories in Noginsk. The teens are sometimes absent for two, three weeks at our school and the teacher knows for sure, the guys went to work at the factory.
The children (mostly, boys) start to wok at the age of twelve. Parents usually take this decision and children don’t argue, sometimes they are keen to start working themselves if they see that their family is in need. The teachers say that only those who have money are slacking off. And the poorest are abducted by the factory from the school.
Adaptation from the side
“I am strongly hostile to this work at factories, ” says the third teacher from Noginsk, Elena Drozdova. She is working with little children. “Perhaps, this is an ordinary practice in Aleppo. As well as in Noginsk. But not for me.”
Elena Drozdova comes to the place of work from Elektrostal, a town close to Noginsk. Like Elena Lebedeva she has already tought to these children last summer, at UNHCR courses. “Of course, now it’s all different. We have everything we need here; desks, chairs, whiteboards. Previously I didn’t have such a luxury, ” she says. According to the teacher, the time and our work have changed children’s attitude; the distrust of the last year remains but the level of anxiety has declined. More and more children attend classes. “Now they trust us little children too, ” says Elena. “Last year the average age was eight, nine years, and now four, five years old are the smallest ones. To be honest, it is not very good for us; it is difficult to work with mixed-age groups. But it is great for them; they are taking their cue from the elders, the knowledge of Russian becomes prestigious. For example, Bushra speaks Russia well and all the kids are looking at her with open mouth. She is great.”
Elena Drozdova says that this year almost everyone, who attended the school before, have returned and have brought their brothers and sisters with them. However, it again complicates the study process. The groups are being formed not according to the age but on the basis of the clan, of the family. The elders bring the younger ones and vice versa. “We want to prepare children to school, but it is difficult to do in such a short period of time. Different children, different level. Someone hardly adds two and three and someone adds numbers vertically very fast. We are always trying to pull some students up and not to let others be left behind.”
“Well, Buhtet! Сount! How many rombs do you see here?”
“Write! Four minus two… Write in line. Well done, Muhammad, well done! Four minus two equals… Let’s see: one, two, three, four, minus two. How many fingers do you see?”
“Well done! In line, Buhtet! Miriam, show him!”
“I intentionally explain everything using rombs. For many of them numbers are incomprehensible abstraction. But anyway, everything is different for everyone, ” says Elena Sergeevna. “There is one boy here, Omar. And he definitely does not like how I teach him Russian. Little men are so funny, they think that drawing is for girls, singing is for girls. Here is Muhammad. He was sitting like a duck for one month, for two months. There are seven children in his family, the majority are boys. And then, about a week ago, Muhammad broke through, he started to draw. And this is a serious positive change.”
Young Syrians have a lot of nonacademic difficulties, for instance, logopedic ones. Even adults don’t always speak well, neither kids do. They need a speech therapist, at least occasionally. We can’t do anything with this problem at the moment, we don’t have available resources for speech therapy.
“I think they need at least two years of regular lessons. Then they will speak Russian well. But the most important task for me now is to teach them to read so they can learn on their own, it would be much easier. Because many of them stay home if there is no one to take them to school. There is one family, for example. They took their child, a blond boy of six. For the last three years he was sittting alone at home; father at work, mother at work, he is staying at home alone with his little sister. And he is completely deprived. But they took him only once here and that’s all.”
“They all want to come back, you know? It is not the best place in the world. Adults find it hard to live here. Sure, it is easier for children. This is the adaptation we have here — adaptation from the side, through children.”
By Elena Srapyan
Photo by Polina Rukavitchkina