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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Learning Despite Life's Bad Breaks

From the sound of it, it's a typical Russian secondary school. When the final bell of the day rings, the halls echo with the rush of feet and the excited chatter of homebound children.

But that's where any similarity with an ordinary school ends. This is the refugee school, where many of the 200 students live in camps outside Moscow, the teachers often work for metro passes and a visitor is as likely to hear Farsi spoken as Russian.

"It isn't really a school, strictly speaking," said Natalya Malikova, the headmistress who both teaches and looks after administrative matters. "We are officially called the Humanitarian Russian Language Courses, though now besides Russian, we also teach subjects like math and science."

The school, which went on summer break last Friday, has over 200 students ages seven to 16 from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Somalia, Zaire, Angola and Sri Lanka, and was opened two years ago by Equilibre, the French humanitarian organization. As a rule, children of refugees are not allowed to enter ordinary Russian schools because they have no registration and typically don't speak Russian.

"The school originally aimed to teach refugees Russian to enable them to communicate," said Malikova. "Then it gradually evolved to becoming a kind of preparatory course to help the children join Russian schools. Most of these kids have lost up to several years of school due to conditions in their countries, and they need to get on with their studies without any more delays."

Malikova added that to date more than 60 refugee children who studied at the school have been able to enter regular schools once their registration papers were put in order.

"Sometimes the school is like a virtual tower of Babel," smiled Margarita Petrova, a Russian-language teacher, whose class spoke no common language when the year began last fall. "Now everyone manages to put their thoughts across."

According to the teachers, starting on the road to learning again can be tough for some of the children because of gaps in their schooling and because of horrors they have witnessed in their native countries. But many, like Nadya Otib, an impish 16-year-old from Afghanistan, are thrilled to be back in a classroom again. "I hadn't been to school for three years, and it was great to start doing lessons again, especially learning a new language," she said.

Many of the teachers are themselves refugees who work as volunteers, receiving only a monthly metro pass as compensation.

"Most of these children have either forgotten or have never gotten around to learning even the alphabet in their mother tongues. It would be a pity if our children were to grow up without any knowledge of their own culture and language just because they happen to be in Russia," said Nafisa Iqbal, an Afghani woman who was stranded in Moscow and now teaches Farsi at the refugee school.

Teachers also offer courses in computer programming, hairdressing and sewing. Malikova said she would like to broaden the curriculum, but funds are tight. "We can't afford to take on more teachers, so we can offer only a few subjects. Kids who join regular school have trouble coping with subjects like biology and chemistry, which we can't teach properly due to lack of facilities," said Malikova, 40. "As it is, the kids study in shifts. They come in three days a week, whereas we would like to have a regular timetable for all five days of the week."

Another problem the school faces is irregular attendance due to poverty. "The percentage of dropouts is very high, especially among teenage boys," said Askar Ulfat, an Afghani agronomist who is the school's English teacher, as he surveyed his half-empty classroom. "Most are sent to markets around the city to peddle goods and help support their families. They know that chances of getting a job are almost nonexistent here, even if they attend school. We need to give them some incentive to keep studying."