Educating migrant children in Russian schools: explaining in detail

“I’m sorry, but there’s no room at school.” Why the Russian education system rejects the children of migrant workers and what to do about it

Once in a foreign country, migrant children face a lot of difficulties: they need to get used to the new place, socialize, make new friends and find something to do. But without knowledge of the language it is almost impossible to do all this. Given the fact that in Russia, for some reason both school administrators and officials are almost completely indifferent to the fate of migrant children, the entire burden of the difficult task of teaching them the Russian language falls on the shoulders of enthusiasts. “Nozh” talked to three of them.

Anna Orlova,

curator of the “Migratory Children” project, Krasnogorsk, Moscow

The project started six years ago on the basis of Krasnogorsk lyceum “Ark-XXI”. The director of our lyceum had been educating children from affluent families for more than twenty years and then he decided to help the poor. Running into young migrants in the stores and cafes, he slowly began to understand their problems.

Many of them did not speak Russian very well, which prevented them from getting an education and getting better jobs. He started giving them classes at McDonald’s, at tea houses, wherever he could.

All of these guys had younger brothers and sisters, nephews. We invited them to study Russian at the Lyceum. Then we started looking for community support groups on social networks. Our employees also went to markets, handed out informational flyers and told them about free Russian language lessons. This kind of “field marketing” worked best: when you get to know people personally and explain everything to them, you get more trust.

At one time we had two “welcoming” classes: thirty people first learned only Russian, and then “dispersed” into regular classes. Most of the children were from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan in second place. When we seriously tackled the issue of teaching migrants’ children the Russian language, we found out that in Moscow about ten thousand such children do not go to school. According to the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to education, and our schools do not accept children without registration. And if a child does have registration, school administrations often take advantage of the fact that migrants do not know their rights and have a poor understanding of Russian. They simply say: “I’m sorry, but there is no room at the school. And disappointed parents go home.

In fact, the child must be enrolled even in an overcrowded class, or at least sent to schools where there are still places available. But even if he is accepted to school, the problems do not end there. As a rule, such a child sits on a “rock” and does not understand anything, because no one deals with him. With such an approach, he becomes a failure, and sooner or later he is “kicked out” of school with a certificate of incomplete secondary education. In a good way, these kids should be given a language intensive first, and then brought into the classroom and supervised. At Ark we practiced the “friendship method” for a while: Russian students explained the topic of the lesson to the non-Russian children, and then they did their homework together. We borrowed this from the Soviet Union schools: in the past, otlichniki always helped the underachievers.

All these years we have been trying to improve the situation of educating migrant children in Moscow. We give extra lessons by ourselves in four schools in Krasnogorsk and lessons for children aged ten to seventeen, who were not taken to school, in four libraries in Moscow. We teach these children for a year, then we certify them and send them with their personal files to schools. We cooperate with the Nur Association of Pamiri Tajiks and the Red Cross, where they teach children without documents. And we also have a large online school: now Russian is taught in forty-three groups, fifteen of which are children’s groups. There are classes both for pre-schoolers and for graduates – we prepare high school students for the USE. We also hold classes in RCT for teachers from schools in Krasnogorsk, and recently teachers from Magnitogorsk and Togliatti came to us for help. In general, I think that the issue of migrant children’s adaptation to school should be systematically dealt with by the state. But this is not happening.

We call migration centers, embassies, write to the Ministry of Education and try to establish contact with schools where more migrant children study. And all this time I have the feeling that no one is interested in the problems of these children. The only thing the school principal wants is to take as few of these children as possible, so that their grades do not go down.

On a higher level, Russia has a rather weak inter-ministerial policy. We used to go to France and Germany to learn from their experience. So their migration centers actively cooperate with the Ministry of Education. And if parents want their child to study, they cannot simply not accept him to school. I hope that in time the situation in our country will change for the better, and such charitable projects as ours will become visible to the state.

Leokadia Frenkel,

Project Manager, “Teaching Russian Language to Migrant Children”, St. Petersburg

In 2012 I saw an ad on the Internet for Russian language teachers to work with migrant children. I immediately imagined a horrible situation: I am standing in front of students in the classroom, and some of them – even just one – do not understand me. This is a big problem for both the teacher and the student. Either the child becomes aggressive, or on the contrary – a clogged up outsider. I called the authors of the idea and said I was willing to participate. That’s as much free time as I have, so that’s how much to give to this project. Then it turned out that the project has neither its own space, nor a clear concept. Then I suggested the Jewish Community Center, which is managed by my husband, as a site. I’ve been working here for many years, too: I run the library and Sunday school, and I coordinate the educational programs.

Gradually, volunteers began to come to the community center. Some of them had experience working with the elderly, others with young people. I explained right away that children are hard to work with, especially kids who don’t speak Russian well and have a different mentality. Here you have to keep a balance: be able to entertain them and teach them something at the same time. “The geography of the project is wide: Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Afghanistan, and the Republic of Tyva. At one time, we even brought in an eight-year-old girl from Nigeria. She didn’t speak Russian at all, but she spoke perfect English.

Six volunteers work at the Center now, two of them are professional teachers. Lessons are conducted by the immersion method, i.e. completely in Russian and in the form of games. Besides Russian there are English and drawing lessons. And also in the center they like very much holidays, equally cheerfully celebrate both Russian and Jewish: on Purim they eat “ears of Haman”, and on New Year they put on carnival costumes and arrange a party. Summer vacations begin, but the work of the center does not stop.

We often take the children for walks in the parks, go to museums, on excursions, to the zoo. In general we get the children acquainted with the city. We are also friends with several theaters. “Kukfo, the Bolshoi Puppet Theater and MDT invited us to performances for free. Most of the kids come from small towns, villages. For them, a visit to the theater is a real miracle.

Before the pandemic, classes at the Center were held twice a week in two groups – the older (children of eleven to thirteen) and the younger (elementary school pupils and preschoolers). On weekends we had classes for teenagers under fifteen with very poor or even zero knowledge of Russian.

It happened that parents would bring a 16-year-old who barely spoke any Russian. I had to turn them down. Unfortunately, it was impossible for such a child to graduate from school in St. Petersburg. As a rule, in addition to difficulties with the language, there is also a serious lag in other subjects, and ahead are the Unified State Exam and the General State Exam, which are difficult for local children to pass. So I honestly told my parents: either arrange for him to be home-schooled, or send him to work. It probably sounded a little harsh, but that’s the reality.

The community center had no money for advertising and PR. I had to go around to neighboring schools myself, talk to principals and tell them about the existence of a free program for migrant children. At the same time I always explain: our project is not a substitute for school, but only a good addition to it. Only in school children receive systematized knowledge, get used to a certain mode of study and socialize.

Sometimes parents have to be persuaded to send their children to school: not everyone wants their children to get an education. This is especially true of the older girls: they are in the family as cooks, cleaners, and nannies. I explain to the parents that it is necessary to draw up all the necessary documents so that the child can go to school, I call on their behalf to the RONO. In general, I believe that there is no problem for migrants to get their children into a school in St. Petersburg. It all depends on their motivation. Unfortunately, the government has not developed a clear program for the adaptation of migrant workers. Although something is being done. For example, the Committee on Interethnic Relations of St. Petersburg has published a good textbook for non-migrant children.

Of course from time to time we hear that we as a Jewish organization are not doing our job. But mostly they support our activity and understand that any good deed makes the community better. The Jewish community of the city is well organized, especially in the sphere of social care and education: there are various programs to support the elderly, the disabled, the poor, general education schools, and youth clubs. But in St. Petersburg we have a small community. But what about other communities with tens of thousands of migrants? In Jewish philosophy, there’s a concept called “tikun olam,” that is, “fixing the world. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, albeit in a small way.

The short film “Mavzhuda” by Nimasu Nimsaren about a girl from Uzbekistan, who learns the Russian language at the Jewish Community Center

Irina Belousova,

Head of the “Equally Different” program, Kaluga Oblast and Novosibirsk

It all started when a few teachers and I moved to the village of Belousovo in Kaluga Oblast under the ‘Teacher for Russia’ program. At the school where I began teaching literature and social studies, there were about four hundred children from Central Asia, and most of them spoke almost no Russian. That’s how the problem came to light. At first we organized a weekend school: we taught the children the language, held classes in the hobby groups, organized cultural festivals, and took them on excursions to neighboring cities. A year later it became clear that social adaptation was very good, of course, but the bigger problem was that these children did not know the language. So we wrote a course in RLI and divided the children into two groups based on their language skills. Later we launched the program as a regional program – we were supported by private diaspora donors and the Ministry of Education in the regions. At the moment the program works in two regions.

We have already managed to teach the Russian language to about two thousand children. So now our project to adapt migrant children to school is the biggest in Russia.

In order to train specialists, we recruit a team of teachers from the school and send them to refresher courses in two areas: RCT and social adaptation. Social adaptation involves group sessions with a psychologist or, if there is a social pedagogue on the team, social events, such as a cooking festival featuring the cuisines of Central Asian peoples, or poetry evenings in different languages.

We teach teachers for a year and accompany them for another year – we pay small grants, give them the necessary textbooks, help with advice. Usually the Ministry sends us a list of schools with a large percentage of migrant children, and we go to negotiate with their leadership. Unlike in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the regions there are no problems with taking a child to school: everyone is accepted, even without registration. But then these children sit in classes and do not understand anything. That’s why, as a rule, school administrations meet us halfway – it’s in their interest that students have a good command of Russian. But there are, of course, those who refuse. They say that teachers have a heavy workload and that all children at their school are treated equally, and that migrant children don’t need anything special.

We don’t use any administrative resources, we don’t try to “force” people to change their minds. It’s unlikely that people will change their minds. I think that we as a host community should be more loyal to migrant children and consider cultural differences. For example, in my school there was a balloon contest. Migrant children cried because in their culture boys and girls are not allowed to stand so close to each other. The same happens in the classes – girls often don’t want to sit at one desk with boys. Sometimes boys can go a whole day without eating because they have made a pork dish at school. Not to mention Ramadan – from ten to twelve years of age children are already fasting, and at this time it is difficult for them to endure physical exertion. But no one at school would think of relieving them of physical education lessons at this time.

The administration believes that the school is a secular institution, and I absolutely agree. But at the same time we need to learn to agree with each other. This is two-way integration. After all, migrants are not always illegal immigrants, and their children are underachievers who will go to work in the market. During one year of study in our program, foreign children’s Russian language skills increase by one and a half levels. And some students even graduate with a medal.

“It’s a shame to be called churkas”: how migrant children learn in Russian schools

We encounter them every day. If you see a food delivery person, a janitor, or a road repair worker from behind, there is no doubt that he or she is a migrant from a former Soviet republic. Some have left their families in their homeland and send them the money they earn, while others have come with their children. What problems do non-Russian-speaking children pose to teachers and schoolchildren, and what do they themselves experience as they immerse themselves in a Russian reality they have never known before?

Ainur and her husband Bahaddin with their sons. Photo: From personal archive

Recall that in March, the president said that the percentage of migrants’ children in Russian schools should be such that it would be possible to adapt them to the linguistic and cultural environment. At the same time, he said, it is impossible to allow the formation of schools entirely staffed only with such students, as is the case in some European countries, from which locals will rush to take their children.

However, in Moscow, especially in the bedroom districts, schools where elementary classes were filled with migrant children by almost a third began to appear. Now, as teachers say, the number of such children in classes has decreased – due to the pandemic, the number of migrants has decreased overall. According to the data of Dmitry Sergienko, the Head of Migration Affairs Department of Moscow MIA, at present there are almost 800 thousand foreigners in the capital. Thirty percent of all migrants are from Kyrgyzstan, 27% from Uzbekistan and 20% from Tajikistan.

“They absolutely do not understand anything”.

Needless to say, it is not easy for teachers to work with students who hail from our former southern republics. The biggest problem is their lack of knowledge of Russian. And how do you expect to teach such students, how do you try to bring them knowledge?

– I work at a school in the Danilovsky District,” says a history teacher at a school in Moscow. – Previously our school had the possibility of competitive selection of children and did not take all of them. This is why we had motivated children and didn’t recruit them solely by their place of residence. Then, as you know, all that was abolished: the more “souls” the better for the school. And we have no right not to take a child, if he has registration, if there are places in classes. There are a lot of migrants in our district, apparently, they rent apartments there. So in the elementary school there are a lot of children from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, 4-5 people in each class.

According to her, such children fall into two categories: those who do not care about their studies and do not care about them at all, and those who try to study as much as possible, their parents encourage them to live here, work and develop. Such parents hire a Russian language tutor for their child from the very beginning.

– In the seventh grade, where I teach, there are seven Kyrgyz students. The children are good in themselves, they behave quietly, they stick together. They are not rude. But they don’t understand anything. The main difficulty is the language,” says the teacher. – We pity them. And I understand myself that I only give them these ‘C’s’ for effort. I, for example, still use such a technique as note-taking. But it’s hard for them to write down, if it’s not their native language, and the teachers don’t understand what they’re writing there. Then they can’t make anything out for themselves. Mathematics is one thing, it’s the language of numbers, the exact sciences are easier for them to understand. But I teach history, and it’s a lot of suffering… And the overall performance of the school drops.

– So how do you teach them?

– I have already put my wings into it and I give them the basics, I try to approach them in a differentiated way. I’m not talking about cause-and-effect connections, just the basics. Some kind of test to solve, to connect a date and an event. Sometimes when I see that the child is trying really hard, but still fails, I can even give him or her a “B”. In social studies especially. I realize that they don’t give a damn about these grades. That they will never choose history and social studies for the USE.

The mother of a third-grader studying in a school in the capital complained: “My son has two Kyrgyz students in his class, a brother and sister. Their dad is a cashier in a supermarket, and mom takes care of them and their younger sister. I understood from my son’s stories that the teacher had to explain the same thing to them a hundred times, choosing the simplest words. She spends a lot of time on this, even though the curriculum is so full that regular kids can barely keep up… Why do our children have to suffer? According to my son, no one is friends with them, because no one understands them, their Russian is disastrous. For the most part children ignore them than offend them. But, as I noticed, these kids are more independent, from a small age they walk and walk on their own, not like ours, because of whom we are always shaking…”.

Speech therapist Svetlana Vladimirovna from Omsk knows firsthand the problems of migrant children:

– I teach classes in kindergartens and work in a polyclinic, and in my work I often come across children from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. These families come to the polyclinic for an initial appointment to undergo a medical examination before they can enroll their children in kindergartens and schools. Including at this commission they have to pass a speech therapist. They come to us for permanent residence, and send their children to their home country for vacations. Most of them come from Central Asia, they work at the wholesale market or at construction sites. Some children don’t understand Russian at all. I recently brought a boy from Tajikistan to my classes, and he doesn’t know a word at all – his dad translated for him when we were working with him. Some parents hire Russian language tutors for their children before school, and over the summer they coach them in everyday topics: food, counting, games, family… Of course, the accent is always there. And there are parents who think, “They’ll learn by themselves when they start communicating with Russian children.

– Probably the latter are the majority, because, as a rule, these families can’t afford tutors?

– I, for example, take inexpensive, 500 rubles for 40 minutes. This is the lowest price. And in the developmental centers, the same 40 minutes cost 600-700 rubles. Of course, you have to do more than one month, and at least two times a week.

“My son was teased by Abu the monkey”.

Immigrants themselves also experience tremendous difficulties when they find themselves in Russia. As a rule, the job situation in their homeland is so catastrophic that they are willing to endure unimaginable inconveniences, adapt to new, alien orders and rules, and agree to any, even the blackest work, just to make money.

Jamila comes from Tajikistan. She ended up in Moscow ten years ago, invited by her native aunt, who had settled here before. In 2019 she moved her two sons, first the eldest and then the youngest. She’s been working all this time as a baker. She doesn’t have a husband, Jamila divorced him long ago. So she has to cope alone with all the difficulties of joining someone else’s society.

– The problems with the school started right away. We had different addresses for registration and actual residence. And my son needs to be sent to school according to his place of registration. Five schools in our district refused us. I called to the department of education, and after that we made an agreement with the director of one school, that I would bring a contract, that I actually rent a house and that I worked nearby. We were accepted into a school near my work. Of course, my kids didn’t know the language well, the older one had a completely different program back home. I am very grateful to the school principal for the good reception my eldest received. He told us, “The boy is capable, smart, we’ll take him!” The first two months I hired a tutor for my son in Russian, and then the school gave it to him for free. He is doing very well now.

Later, Jamila also brought her younger son to Moscow and got him into the same school, second grade. He started school only in February, in March he was on quarantine.

– He did not understand anything at all, he could not study,” Jamila sighs. – Even without that he could barely understand the language, and now imagine how he could even study by telephone! And no one was left behind in the second year, because of the pandemic. And he was transferred to the third grade. Now my son is in big trouble because he essentially skipped the second grade program. I’ve only been working for his tutors all this year. The cheapest tutor costs 350 rubles per hour, it’s online. Incoming – from 600 rubles. For my eldest son at one time I paid 800 rubles for a lesson twice a week, two months. I then worked on a schedule of “two-two”, I received 45 thousand rubles. Then the pandemic happened, and now to earn the same money I have to work on a six-to-one schedule, which is six days a week.

At some point a woman was forced to quit her job so she could take care of the boy herself. At that time, she lived on her meager savings. Now Jamila has to find a job with at least 50,000 rubles. The “Home for Mother” help center helped them a lot by providing a free Russian and English language teacher for their youngest son.

– How do their classmates at school treat the older and younger son?

– Of course, they get bullied. I am very grateful to our school principal that I can call him at any time and tell him about my problems. When my youngest and I first came to school, the elementary school teacher said she didn’t want to teach my child. I went to the principal, crying, asking him, “What kind of people are these, why are they treating us like this? We work, we pay taxes…” The principal listened to me, invited that teacher and made her write an explanation.

My elder son never said anything to me, but his class teacher called me once and said that my son came up to her and complained that children were mocking him, teasing him, that his father was a janitor, although we don’t have a father at all. And that he was crying. They called him “Tajik” or “Abu the Monkey” from Aladdin, because he was so black… I tried to talk to the parents of those who called him names, and explained that it was not nice. Now there are such moments, too, but on the whole it’s better now, he has friends, and he can stand up for himself. And my younger one has absolutely no complexes, he is not afraid of anything. If he knows Russian or not he is not ashamed to speak it. I tell my sons that “no matter what they say about you, no matter what names they call you, it doesn’t mean that you are bad, Allah created you like this, and they are different”.

“I still have a complex.”

It is only many years later that such families, especially if their children were already born here, can adapt to a foreign country and become part of Russian-speaking society. Aynur, 34, came to Kaluga from Azerbaijan 26 years ago. At first their father came here to earn money, then he brought his daughter Aynur, who was 11 years old at the time, and his younger son. The girl graduated with honors from a Kaluga school, went to college, and became a teacher of English and, remarkably, of Russian language and literature. She compared how Azerbaijani children felt in those distant times and what happens today in schools with children of migrants.

Three of her sons were already born in Kaluga. Now two go to school, and the youngest goes to kindergarten. Ainur tells me that the school where she herself studied and where her children now study is an international school, where you can see Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Germans.

– To be honest, I still have a complex because of the language,” Aynur says. – When we came here as children, we didn’t know Russian well, and we heard these accusations. But my younger children only speak Russian. Although I try not to forget their native language. My elder son knows both Azerbaijani, and Russian, and English.

– When you came here as a child, did anyone hurt you?

– I was a quiet girl, sat at the desk with a boy, and he would not let me raise my hand and answer. He said: “You don’t know anything, you’re a churka, you don’t know Russian very well”. I told my mother. And my mother still knows Russian badly, although we have been living here for many years. And she called this boy and said, half in Russian, half in Azerbaijani: Why are you hurting my daughter, I will tear your ear off. And he says to her: “I didn’t understand anything, who are you anyway? At first it was very difficult for me to understand teachers. But I was very lucky with my class teacher, she always helped me.

Still, before, she said, there were no problems with such children, not like now.

– When my brother went to first grade, he didn’t know any Russian at all,” Ainur continued. – And he studied normally. And now, for example, I have a student Azat from Tajikistan who speaks poor Russian. And his form teacher says that he should move from our school to a specialized school where there are a lot of Tajiks. I’m very offended for this child. It’s a shame that since children don’t know Russian, they are treated as mentally retarded. I see that now many teachers even at the elementary school do not take non-Russian speaking children. They say it is difficult.

Ainur herself works in Russian with such children, mostly Azerbaijanis. She charges 400 rubles per hour for her classes. Once a week such lessons, she says, are enough.

– One day at school I saw a junior high school student, I don’t know what nationality he was – either Armenian, Azerbaijani, or Tajik. And the seventh-graders started shouting at him: “Gypsy, Gypsy! Russia is for Russians!” It made me so mad! I came out and told them off, explained that our school is international and Russia is an international country. Kids are mean now. I used to find out why people of Caucasian nationalities were called “churks. In Dal’s dictionary it means “stump”. It was so offensive: a stump means a stupid person who doesn’t know anything and doesn’t understand anything. And when I received the diploma of the teacher of Russian language and literature, I say with pride: now nobody will call me a churka, now I am the certificated expert; not Russian, and the teacher of Russian language and literature and English. And I have achieved everything on my own.

– What way out do you see to make it easier for both children and teachers?

– In my opinion, either it is really necessary to create schools separately so that teachers of the same nationalities would teach in them, or that schools would have at least one such teacher, say, a polyglot teacher, who could speak these languages. Because it is difficult for such children in a regular school. It would be possible to organize elective courses in Russian for such students.

Tatyana Shubina, a teacher of Russian as a foreign language from Krasnoyarsk, who teaches migrant children and adults, described their situation:

– The biggest problem is when children, even high school students, read Russian very poorly, in syllables – even barely. And they read not only poorly in Russian, but in principle. There are fifth-graders who can speak Russian somewhat, but cannot read at all. If there is only one student of this kind in the class, it is easier, after 3-4 years the child joins the team. If out of 25 students there are eight non-Russian speakers, six of which cannot read, then it is a huge problem for teachers, for the school, and for Russian-speaking children. School teachers, of course, have a great need for someone to come in and teach these children the Russian language. But that takes many months, maybe even a year, because they continue to speak their language at home.

Any courses outside of school, in my opinion, are ineffective. It would be optimal if our secondary schools, since they have taken these children to them, could introduce an additional rate and combine these children into groups to teach them separately. And it should be done not by teachers of Russian language and literature, but by specially trained teachers. And there should definitely be an individual approach to each child. The question is, can our schools find the money for this? In my opinion, the state should be interested in this in the first place. If it ends up with illiterate people who will then live in our country and work in some areas, it will lose more.

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