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Yokohama helping Ukrainian children learn Japanese as prolonged evacuation expected

Myroslava Muliavka, a 6-year-old girl who evacuated from Ukraine to Japan, center, is seen during a class at Himawari, a facility for children of foreign origin to learn Japanese, in this photo taken in Yokohama's Naka Ward on April 21, 2022. (Mainichi/Mami Miyajima)

YOKOHAMA -- The government of this port city south of Tokyo has launched an initiative to support children of Ukrainian families who evacuated to Japan following Russia's invasion of their home country by helping them learn the Japanese language.

    As a city traditionally home to a large number of children of foreign origin, Yokohama has know-how for teaching Japanese to those children. As Russia's war on Ukraine has turned into a quagmire and the evacuees' lives in Japan are expected to be prolonged, the city is aiming to help the Ukrainian children quickly fit into schools and Japanese society through the Japanese language program that makes use of an existing educational facility.

    On April 21, a class for children in the lower grades of elementary school was unveiled to the press at Himawari, a facility in Yokohama's Naka Ward for children of foreign origin to learn Japanese. Among the four students attending the class that day was Myroslava Muliavka, a 6-year-old girl who evacuated from Ukraine.

    "Kani, neko, inu (crab, cat, dog)..." The children were seen learning how to read and write those Japanese words in hiragana phonetic characters while receiving guidance from an instructor.

    Muliavka started attending Himawari (meaning sunflower in Japanese) on April 15 and will receive Japanese language lessons a total of seven times until May 6. She also goes to a municipal elementary school every Monday and Tuesday, and upon completing the program at Himawari, she is set to attend Japanese language classes at the elementary school.

    In Yokohama, there were 22 evacuees from Ukraine as of April 25, of which two including the 6-year-old were elementary school children and one was in junior high school. Of these children, two are attending courses at Himawari.

    "At first, she (Muliavka) seemed to keep to herself, but she gradually got relaxed and was seen laughing," Masumi Kanazawa, principal of Himawari, said about the 6-year-old, adding that the girl was getting used to her life in Japan.

    "She came to Japan amid tension and anxiety. I would like her to not only learn Japanese but also build relationships with her homeroom teacher and friends, and find it good to have come to Yokohama," the principal said.

    Himawari was established by the Yokohama Municipal Board of Education in 2017, with the aim of helping children who have just begun their lives in Japan fit into schools by teaching them Japanese and offering them school life experiences. Currently, 23 pupils are enrolled in the program.

    Apart from Himawari, the Yokohama Municipal Government also provides international classes for children requiring Japanese language instruction when an elementary or junior high school has at least five such children. If the number of those students is less than five at an elementary school, the city dispatches a Japanese language instructor to the school, and in the case of junior high, offers international classes at five locations in the city for those students.

    Moving forward, the municipal board of education is planning to have school counselors and those who can speak Ukrainian support children of Ukrainian families living in Yokohama as evacuees.

    "We'd like to listen to Ukrainian children and their families who have evacuated here about their needs and problems, and provide assistance that will enable those children to study at ease, taking advantage of Yokohama's knowledge as a cosmopolitan city," said an education board official.

    (Japanese original by Mami Miyajima, Yokohama Bureau)

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