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Ukrainian refugees practice English with help from students at Virginia Tech

Participants at an English conversation session between Ukrainian refugees and students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Nov. 2022.
Jenny Boone
Virginia Tech
Participants at an English conversation session between Ukrainian refugees and students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Nov. 2022.

It’s 6pm in Warsaw, Poland, and a group of mothers and teenagers from Ukraine are practicing their English conversation skills with students at Virginia Tech, over Zoom.

Today, they’re talking, and teaching each other, about their favorite foods. The conversation ranges from chicken noodle soup, to fried potatoes and ice cream. Twice a week, they gather together like this online, talking about their families and daily routines, about dorm life and the natural environment where they each live, and grew up. Though they’re separated by 4,500 miles, the two groups have gotten to know each other through these conversations, which began last year.

The Ukrainian refugees have fled fighting back home, most of them with their children and elderly relatives, to live temporarily in a refugee resettlement community in Poland, where most of the volunteers and staff speak English.

Yana is one of the Ukrainian mothers who asked for this language program. “For me, I want use English language in my future. I want find a good job, to support my family.”

We’re only using participants’ first names to protect their security.

Another participant, Alyona, said a year ago, she hardly knew any English. “I feel confident. I know more words. I think my English [is] a little bit better.”

Twice a week, Alyona and Yana help organize a dozen refugees who want to improve their English. Most are mothers and teenagers, and there’s also one father.

Meanwhile, here in Virginia, there are 12 volunteers, most of them seniors in the human development and family science department, like Chelsea Choi.

“It makes me really understand how much, even though we are culturally different, we do do similar things,” Choi said.

Her professor, Matthew Komelski is the main organizer.

“My students are not teaching language in Speak Up for Ukraine,” Komelski said. “They’re simply offering themselves up for conversational English.”

This program is a collaboration between Virginia Tech and the American School Warsaw, in Poland. Komelski happened to visit that school last year, when he was researching how other universities organize service learning. The school operates a relief center for Ukrainian refugees.

There, he met Yana and Alyona, and they said they wanted to improve their English.

Back in Virginia, a handful of students signed up to help.

“I definitely get lots of gratitude and happiness from this program,” said Sofijka Piazza, a biology major who also happens to speak Ukrainian, so she does some translating during the sessions. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ukraine.

“It’s also good for me to practice speaking Ukrainian because I don’t speak Ukrainian, except when I call my mom and my grandma,” Piazza said.

But the main reason she signed up for this program, said Piazza, was to connect with people in another country.

“Because we’re only in this one little tiny dot of Blacksburg, Virginia, but there’s an entire world around us,” Piazza said. “And a lot of people forget about that. And so I wanted to make sure that I didn’t.”

Piazza is also excited to be part of a group of Virginia Tech students who are traveling to Poland this summer. After eight weeks of Zoom, they’ll meet the Ukrainians face to face, to work alongside each other, not only practicing language, but also volunteering together to help families at the Lipowa Relief Center in Warsaw.

Updated: April 2, 2023 at 8:56 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.