Chatting isn’t an option, but Cornus students are happy to help Ukrainian neighbours

Students in the Cornus flat in Selwerd are happy to share their roof with the Ukrainian refugees who have found a temporary home there. But the language barrier means there’s not a lot of interaction. 

A note in three languages – Dutch, English and Ukrainian – is attached to the glass doors of the student flat. ‘Our location is full, no rooms left’, it reads. 

Next to the flat, a blonde-haired woman with an uneasy look on her face is trying to approach an SSH employee. ‘Could you translate that my disabled mother and I need accommodation?’ she asks in Russian. ‘I’m so sorry, but we are really full’, the employee replies in English. ‘And there’s not going to be any available rooms soon, because we already have too many people staying together’, she explains. She refers the Ukrainian woman to the Red Cross. ‘I’m explaining this the whole day’, she adds with regret.

Parties

Meanwhile, the glass doors slide open and an elderly couple walks out into the street, children run out screaming cheerfully, students head for their bicycles. ‘I’ve had a little talk with a couple of Ukrainian refugees recently, and I think they like it here because they want to stay here’, says international relations student Jasmina Paun from Spain. They must be still adapting, she suspects, ‘but that’s normal, I haven’t fully adapted myself yet.’

Last time UKrant spoke to Jasmina, she figured the students would have to scale down their parties since they were sharing the flat with families. But that was only the first week when the coronavirus restrictions hadn’t been lifted, she says. ‘Now pubs are open until early morning, so we don’t have to party at Cornus.’

Ukrainian refugee Vika also went to a pub the day before. ‘It was my birthday and after staying indoors for the whole month I felt like I needed to have a good time at last.’ 

English

Although Vika finds Groningen ‘nice and quiet’, she had no intention of leaving her hometown of Kyiv until it became clear she wasn’t safe there anymore. ‘I got used to the sound of explosions and windows shaking every day, but after a missile strike set the neighbouring apartment block on fire, my mum forced me to join my sister who’s on exchange here.’

Vika considers herself lucky because she has a place to stay and a remote job. She also speaks English, so communicating with locals is no problem for her. ‘All the people I’ve met have been nice and kind’, she says. ‘They’re helping with everything and the building itself is very comfortable, too.’

But Vita is one of the few of the hundred or so refugees at Cornus who speak English, which means there’s not a lot of socialising going on between the international students and the Ukrainians. ‘We’re not able to speak to each other because of the language barrier, says media studies student Blendine Barthel from France. ‘But we always exchange smiles when we meet in the kitchen.’ 

Happy to help

When economics student Misaki Yoshioka saw Ukrainian women trying to figure out how to use the washing machines in the laundry room, she tried to speak English more slowly and they were able to understand her explanation. ‘I think they’re very nice people and it’s great that we can help them in such a difficult situation.’

‘We’re very much used to living in an international flat, but refugees and students live in different units and don’t have a common language, so it’s not easy to make friends’, says Lina Yang from Taiwan, who studies energy and society at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. 

Still, she’s happy to be of assistance whenever possible. ‘As students we can’t do much, so it’s nice to be able to help even with small things.’ She’s extra sympathetic to the refugees’ plight because she sees similarities between the threats facing her homeland and Ukraine: ‘We hope that we’d be also supported in case of a military assault.’ 

Practising

And soon, the students might be able to have a conversation with some of their new neighbours. Elina from Kryvyi Rih has been using an online translation tool to find her way around Groningen for the past three weeks and is now trying to practice both Dutch and English. ‘All the signs and announcements are in Dutch, so I want to be able to navigate around the city and find a job in the long term’, she says.

Yet despite all the warm welcomes, Vika doesn’t plan on settling in the Netherlands. ‘I hope I don’t have to stay here for too long. I want to go back to Ukraine.’

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