Ukrainian refugees learn English with volunteers

Across the country, Americans are helping Ukrainian refugees using the power of their cell phones and laptops.

The nonprofit ENGin connects young Ukrainians with volunteers around the world to help teach them English. Since its inception in March 2020, more than 17,000 participants have taken part in the program.

Interest in the program skyrocketed during the Russian-Ukrainian war, with the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees.

Since April 1, more than 9,000 new Ukrainian students have applied to the program. Many of these new applicants are young professionals who lost their jobs because of the war. Originally designed to help high school and college students, ENGin raised the program’s age limit to 35 when the war began.

“We have a huge demand for English-speaking adult volunteers. So really, any volunteer who is 19 or older, we could really use their help,” said Rose Tatum, ENGin’s volunteer manager.

Francie Zidonis, 25, a resident of Columbus, started volunteering with ENGin in July 2021. She worked with a 23-year-old Ukrainian named Elvira, who lives in Kryvyi Rih.

The two women talked about cinema, culture and compared life in the two countries. Elvira liked to share photos of her pet bulldog and is studying to be a teacher.

Before the war, the couple had weekly video calls. But now, Zidonis said, they mainly communicate by text.

“It’s harder to have a normal conversation,” Zidonis said. “Elvira mentioned that she didn’t want to be pitied. She likes the normality of the conversation, but this is different.

Although Kryvyi Rih has not been the scene of significant military conflicts, life there has undoubtedly been significantly affected by the war.

“It’s hard to find it. I try to be empathetic. I don’t have the same experience here where it’s life or death. But it’s shocking,” Zidonis said.

ENGin volunteers must be fluent in English. There is an application and a brief interview, then volunteers receive training and are matched with someone with similar interests.

“Most people who apply to our program are approved to volunteer,” Tatum said.

Interested volunteers can apply on the ENGin website. The program offers a way to potentially make a difference, or at least a new friend.