A small house in another country

A year ago, the Gulbenkian Foundation announced emergency support for Ukraine. Find out about two of the supported associations that have helped refugee children and families in Portugal.
08 May 2023 6 min

It is a Saturday morning and, unlike usual, there is peace and calm at S. João do Estoril Secondary School. “Today three buses full of children left for Sintra for a dance competition,” explains Ulyana Kucheras, headmistress of the Ukrainian school Oberig.

For 18 years this school has been promoting the teaching of Ukrainian language and curricular contents, conferring, via the Embassy, equivalence to their curricula. Every Saturday, it works in collaboration with the association “Fonte do Mundo” in order to preserve the history, culture and traditions of Ukraine in Portugal. In 2022, in the weeks following the invasion of Russia, the school saw the number of students triple: from 90 to 300.

“The child refugees arrived with nothing: no clothes, no mobile phones, no food, nothing” Ulyana tells us in Ukrainian, noticeably moved. Zahar Abramov, a Portuguese teacher, translates: “Escaping from the war is a relief, but then they arrive here and feel angry: they don’t know anyone, they don’t know the language, they have no friends…”.

Finding peace after silence

The association “Fonte do Mundo” was one of the five organisations that received emergency support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal. In addition to helping to keep the school going, which is more necessary than ever, this support was used “to buy material for the children to use in class (books, notebooks) and other equipment such as computers, a projector, speakers and a microphone,” explains Borys Kucheras, Ulyana’s husband and president of the association.

Another priority was also to find psychological help for these refugee children, who “saw the war with their own eyes”, says the school director. In the early days, she recalls, the scenario was devastating. “During class breaks, you couldn’t hear any noise. The children were silent, they didn’t speak; they only cried”.

Therefore, more than ensuring that they do not miss out on their studies, the work of this cultural and educational centre involves promoting recreational activities that enable them to live experiences together and get to know a little of the country that has become their new home. Throughout the year, with the support of Gulbenkian, visits were organised to the Oceanarium, the Safari Park, the Pavilhão do Conhecimento, the Aquapark and the Serra da Estrela mountains. Occasionally, national holidays are celebrated, with a party as tradition dictates.

Today, the fact that Saturdays are different is a “major victory”. Noise is heard again throughout the corridors, during breaks. Relationships of trust have been built and the ties between students, families and teachers have grown stronger. The families – mothers and children, increasingly fatherless – are accompanied by psychologists and helped with their integration, both inside and outside refugee centres.

“We want the children to feel comfortable, we want them to feel at home. The Ukrainian school helps, it allows them to hear their mother tongue, to communicate with other children,” says Ulyana Kucheras. For the headmaster, their community is “one big family”. In times of war and desolation, the moments spent together are the most valuable.

“Like a small home in another country”

At the Oberig school, although few in number, activities do not stop: Portuguese classes, speech therapy sessions, English classes with puppet theatre, “Art Therapy” and group sessions with a psychologist are held throughout the day. The students range from 1st to 11th grade, aged between 6 and 17.

Natalia Nikonec’s two children joined the school a week after arriving in Portugal. The three landed in the country on 5 March 2022, fleeing the town of Bucha, one of the first areas on the outskirts of Kiev occupied by Russian forces when war broke out.

“We came to Portugal because it is the farthest place from the war where we can live in safety,” she explains. For this mother, the Ukrainian school is very important because it allows her not to forget her roots and to maintain her studies, combined with social and recreational activities. And, knowing that her children are well looked after, she has time to focus on other things, such as looking for a job, or resting: “It is like a small home in another country. My children feel very comfortable here, and so do I.”

The Portuguese language is difficult to learn, but her children are already fluent. For now, this is where Natalia plans to stay, where she feels safe and welcome.

The strength of a Kind Heart

Valentyna Marko and her daughter Virginia have been volunteers since 2014 at the “Coração Bondoso” [Kind Heart] association, which collaborates regularly with the school in S. João do Estoril and other schools in Lisbon. In contact with the Ukrainian Embassy, the association receives requests for help and looks for solutions, promoting collections of essential items and accompanying families and children on a case-by-case basis. “Over the last year, my mother’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing”, says Virginia.

The support they received from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was used in the first phase to collect and distribute items such as hygiene products. In the second phase, priority was given to heaters, blankets and warm clothes for the winter. The remainder is being used to help families where this support is most needed, guaranteeing a minimum of comfort for each one and spreading joy amidst troubled faces. Such is the case of Olga Kobzar’s youngest daughter, who lives in a shelter in Cascais with her two brothers, and who is delighted to have just received notebooks and children’s books.


We learnt, in the meantime, that the dance group that left in the morning won 1st place in the ” Escalão Pequenos Bailarinos” (” Small Dancers Group “), in the 9th Dance Contest of Casal de Cambra. This is how these associations experience day-to-day life: a life of small victories, with mutual help, strength, courage and hope.

Today, the scenario is somewhat more stable, but families continue to arrive in search of asylum and, most importantly, of a safe place where they can rebuild a sense of normality, while returning home is not an option. For Borys and Valentyna, there is something that seems to be encouraging (and which they often gratefully state): ‘Portugal is full of good people’.

About the emergency support

In order to respond to the humanitarian situation created by the war in Ukraine, the Gulbenkian Foundation provided one million euros in support of humanitarian organisations that help refugees in the border countries under the most intense pressure, as well as Ukrainian associations involved in the efforts to welcome refugees to Portugal. At national level, support was granted to five Ukrainian associations, which received up to a maximum of 50,000 euros, in order to meet specific needs such as the reinforcement of the human resources allocated to them, the purchase of essential equipment ( school and computer equipment) and the purchase of books in Ukrainian.

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