Bucharest, 1 June 2022 – “How do I ask for help in Romanian?” is usually one of the top things Andreea’s students ask her when they first start the language course.
Organized twice per week by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bucharest, the classes typically host roughly 10 to 20 people who have fled the war in Ukraine and who, for just about two hours, attempt to put their hardships aside and find comfort in learning a new language.
“Communication is key if I decide to stay here longer,” says Tatiana, who found out about the free language classes on Facebook.
Tatiana fled Ukraine at the beginning of March with her mother and 12-year-old daughter. They took the train from Kyiv and then walked for two hours until they crossed over to the idyllic town of Sighetu Marmației, in northern Romania.
Once she succeeded in securing accommodation for her family in Bucharest, Tatiana stopped to catch her breath. “Everybody wanted to help, with big and small things – I was just looking for language courses.”
Andreea has been a teacher for years, helping foreigners decipher the intricacies of the Romanian language and build their conversation skills. As she saw the war unfolding in Ukraine, Andreea knew that she had to put her teaching skills to good use and started volunteering with IOM.
Although she had little to no Ukrainian-Romanian language resources when she started, Andreea has been creative. She has done research, looked up manuals and audiobooks, created and printed materials as needed.
She thinks Romanian is not an easy language to learn, especially if you are not used to Romance languages, but her patience and compassionate way of teaching have made her a popular figure among students.
An A+ student as Andreea describes her, Tatiana feels that after a mere six classes she can finally get her head around the language and hold simple conversations in Romanian. Now considered a group veteran, many of the students turn to her when they have doubts in class.
“I am still getting used to the language, but we have many similar sounds in Ukrainian, so it helps with pronunciation,” Tatiana explains.
While learning a new language can be a welcome distraction for the students, it can also trigger pain that is still very much fresh. While having simple conversations in Romanian, Andreea now knows what topics to avoid and what subjects to address to bring more comfort, laughter, and fun to her classes.
As such, the bi-weekly meetups have become much more than language classes but an opportunity to come together for people who are going through the same struggles – whether because of what they left behind, the uncertainty of the future, or their daily battles.
Despite the struggles, the students give it their all in class and beyond. If before the exchanges in their WhatsApp group were held mostly in English, the conversation has now slowly switched to Romanian. The homework is always done and rarely does anyone skip a class.
“I am impressed with the quick progress they have made,” Andreea observes. “It’s endearing to see how much they want to learn.”
Arriving in a new country after being forced to flee your home has been a daunting task for many. Whether looking for temporary refuge or a permanent home, learning the local language has been one of the few things that have made daily life just a tad more bearable.
At 16, Oleks is by far the youngest student in the group. While his mom tends to his younger brother’s needs at home, Oleks attends the language classes at IOM’s premises. As a quick-witted teenager, he answers many questions with “da, da, da,” proud to have discovered similarities between Ukrainian and Romanian and as such, to have attained swift proficiency, he laughs.
When he starts talking about Ukraine, his smile soon disappears. Together with his mom and 13-year-old brother, he was forced to flee Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine at the end of March. The family crossed over to Romania at the border crossing point in Isaccea, where they received support from their church.
Oleks thinks he could have held on for longer in Ukraine, but his mom had feared the worst. “I will be turning 18 in a little over a year and we don’t know how long this war will last.”
Apart from youngsters like Oleks, most of the students are women who often need to join the class with their children. To ensure that no one needs to skip a class because of maternal duties, IOM has set up a child-friendly corner in the same space.
Through the classes, the women have found much-needed relief, made new friends and regained their sense of community, which had been dwindling since they fled, Tatiana says. “Everyone has been so kind and friendly; the group provides me with a lot of comfort, so I keep coming back.”
IOM’s office in Romania has a long history of organizing integration and cultural orientation activities for migrants and refugees alike. While full language proficiency is not the goal, the psychological impact of understanding the local customs and learning a new language on one’s well-being and sense of autonomy for those displaced is not to be underestimated.
Moreover, these newly learned skills have become an asset for many who have found jobs through various networks, including with IOM’s support. IOM is now looking into organizing weekend classes so that they can continue their learning process. IOM’s awareness-raising team is regularly advertising the classes during the visits to reception centres to encourage people to sign up, and additional classes are being scheduled to meet the demand.
As for Oleks, he has many dreams, but doesn’t know which one he can or should pursue anymore. “I come from a family of engineers, but my mom wanted me to become a doctor. However, I went to music school and wanted to become dancer.”
For the time being, he just wants to be a teen: continue his high school classes online, find a summer job and perfect his Romanian, he says with a grin.
IOM's language classes in Romania are possible thanks to the financial support of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
If you have been affected by the crisis and need support, please call one of IOM’s Hotlines.
Written by Monica Chiriac.