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Burnaby reading club helps Ukrainian refugee kids learn English, make friends

Armstrong Elementary kindergarten teacher Iuliia Sukhina-Volkova has volunteered to host weekly reading clubs at two local libraries for children who've fled the war in Ukraine.

Children fleeing the war in Ukraine are getting a little help with English and friendship thanks to a Burnaby teacher who is volunteering her time to put on a weekly reading club.

Forty-two students from 35 families have landed in Burnaby schools since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, according to the district.  

“(The families) are very upset, very distraught about the situation,” Natalya Khan, coordinator of the district settlement workers in schools (SWIS) program. “They don’t know what to expect. They all know that it’s long, longer than they expected, so they are trying to process that.”

Iuliia Sukhina-Volkova a Ukrainian-speaking kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher at Armstrong Elementary School read about the refugee families and wondered if there was a way she could help.

She reached out to Khan, and, after some brainstorming, they decided on a reading club.

On Saturdays, Sukhina-Volkova meets with one group of kids at the Cameron library and another at the Tommy Douglas branch.

She reads to the children in English but helps them out in Ukrainian when needed. Then the kids draw pictures, label the drawings, write a couple sentences in English and share their work with their new friends.

“Some of them don’t have any English yet because they came recently. They’re very new to Canada,” Sukhina-Volkova said.

Besides English skills the sessions also work to address another fundamental need: friendship.

“Some of them miss their friends and they want to go back to Ukraine because they miss their friends, so they really really enjoy seeing each other every time when they come,” Sukhina-Volkova said.

At the end of the session, the kids also get a chance to look at books and pick some to take home.

“The whole idea of this program is to kind of help them to have some kind of bright experience, something that can cheer them up, something that can help them connect and feel welcome here,” Sukhina-Volkova said.

After they’ve dropped their kids off, the parents also get a chance to connect with others who speak their own language and are going through the same traumatic transition while worrying about events in their home country.

To help with the emotional challenges of their displacement, the SWIS program is also bringing in a counsellor Thursday to present a workshop called “Resilient parent, resilient child.”

Sukhina-Volkova has volunteered to help translate.  

Khan said community members have “doubled and tripled their efforts” to help support the refugee families, and the children appear to be “doing well.”

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor