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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

More than a place to learn: SCC language program gets grant to expand capacity as Ukrainian refugees flock to Spokane

Natalia Tomchuk, center, smiles with fellow Ukranian classmate Svitlana Tymofiienko, right, and instructor Cielito Brekke, left, as they reflect on their time in Brekke’s ESL class on Thursday at SCC.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Since arriving in the United States in June, Olha Hubarieva has struggled to feel understood.

That is, until she stepped foot in a Spokane Community College classroom to begin English as a second language classes.

“I love my teachers … because it’s people who want to understand me,” Hubarieva said.

When the Ukrainian woman goes to the grocery store or the pharmacy, she struggles.

“(They) don’t want to understand me because my English is not so good,” Hubarieva said with a sad smile.

The ESL program is the place Hubarieva feels most at home, a common feeling among Spokane refugees, said Cielito Brekke, who has taught ESL for more than 30 years.

“I strongly believe the ESL classroom is the first place of safety for refugees,” she said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country. Many who came to the United States headed to Spokane, where nearly 50,000 Slavic people already live.

Last fall, there were 389 people enrolled in the ESL program. This fall, there are 876.

The huge jump in enrollment is largely due to the surge of about 2,500 Ukrainians who have arrived in Spokane.

To help with the influx of new students, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges granted Spokane Community College $430,000 to expand the ESL program.

In her nearly 25 years of teaching at SCC, Brekke has never seen the program grow so much.

Not only are more than half of the people in her class Ukrainian, but almost all of them are women, their husbands still stuck in Ukraine.

Brekke, who immigrated from the Philippines, said teaching the students as they adjust to their new lives and work through trauma is her passion.

“They’re uprooted from their familiar surroundings raising their children in an unfamiliar land,” Brekke said, tearing up. “It’s more than a place for learning a language. It’s a rare place where they can find refuge and safe harbor.”

Many of her students make their first friends in America at ESL classes.

“The relationships that form in the classroom, they last,” Brekke said. “An ESL classroom is a place where students can get their stories told.”

Hubarieva is an outgoing and bubbly person, but she struggles to communicate her feelings in English, she said.

She fled her home in Zaporizhzhya in March with her daughter and their two dogs. They lived in Germany for four months before Hubarieva decided to come to the United States to be with her boyfriend, who already lived in the U.S.

They moved to Cheney in June.

“I have culture shock because it’s like another part of our planet,” she said.

It’s not just the language that’s different. Other examples include how Americans tell time and measure temperatures. While she is excelling in her English program, integrating into society has been difficult when people don’t take the time to understand her broken English.

“It’s a big stress for me because I want to tell more, but people don’t understand,” Hubarieva said.

Her classmates understand, though.

On Thursday, the second floor of an SCC building was swirling with the smell of food from different cultures as Christmas music blasted. Surrounded by projects pinned to the walls titled “About me” or “My goals,” a group of women shared a meal and chatted like old friends.

Next door in another class, a young girl adjusted her black hijab as she took over DJing for the gathering while an older Ukrainian man pulled out a chair for his friend. Some chatted in English, others in Russian, as they celebrated finishing the quarter.

Nestled in the back between her friends, Mariia Baranova, 40, sampled the food brought by her classmates.

Baranova, from Polvtava, Ukraine, came to Spokane in June with her two children and her husband. She already had family living in the area, but the transition has been difficult.

Baranova always has loved to learn. She worked as an information technology developer and an accountant all while playing viola in a Ukrainian symphony orchestra.

She had taken English in Ukraine all through school, but the curriculum was solely focused on reading and writing. She would translate texts from famous authors like William Shakespeare or Emily Bronte but could barely string together a sentence if speaking out loud.

“It’s a big problem in Ukraine,” Baranova said.

It was like starting over when she enrolled in ESL classes. Her dream is to play in an American symphony as her English improves, Baranova said.

For Brekke, helping students adapt and achieve their dreams all starts with helping them build confidence and advocate for themselves in what can be an unwelcoming world.

“Refugees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “And the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”