Metro Detroit school creates new home, shared bond for Ukrainian children, parents

The Detroit News

The Detroit News - Jennifer Chambers

Hamtramck — Misha Saievskyy likes snow sports, Minecraft and math.

The 10-year-old Ukrainian refugee shared his appreciation for something else he likes in America.

"I like that the education is free," said Misha, sitting inside his Michigan public school, "and most all the people can just learn."

Misha is among 55 Ukrainian refugee students who have found a new home and a shared bond with other students and teachers this fall at Caniff Liberty Academy, a public charter school for students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth in Hamtramck.

More than 562 children attend the school in the Detroit enclave where enrollment has ticked up over the last decade from 320 students in 2013 to more than 500 last year. About 61% of students are English learners, half identify as non-White and nearly everyone is economically disadvantaged.

International students, as well as foreign-born teachers can be found in nearly every classroom across the three-story brick school, which has turned into a haven for immigrant families. Many arrived in the United States as refugees, fleeing conflict in their home country, with little English speaking ability.

children in class

Since it opened in 2012, the school has served large numbers of immigrant children from Bosnia, Yemen and Bangladesh, reflecting the ever-evolving diversification of Hamtramck, a historically Polish enclave. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian refugees — mostly children and their mothers — began arriving in Michigan, settling in Hamtramck and searching for a school for their children.

As the war in Ukraine passed the one-year mark, more Ukrainian families arrived in Hamtramck and began telling each other about the unique school where multilingual teachers and staff who understand the life of a refugee offer the chance to learn English and make a new life.

According to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data, 588 Ukrainians lived in Hamtramck two years before the war began. It is unclear how many Ukrainians now live in the Wayne County city, but it's likely significantly more.

This past year in Michigan, 7,000 applications for assistance were filed by Ukrainian refugees, and half, or about 3,500, are already in Michigan, said Kelli Dobner, chief advancement officer of Samaritas, the largest resettlement agency in southeast Michigan. Southeast Michigan receives and resettles 80% of the state's total applications, Dobner said.

The number of Ukrainian students enrolled at the Hamtramck school more than doubled to 88 this school year, and school officials are hoping more families will enroll their children at Caniff Liberty Academy. They are also trying to recruit educators with strong cultural competency, diverse backgrounds and experience with English language learners, superintendent Azra Ali said.

School principal Tom Kozak said the school has hosted Ukrainian holiday celebrations to make arriving families, who may have just fled Ukraine weeks before, feel welcome. Some children as young as 4 years old attend the school, and many come wearing the colorful embroidered Ukrainian clothing that they wore back home.

"Especially for all the families who just are coming over and struggling, they just got here for some safety and (ask), 'What do we do now?'" Kozak said. "And from there, it is little steps at a time. The first thing they do is find a place to live, and the second thing they do is find this school. It is pretty much in that order. This community is so tight-knit and so supportive of each other. Their word is their bond."

Yana Stytsuik, 27, fled Ukraine in July 2022 with her third grade son. She chose the school because her uncle works there, and it's close to where she lives.

"My son studied here one year, and we don't know anyone at school," Stytsuik said. "Now he is so excited. He love it. He loves the teachers and the children in the class, the learning. He love everything."

Stytsuik's son has met other Ukrainian boys and girls, but he speaks with all children, she said.

"He started learning English here. It is perfect, after one year. Maybe sooner than one year. After a few months, he started to speak very well," Stytsuik said. "My English is bad. I learn with my son."

Back home in Termopil, her father, her sister and other family members remain as the war with Russia rages on.

"It's still not good. War is continuing. They are safe," Stytsuik said. "My sister is English teacher in Ukraine. She wants to know everything: How is the study? How is the teacher? How is the class? My son speaks English with his aunt, and sometimes I can't understand."

Teaching with love

Caniff is a place where people understand what it's like to be new and feel uncertain themselves.

On a recent November school day, teacher Mitra Entcheva finishes her lesson in math and prepares her second-grade students for a pizza lunch. They sit quietly at their desks with their hands folded, fingers intertwined, waiting for her direction to get up to leave.

But first, one more math problem from the teacher, who is in her 11th year of teaching at the school.

children in line in class

Entcheva, an immigrant from Bulgaria who escaped her country's former Communist regime, first speaks in English, telling students they are reviewing adding by 10s. Then she asks a Ukrainian student to solve a math problem.

When the girl hesitates, Entcheva shifts to Russian — a language many Ukrainian people can understand and speak — to see if she understands. The girl responds that she does, and Entcheva moves back to English with the rest of the class following along.

"When I have harder concept to teach, I make sure they understand what I am talking about in English first, then I ask (in Russian) 'Do you understand?' We have signal if they are confused. Thumbs down or thumbs up," Entcheva said. "Less distraction for everyone else."

Most of the children in Entcheva's classroom did not speak English when they arrived at school. By the end of the school year, most will speak it well. While the focus is on reading, math and social studies, Entcheva knows she has start somewhere else to connect with each student. She uses the Leader in Me program, a social-emotional learning process that empowers students with leadership and life skills.

"First you have to show them that you love them. Because you don't need a special language for love," Entcheva said. "You find students you can rely on and you work very hard on them (with Leader in Me), and it brings (out) leadership qualities and traits in every child. That's how I want them to show being leaders, by helping someone, taking care of someone. It's a process. It doesn't happen one day or one month."

She communicates with their parents, who typically do not speak English, using ClassDojo, an online communication platform for parents and teachers in K-12 schools. Messaging can be translated into more than 35 languages.

Her computer shows examples of parents using multiple languages in response to her English.

"They needed someone who can relate to them and the situation they are in and help them enroll their children. We are in contact every day at dismissal or arrival," Entcheva said. "They are proud when their children are successful in school."

Samaritas, the refugee agency, served 920 Ukrainians this year in Michigan and is set to serve another 2,500 next year, Dobner said.

'Life is a journey'

Teacher Iuliia Surzhyk, a Ukrainian refugee herself, came to Caniff Liberty two months ago. She left Ukraine in 2013 to come to the United States. She speaks Ukrainian and Russian.

Wearing a colorful hand-embroidered Ukrainian blouse, Surzhyk is enthusiastically teaching four students an afternoon lesson in English on different articles of clothing.

teacher comforting student

Standing in the front of the room, Surzhyk calls out in Ukrainian the names of items such as skirt, socks and boots. The children, many of whom left Ukraine just months ago, take turns responding in English as they sit at their desks. Behind them in the window, an American flag flies against the wind.

Surzhyk, who is warm but firm with the children, asks her students to stand up and do some marching in place as they warm up to do a physical counting exercise in English.

"Stand up, please," she says in a heavy accent. "You are a teacher now, you have to announce to all the class," she tells a student standing in front of her as she begins the rhyme: "One, two, I love you."

Surzhyk, blonde-haired with a warm smile and big round eyes, says teaching at such a school is challenging and rewarding.

"To be a teacher here is very hard. Our life is a long journey. During this journey, we meet different people, some help us. I'm very proud to be here. To be in such a big international community is interesting," she said.

She visited her war-torn country last year. Her town is Chernehiv.

"They do not have any light, any electricity. I see empty streets," Surzhyk said. "I didn't see any man. I see empty shop. They try to survive. I think maybe the day shall come and everything will stop and people return to their calm life."

"For many, they have their dream to come back to Ukraine after 18th month, but a lot of Ukrainian people just now try to find some possibility to stay here," Surzhyk said.

Asked if she plans to return to her homeland, Surzhyk sighed and said she does not know. She would like to be a U.S. citizen.

"When I came back to Ukraine, I just feel like a guest," Surzhyk said.

Ukraine-born parent Liudmyla Pavliuk is the unofficial promoter for Caniff Liberty, referring multiple Ukrainian families to the school where she sends her four children, who were all born in Ukraine.

"I always recommend this school for parents, and they are always so happy. Kids learn a lot here and have support here," Pavliuk said.

Pavliuk, a single parent who obtained her commercial driver's license to drive a truck locally for a living, said the school's support for her two sons and two daughters never ends. They came to the United States in 2011.

"I saw they are working so hard for the students. They try to understand each family. ... I know it takes time from their own families," Pavliuk said.

Three of her children are performing well in school, Pavliuk says, while her older child receives special education support and speech therapy from some dedicated educators at the school.

Her children do ask about the war. Like most Ukrainian kids, they get information about it from other kids, Pavliuk said. Metro Detroit is home to an estimated 50,000 residents with links to Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, a grassroots, association of organizations and individuals supporting Ukraine.

"They were coming with questions about what is going on there," Pavliuk said. "I was needing to explain for the child — we have family there."

kids sitting in hallway

The school's superintendent, Ali, said turnover on her staff is low because the teachers are like family to students and their parents. Most stay five to 10 years, she said.

"Children are children, their needs are still the same needs. That sense of belonging, sense of appreciation, care and love," Ali said.

Many Ukrainian students take pride in sharing their culture with the school at special events. In the spring, the school held a Ukrainian cultural day and spent an entire day discussing music, food and history that became part of the students' social studies lessons later on.

The school saw a spike in enrollment of Yemeni students around 2015 after civil war erupted there that year.

"For our Yemeni students and our Bangladeshi students, it's brand new. From an ethnic standpoint, even though Caniff has been quite diverse, we have had pretty much Bengali students, Yemeni students and African American students," Ali said. "So we have never had such a large White population per se. Even though it's a European mindset, the kids are getting to know each other."

The school is planning art therapy events for Ukrainian students and families this school year using federal grant money that is being administered by Samaritas.

'Let's give it a try'

Liliy Vozna and Matvii Bukhta, both 10, are fifth grade students at Caniff Liberty.

Matvii was born in Ukraine and has attended the school for two years. He speaks Russian and Ukrainian and is still learning English.

"Learning English, it's easier to study in the USA," Matvii said. "I want to play soccer when I get older."

Liliy's parents are Ukrainian, but she was born in the United States. She speaks Russian, Ukrainian, French, English and is learning Spanish at school.

"We looked at this school and said let's give it a try. The teachers aren't that bad. They are pretty nice, to be honest," Liliy said.

Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Liliy had two answers.

"My parents want me to become a lawyer because they say I am good at arguing. I want to be the exact opposite. I want to be an investigator for the Navy, like NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service)," she said.

Translating can be hard all day at school, Liliy said, but speaking multiple languages means you can communicate with others and connect throughout the day and feel understood in a new world.

"To have another person speaking that language with you, just like you are happy you can understand them," she said. "You are glad you finally get to that point."

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed

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