Even in war zones, educators are making a difference

The AFT's work in community building and caring for children extends beyond our borders, and international work is an important part of the union's agenda. Earlier this year, at the invitation of Sławomir Broniarz, president of the Polish Teachers’ Trade Union, AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled to Poland to visit with Ukrainian educators and students displaced by the war. While there, Weingarten met Olha Chabaniuk, vice president of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine. Chabaniuk addressed AFT members at the convention in Boston on July 16. During the convention, she was also given the Bayard Rustin Award by the AFT's Human Rights Committee.


Both union leaders have shown great courage and remarkable humanity, said Weingarten, referring to Chabaniuk and Broniarz. She noted that the AFT has had a relationship with the leaders of the unions in Ukraine and Poland dating back to 2014.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, teachers have worked to stay connected to their students, said Weingarten. “It’s teachers like those who Olha represents who, even in this war, are trying to make sure the kids are OK.”

Thanks in part to AFT members and affiliates’ contributions for humanitarian relief for Ukrainian refugees, summer camps have been set up for Ukrainian students in Poland. The AFT dispatched a delegation of educators who teach English as a second language to work at these summer camps, assisting students in learning English and staying on track with their studies. The AFT is also helping those who have remained in Ukraine.

Although it was difficult to talk about the current situation in Ukraine, Chabaniuk said it was important to do so. “The full-scale war in our country has been going on for five months,” she said, describing the terror and destruction wrought by Russia on her country. “Ukrainians are bravely protecting our territory, and international support, joint actions and [the] tough stance of partner countries give us confidence in our victory,” said Chabaniuk. She added that in addition to all of the AFT’s support, the Bayard Rustin Award offers powerful recognition and encouragement for hardworking Ukrainian teachers.

Ukrainians recognize that there will be a lot of work ahead of them, but Chabaniuk said they are prepared, knowing that the longer the war lasts, the more problems will arise, especially in educational settings. She expressed her concern for children who have witnessed atrocities and are dealing with the stresses of war, including her own children. Of course, the primary goal of the Ukrainian struggle is to defeat the aggressor that is a threat to global peace, security and democracy, but it is also critical to fight for the safety and protection of their students and teachers, said Chabaniuk.

“Our trade union continues to provide humanitarian aid, financial assistance and psychological support to our members,” she said. “Our vision is clear. We want to live in a world where teachers and students see their future in Ukraine. We want to live in [a] democratic country where sovereignty, territorial integrity and human rights and values and international law are respected, and where everyone can choose their own way.”

[Adrienne Coles/photo by Michael Campbell]