October 2022
Translator Safia Dockter, kindergartener Solomiia Kuchma, and kindergarten teacher Kelly Pier at Lake Harriet Community School in Minneapolis.

Translator Safia Dockter, kindergartener Solomiia Kuchma, and kindergarten teacher Kelly Pier at Lake Harriet Community School. Solomiia, who is learning English, is a refugee from Ukraine. She lives with her mother in Minneapolis. Her father is still in Ukraine, fighting the Russian invasion.

Solomiia cuts artwork while Safia looks on.

Solomiia cuts artwork while Safia looks on.

When Safia Dockter began writing and speaking about the atrocities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, it helped her process what was happening to the country where her mother was born and where she still has relatives. What she didn’t know then was how quickly her words would turn into action for one little girl.

Dockter, a University of Minnesota psychology student, wrote an article for Impact, the Institute’s long-running publication about issues important to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The article, “Transition in Times of Crisis,” discussed inequities in the way youth with disabilities come of age around the world, and how war and other crises exacerbate those disparities. A few months earlier, Dockter spoke about the war in Ukraine at a College of Education and Human Development event on campus organized by Renáta Tichá, co-director of ICI’s Global Resource Center for Inclusive Education, who was co-teaching a class Dockter was taking at the time. Together, Tichá and Dockter wrote the article for Impact.

Shortly after the article was published this fall, Menolly Pier, a Carlson School of Management student who had seen the article, contacted Safia via social media, asking if she might connect with Pier’s mother, Kelly, a kindergarten teacher at Lake Harriet Community School. Kelly Pier has a young student in her class this fall, Solomiia Kuchma, who fled Ukraine with her mother, Nataliia, landing in Minneapolis. They are living with a host family through a program for refugee families.

Solomiia doesn’t have IDD, but learning a new language, culture, and school environment after having fled the homeland where her father is still fighting has been understandably traumatic. For the past several weeks, Dockter has been coming to Solomiia’s school two to three times per week to help her better understand the school customs here and to simply be a friendly face she can speak to in her own language. Nataliia, a physician, speaks English and is working with Solomiia on it at home. The school has a language specialist who comes to her classroom regularly. Still, Pier has had several experiences with other students who are refugees and wanted to see what more she could do to help.

“Menolly reached out to me expressing interest in connecting about resources for Ukrainian children experiencing trauma,” Dockter said. “I volunteered to come to the school and speak to the child, and that first day we talked for about three hours about her life in Ukraine and her family. Once I left the school, I knew this was something worth putting my time towards. This little girl needed emotional support in school from someone who felt familiar to her and spoke her language, understood her culture, and could be a friend.”

Safia helped Solomiia understand the school’s snack time and recess procedures and the fire drill protocol, among other things, Kelly Pier said.

“In our classroom, I teach some sign language to everyone, such as water or bathroom, which keeps noisy interruptions down during the day, and I taught these to Solomiia,” Pier said. “She saw the other children using them as well and that gave her a bond right away.”

Gradually, Solomiia is becoming more comfortable with her new surroundings.

“Tag is a universal language, so she’s running around at recess,” Pier said. “We do a morning greeting and she is now going around and saying her classmates’ names. They have been making her feel welcome and students from other classes are doing that now, too. We teach that everyone needs to be welcomed and that while we are different, different is fun and different means we can learn new things from each other.”

Nataliia says her daughter is doing well, and they are enormously grateful to their host family, the school, and the community. Still, the horrors of war and her fears for her husband and family back home are ever present.

“Solomiia overheard a lot of conversations when we escaped, and so she is naturally afraid of what is happening. I explained that her father is trying to protect our home, but it is very hard for her and she cries when we separate for the day. In this classroom, her emotional development is being looked after, and I just want to thank everyone so much.”

Safia, meanwhile, is developing a handbook for school personnel who work with displaced students from Ukraine. She aims to help them understand and differentiate between responses that are simply cultural norms and those that are trauma related and require mental health treatment.

“Everyone has their own purpose during war,” she said. “Some are doctors, some are soldiers, and some provide other resources that they may have. Solomiia helped me find my purpose.”

Tichá, Safia’s professor and co-author of the Impact article, said Safia’s instinct to create interventions to respond to people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable highlights the urgency of this work around the world.

“One of the reasons I love working at ICI is the chance to see the real impact of our work on the wider community, even beyond disability,” she said. “When an article turns into a spark for making a difference in the life of a child and her family, there is a level of meaning there that just can’t be planned.”

Safia and Solomiia.

Safia and Solomiia.