As Putin’s war rages on, a Russian woman finds new purpose: Teaching Ukrainian refugee children

The Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year prompted a massive exodus from both countries. The Russians fled to the West because they did not want to be associated with a war that President Vladimir Putin appeared to be launching for no credible reason. The Ukrainians fled, too, because bombs and rockets fell on their towns and villages, killing the very people Russia supposedly wanted to “liberate”.

More than 30,000 refugees ended up in Israel, where an organization called Early Starters International offered early education courses to their children. Hundreds of Ukrainian families accepted the offer, unaware that in some cases their children would be taught by Russians fleeing the same war they escaped.

“It’s not easy for me,” says Sophia Kurtik, one of four Russian teachers now working for Early Starters kindergartens in Israel and Eastern Europe. “Sometimes I meet with some parents and with them I feel like it’s a big issue.”

People stand in front of a damaged apartment building that was hit by a rocket attack.

People look at the exterior of a damaged block of flats hit by an early morning rocket attack in Kyiv February 25. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Once an angry father wanted to know why she gave the children Russian flags. It wasn’t: the flags were French and were distributed as part of an activity unrelated to war. But the distrust runs so deep that the father’s anger cannot be traced back to mixing up the two somewhat similar tricolors.

“Of course some parents are concerned about having a Russian teacher when they arrive at our centers – but we quickly see that we are all on the same page,” says Sarah Wilner, co-founder of Early Starters. “No one wants this war.”

Though Ukrainians and Russians share deep religious, cultural, and ethnic ties, the rupture caused by Putin’s invasion may take generations to heal. “I will never forgive Russia,” wrote a Ukrainian poet in the spring, expressing a sentiment shared by many of his compatriots, many of whom make no distinction between the “good Russians” who oppose the war and the millions who who support him.

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This means that for Kurtik, any encounter with Ukrainian parents has the potential to become tense, as she recently admitted to Yahoo News. But most don’t. Incredible geopolitical forces have drawn them to Israel, a country locked in its own struggle for existence. As for the Ukrainian refugees, they went from one of the two nations in the world with a Jewish president (Vladimir Zelenskyy is Ukraine’s first Jewish leader) to the other.

Russian newspapers on a makeshift table.

Russian newspapers in a building previously used by the head of the Russian occupying power on Friday in Vyshneve, Ukraine. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Like them, Kurtik is outraged by the war of aggression that Russia launched in February. She doesn’t believe any of the arguments that Putin has offered about Kiev’s fascist tendencies, which only begs the question of why she and so many other slick, savvy Russians didn’t denounce the procession of untruths sooner. After all, Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was launched under similar fictional pretexts as the 2008 invasion of Georgia.

“And don’t tell me these Russians have no choice,” Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova wrote in Atlantic this summer. “We are the ones who had no choice. All they had to do was disobey orders and refuse to participate in Putin’s ‘military special operation’.”

Countless fictions and deceptions have sustained Putin’s power for two decades, with the complicity of millions of Russian citizens weakened by decades of Soviet rule. Desperate for a better life, they gave Putin free rein. Only with the recent invasion of Ukraine have Russians like Kurtik understood what has become of Russia under his leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is standing with four regional leaders of the Ukrainian separatists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, with Ukrainian separatist regional leaders during the annexation ceremony for four Ukrainian regions September 30 in Moscow. (Contributor/Getty Images)

“It’s heartbreaking,” Kurtik says of the war, noting that her own ancestry — like that of many other Russians — can be traced back to Ukraine. “I was hoping it would end immediately,” she recalls, imagining Putin being assassinated by a political rival.

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But his grip on the Kremlin remained as tight as ever, with internal Kremlin dissent — let alone the possibility of a coup — all but non-existent. The protests that have erupted across Russia don’t seem to upset him either. About two weeks into the invasion, which was already showing serious signs of faltering, Russia passed a new law criminalizing “false information” – ie honest reporting and open discussion – in what the Kremlin called a “special military operation”.

Kurtik had not joined the protests and feared backlash from crude police tactics. But the new law proved to be too much. “I feel like this was the end of free speech in our country,” she told Yahoo News. “And I can’t live without freedom of speech; I cannot raise my son without freedom of speech.”

So she gave up her psychology practice in Moscow and fled with her husband and son to Egypt and then to Israel, where she now teaches the children of Ukrainian refugees in a kindergarten run by Early Starters International.

She sees the work as a kind of duty – and maybe also as a kind of penance. “They were pulled from their homes, from their families. Their fathers are still in Ukraine,” says Kurtik about her young protégés, about their desperate need for normality in a deeply abnormal world. “It’s very meaningful for me to be with the children, to hear their stories, to listen to them, to play with them, to help them somehow process this trauma.”

Wilner, the co-founder of Early Starters, says that because Ukrainian men have mostly stayed behind, it’s mothers who have faced the difficulties of living abroad, from housing to education. “The resilience I see in women never ceases to amaze me, no matter where in the world,” she told Yahoo News.

An injured woman with a bandaged forehead and jaw stands in front of a hospital.

Helena, a teacher, outside a hospital after the February 24 bombing of the city of Chuguiv in eastern Ukraine. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Early Starters International had experience providing early childhood education in developing countries; As soon as the extent of the conflict in Eastern Europe became apparent, the organization launched early childhood education programs in Moldova and Israel. “When the war started, we felt the need to do something,” says Ran Cohen Harounoff, co-founder of Early Starters.

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At the time, Israel attempted a delicate diplomatic dance to show its support for Ukraine without alienating Russia. Many felt that was not enough. “I think we compensated a bit in the beginning,” admits Cohen Harounoff. “As a second-generation Holocaust survivor – my mother was hidden by a Christian family in Holland – I felt an obligation to do this,” he says of launching early childhood care programs for Ukrainian refugees.

Among the many needs that Ukrainians face, restoring a sense of normalcy to children is among the most important. Her schooling had been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and then the war with Russia. “Schools in Ukraine are desperate for resources to build bomb shelters instead of playgrounds, and children are learning unexploded ordnance instead of road safety. This is the stark reality for Ukrainian students, parents and teachers,” UNICEF chief Catherine Russell said recently.

UNICEF also estimates that around 1.5 million Ukrainian children have been displaced by the war, meaning many of them will have to start school in another country, one they may not have any real connection with, its language and culture may be completely alien.

Newly arrived refugees from Ukraine, including children with stuffed animals, walk to an animal shelter in Poland.

Newly arrived refugees from Ukraine are registered at the main accommodation and resettlement center in Przemysl, Poland, on March 16. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

“What we do is based on the very strong belief that children have a right to access education,” says Wilner. “And it’s our responsibility as adults to make it available to them.”

Today, Early Starters operates seven early childhood education centers in Moldova and six in Israel, two of which are now opening in Prague. According to Wilner, around 3,500 children have received school education and childcare there since the beginning of the war.

The centers are kindergartens, ordinary in every way, except that the children who study there are refugees. The trauma of war is evident, Kurtik says, especially in the aggressive behavior of some boys, who clearly internalized the military mood of early 2022, when the war began.

But there are lighter moments too. Wilner described how, in early September, she witnessed three girls return to Early Starters after summer vacation and snuggle up for a happy hug. “They just stuck together,” she says. “It was the most touching thing I’ve seen in a long time.”

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