I find myself in the small town of Noginsk, a mere 50 kilometres from the Moscow centre. I had travelled an hour and a half to the east of Moscow on the suburban trains. I walk for a 10 minutes down the small streets of Noginsk from the old railway station till I find what I was searching for: 66 Sovyetskaya Street. On this address is a wooden house with a baby blue façade and white wooden carvings of suns in the window sills.
Unable to find an entrance I stumble around the house a bit lost, until I see a young girl with a school backpack approach the home. She smiles shyly at me and continues to stroll through the yard next to the building, where the neighbour’s BMW is parked. Quietly, she shows me a little wooden shed with an entrance to the house on the back of the building. Entering, I meet Ms Elena Yurevna, the leader of the school, that I have the pleasure of visiting for the day.
We shake hands and she invites me inside for a tour of the classrooms. Inside, I notice the information hung on the wall: In Russian and Arabic different posters are hung up, laying out the rights of refugees in Russia. Apart from the posters, every wall around me is decorated with colourful drawings, clearly made by the school’s students. I continue into the main classroom, where six children, probably of age five to fifteen, sit ready for today’s lessons. When I enter, they send me curious glances, lower their heads, and start whispering to each other in Arabic. Elena introduces me to the children and says: “The lessons will begin shortly. Today they will have a bit of Russian and geography.”
Apart from the wide blackboard and the table for the teacher, there are various posters on every the walls. I see Russian mathematics tables, maps of regions of the world and Russia, names of various animals, as well as an explanation of how to write exquisite Russian cursive. It looks like any other primary-school classroom in Russia. “Where is Marina?” asks one boy Elena. “She is a bit late on the train, she will be here soon.”
Ten minutes of curious whispering about who I might be later, Elena starts the lesson. A few more kids have quietly entered so now a total of nine students, and Elena asks me to introduce myself again. I say I am a Danish student, who came to learn more about the activities of the school. A large colour-coded map of Europe is rolled out on the table, and the students gather around the map and begin scanning the countries. After a few minutes of ferocious searching, a boy victoriously proclaims: “Ya nashyol!” (I found it!) and points to a little area on the top of the map. “That’s so small,” he says.
Elena sings famous Russian songs with them. “Have you all read the text at home?” She asks. “Yes,” the kids in one voice answer. We sing one Russian children’s song after the other. Then Marina, the other teacher for today’s lessons, enters. Marina is young with a kind face and, as it turns out, she is a great singer, with a voice as clean and strong as if every tone was played on glass. The kids stare at her with impressed glances, her voice filling the room.
After the Russian songs, Elena takes out the three smallest kids to a second classroom, and Marina stays to teach geography to the older ones. She brings out copies of a map of Europe with the name of the countries erased. “We went over European countries last lesson, and now I want to find out how many they remember,” she explains to me. The children quiet down and begin writing.
After about an hour and a half of Russian folk songs and geography, the children are starting to get restless. On Marina’s initiative we pick up a few badminton rackets and start playing in the next room. My first thought is that the room is far too small for sports, but it turns out well, although we do occasionally hit a table or chair by accident. The children are clearly having good fun, expressing their joy in a mix of Arabic and Russian, as they wait for summer to finally come to this little town outside Moscow.
The curator of the school, Natalia Gontsova, says the school was opened, “because it was difficult to send kids in public school” and without public school “they were left without education.” Although the right to education is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, in practice different reasons inhibit Syrian children from going to public school. “Our courses are not formal education, but only preparation for school. We do not give out diplomas,” Ms Gontsova specifies. The school teaches between 9 and 18 children four times a week, with every time being about four hours.
The children are often barred from accessing public school, if their parents have less than perfect paperwork on the territory of the Russian Federation. School principals and educational authorities have often overtaken the role of migration authorities in banning Syrian children from accessing public education, based on the migration and legal status of their parents.
The school in Noginsk helps Syrian children in a larger adaptation project started by the Civic Assistance Committee, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Apart from the school in Noginsk, there is a school in both Losino-Petrovsky and Moscow. The project helps children and adults acclimatise to their new surroundings. In all three schools Russian lessons for adults are also offered.
In the adaptation project, the Civic Assistance Committee has also made humanitarian aid available in and around Moscow. Furthermore, judicial assistance is offered to give a better understanding of the rights in the Russian Federation and to help with registration and communicating with local authorities. $
In Noginsk there are about 35 Syrian children, many of which attend the lessons in the school on Ulitsa Sovyetskaya 66.
By Carl Gronning, Civic Assistance Committee
Photo by Alisa Reihtman