Ophelia Vesely (C 22)

29 August 2023

Ophelia is a recent Old Wellingtonian (C 22) and 2022 Muir Scholarship recipient, which aims to support an OW to carry out independent research addressing a contemporary global issue.

Having learnt about the horrific events that are occurring in Ukraine from the relative comfort of the UK, Ophelia wanted to try and help victims of this situation, inspired by her grandfather, who immigrated to the UK following persecution from the USSR-occupied government. Eager to also improve her rudimentary Czech, she volunteered with a Ukrainian summer school programme by Prague-based charity, Organizace pro Pomoc Uprchlíkům (OPU), or Organisation for the Help of Refugees.

The programme provides free entertainment, therapy and Czech lessons to Ukrainian refugee children, not only aiming to help the children’s integration into Czechia, but also to temporarily relieve their parents of childcare, giving them time to apply for aid, jobs and learn Czech themselves. The school is set up in a large office block, temporarily donated by a bank following its COVID-19-induced redundancy. Yet despite the rushed and underfunded renovations; messy lines of shoes and coats and Ukrainian-themed artwork stuck on the walls make it easy to assume the building is a permanent school. The programme has around 150 children between 3-14 years old, split into classes based on their age. Ophelia’s role as a volunteer with the 11-14 year-olds was to help the teachers play games, organise and speak English with the children.

“At first, integration into the class I was working with proved difficult; the children conversed in Ukrainian and Russian (as most came from Eastern Ukraine) and understood limited English or Czech. However, through a few games of Uno and volleyball, I started getting to know them a bit better, and they me. What challenged my preconceptions the most was just how unaffected by the war these children initially appeared. Behaviours that I thought would have been taboo were commonplace; they joked around shooting each other with their hands in the shape of guns and snuck up to jump scare each other. There was substantial food waste despite the agricultural crisis threatening Ukraine. They enjoyed sleeping, talking with friends and scrolling through TikTok just like most teenagers.

For the moment at least, the majority of Czech citizens embrace the presence of Ukrainian refugees, yet they continue to experience disenfranchisement and homesickness. Perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps it reveals systematic errors in the refugee integration system. Explained best by Ukrainian refugees themselves, I asked Olena whether she liked Prague. She replied bluntly: “Prague is nice for tourists, but we are not tourists. We cannot choose to leave.” This sentiment was reinforced by Ksenija, a 14-year-old refugee who told me, “Prague is nice but it isn’t our country. It isn’t where our hearts are.” Ksenija’s grandfather opted to remain in Ukraine instead of seeking safety in another country. “He said that he was born here, he lived here and so he will die here” she told me.”

Ophelia is currently studying Geography at the University of Durham, and is working towards a career in investigative journalism & social development.