katia popova smiling to camera

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Stepping up

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When hundreds of Ukrainian children arrived in Edinburgh’s schools Katia Popova and her students organised tutoring, translation and tunes.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the displacement of nearly six million people across Europe. By spring 2023, around 3,000 Ukrainian refugees were living in Edinburgh, and 500 Ukrainian children were registered in the city’s schools.

When she heard of the first of these arrivals in late March 2022, Katia Popova’s thoughts immediately turned to the education of those fleeing the war. In the months since, supported by Russian-speaking students at the University of Edinburgh, she has helped scores of refugee children with learning and music tuition, and young adults with language exchange and befriending opportunities.

Katia (shortened from Ekaterina) is a Teaching Fellow in Russian at the University. Born in Russia, she is of Ukrainian heritage. Knowing the value Ukrainians place on education, she has been keen to ensure that displaced children’s schooling has not been derailed by war. When people’s most basic needs have been met, she says, education comes next.

Katia Popova standing in front of McEwan Hall.

Learning through action

Like most refugees, displaced Ukrainians are a vulnerable group often difficult to access through official channels. In the first months of the invasion, Katia used social media groups set up for and by Ukrainians to reach new arrivals and identify their needs. Although she does not yet speak Ukrainian (she is learning), she understands it, and was able to broker relationships between the many Scottish people who wanted to help and those who needed it. “I really admired people’s response to this crisis” she says of the Scotland Ukraine Host Support Group and of the numerous other organisations who rallied to help. “I’m really proud to be part of this community.”

Prior to coming to Edinburgh and teaching Russian in Higher Education, Katia taught English. When thinking about how to support younger Ukrainian children, she drew on the techniques she had used with other early learners, particularly Russian-speaking migrant children in Germany. She was also able to tap into the experiences of an enthusiastic group of her University students, some of whom had previously worked with children and were keen to volunteer. From drawing and singing to playing local and traditional games and going on trips, the emphasis was on learning through action and fun.

“You can’t impose help”

Katia and her team of volunteers have provided services for families at various stages of their journey, including helping children prior to their placement in schools, in-classroom language assistance, translating in school meetings with parents, and after-school activities. With University funding in 2022, they were able to secure more than a dozen summer holiday club places for Ukrainian refugee children in Edinburgh and to help the children participate.

“For many of the University students, it has been their first experience of working with displaced people,” says Katia, reflecting on the opportunities and challenges the students have faced engaging with young people whose lives have been so impacted by trauma. “It has been a learning curve for them, and they have had to adapt; learning to help, but also when and how to withdraw.”

“You can’t impose help,” Katia is keen to point out. This is particularly true when working with older children, including senior-phase learners preparing for exams. It has sometimes been the case that a school has identified that a pupil needs help, but the young person does not see it or simply wants to be independent. In these cases, her approach has been to help the whole class and not single out the individual. There have also been lots of opportunities for befriending between young Ukrainian adults and University students, those who already spoke Russian and those who are learning it as part of their degree programme.

Daniil, a young Ukrainian musician, plays a historic piano from the Russell Collection of early keyboard Instruments housed in St Cecilia's Hall
Daniil, a young Ukrainian musician, plays a modern replica of an 18th century piano at St Cecilia’s Hall.

Connecting through music

Aside from the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Katia has prioritised access to music tuition for displaced Ukrainians. It is important, she says, because playing music is commonplace in Ukraine, including as an after school activity. For the refugees she helps, being able to practice music regularly is about much more than playing an instrument –  it is about building routine, familiarity and structure into an otherwise disrupted life. It also has mental health and child development benefits, Katia stresses, emphasising how music can help people of all ages address and overcome challenges and build resilience.

Working with a local independent school, Katia was able to arrange weekly lessons for a group of young musicians over the course of a year. The project culminated in a final concert by the children for their families – a “low key but very special occasion” she says – which combined Ukrainian pieces the group started learning before the war and tunes they had been taught since.

Together with other keen musicians from the Ukrainian community, a number of the children were given a guided tour of the University’s musical instrument collection in St Cecilia’s Hall. Katia was deeply moved by the University’s support, including the opportunity given by Dr John Kitchen, the museum’s custodian, to play some of the instruments.

Making the world better

There are a lot of moving parts to the various projects Katia has co-ordinated in such a short space of time, in addition to her day job. What’s been the most challenging part? “Not being able to do more,” she says simply. She is energised by the Ukrainians she and her students have been able to reach, “seeing them progressing, becoming independent in a completely new environment, successfully adapting to their lives in Scotland, breaking barriers”.

There is always more to do, however, and more to learn about how to do it. But, as Katia says, “it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, otherwise how do you find out how to make the world better?”.

In May 2023, Katia Popova won a University of Edinburgh Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Award for her “extraordinary effort to support displaced Ukrainians, volunteering time and resources to help create a caring community”. She was also shortlisted for The Community Impact Award in this year’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science’s peer award programme, the CAHSS Recognition Awards.