Nearly as soon as the Sochi Olympics ended, the world’s attention skipped across the ancient waters of the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine, which moved with rapidity from mass protests to a new government to being plunged into war footing with Russia. The media has been ready with their pre-fab “Crisis in Ukraine” chyrons, and that is indeed how it is being perceived: a crisis, a showdown between a muscular Russia and the United States, a haunting echo of the Cold War.
To be sure, there are elements of that. But if you are a teacher, a classmate, or a family hosting an international student from the area, you don’t have that chessboard luxury. For students from Ukraine, Russia, or some of the surrounding areas which are being affected, this is a confusing and scary time. Luckily, there are things you can keep in mind. We’re focusing on Ukraine, but these lessons can be broadly applied to any country in turmoil.
Know the weight of history
This story started with the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed President of Ukraine supported by the eastern half of the country. Or, more accurately, it started with his election. Or, it started with the Orange Revolution in 2004, which overthrew the former Soviet apparatchik Leonid Kuchma. Or, well, then I guess you’d have to go back to the Soviet era to understand the roots. And that’s just to get a rough understanding of internal Ukrainian politics, to say nothing of why Russia wants to annex the Crimea or why the eastern part of the country is ethnic Russian. You’d have to study that for years to get anything other than a surface-level understanding.
You may not know the full history, but you should understand that past is always present in these events. In any situation, each side has its own narrative, its own way to shape and mold and understand a history, and it is used as a rallying point, a way to form unity, and as a dangerous war-igniting accelerant. It is counter-productive for a student or teacher to ignore this weight or to assume it doesn’t matter. It is also important to note that it rarely does any good to argue, even if you think or even know that their narrative is incorrect.
Don’t make assumptions
There is a narrative behind every story, and often it is simplistic and designed to be easily-digestible. In Ukraine, you have a Western-leaning bloc of democracy advocates who overthrew a leader backed by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. And while that is broadly true, the closer you zoom in, the more complicated the picture gets. For example, Yanukovych was elected in a vote that was considered free and fair, and while he was outlandishly corrupt, he was also backed by a large percentage of the population, who tolerated him as a champion of their interests.
And that is the point. It is easy to assume that the student in your class or home is naturally a backer of the Western-leaning bloc, but you actually don’t know that. Saying something like “you must be so happy they got rid of that crook!” can permanently poison a relationship. It’s also important to recognize that despite the comfortable framework, nothing is truly binary. Your student might support the goals of the protestors but not their methods, or they might be Russian-leaning but not a fan of the regime. Or they might be part of the Jewish or Muslim minorities, two communities that historically suffered as scapegoats in times of national crisis. So while it is at best horribly awkward to make assumptions about politics, there is something you can be sure of: your student is almost certainly scared, confused, and unsure of what to do.
Start a Dialogue; Know the Facts
There are some things you can do. As a teacher or parent, instinct is often to go back to a shared experience. However, odds are you don’t know what this is like. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help. It seems simple, but letting your student talk about it is vitally important. It is easy to say “Well, there’s nothing we can do, try to focus on the what’s happening here”, and be well-meaning about it, but that can leave the student feeling marginalized and isolated. Encourage them to call home, to follow the story on the news, to keep in touch with family and friends on the scene. While it might make them frustrated not to be there, this connective thread helps keep dark imaginations from running rampant.
In the classroom, spend some time talking about it. Don’t choose sides- after all, there very well could be kids from different sides of the wall, or at least who have very different perspectives. Encourage debate, but not fighting. It is also a chance to bridge the gap- after all, it is much harder to dehumanize the other side if you see an equally-scared peer the next desk over.
There are also what could be called “extreme bureaucratic” worries. A student may be unsure of their visa status if a new government is installed and may be wondering about getting home. They may also entertain worries about having to become a refugee to seek asylum. It’s best to not dismiss these worries out of hand. While you can assure them that having to seek asylum is very unlikely, you know what to do in case that time comes. This isn’t fueling fears- it is removing another layer of uncertainty.
And that has to be your primary role. You can’t solve the crisis, nor can you fully understand it. But you can be there for them. You can answer what you can, and be a listening post when you can’t. The major emotion your student will feel is this gnawing daily uncertainty, this fear that nothing will ever be the same, and what they once knew is gone. They must know that they can be certain of your support.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.