Ukraine in Riga: Perspectives from English Conversation Class

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

As part of my internship at the Baltic Security Foundation (BSF) in Riga, Latvia, I have worked as an English conversation tutor with Ukrainian refugees. This project, which is organized by BSF and funded by the U.S. Embassy in Riga, convenes native English-speaking volunteers and Ukrainian refugees for free-form classes aimed at helping participants improve their conversational English. These classes have fostered a sense of community between volunteers and participants, and helped to humanize an inhumane war.

According to UNHCR data, more than 36,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Latvia since February 2024. UNHCR also estimates that Lithuania and Estonia have each settled about 48,500 Ukrainian refugees since February 2024, with the bulk of arrivals registered across the Baltics in the months immediately following the invasion. Surveys conducted of Ukrainian refugees living in Estonia and Latvia in December 2022 indicate that approximately 31% of those surveyed intend to stay in their host country – an increase from 25% to the same question in September 2022. Many of the Ukrainian refugees living in Latvia have settled in Riga, and, in March 2022, a one-stop reception center was established with the support of the Riga City Council.

BSF’s English conversation classes, which take place on Fridays after work in St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga’s Old Town, draw Ukrainians from different walks of life and of different ages (the youngest is 14). Most have been in Riga for about a year and come from cities across eastern Ukraine: Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia. All participants spoke good English, and some spoke nearly fluently. Many come alone, some come in mother-daughter pairs, and everyone comes nearly every week. One participant I spoke to drove an hour and half round trip to attend the classes. The volunteers, including myself, are nearly all studying Russian at the BORN language academy. After the sessions, volunteers and participants go to dinner together.

Volunteers lead conversations with participants and raise topics that are accessible: favorite foods, the experience of living in Riga, weekend plans. Some groups play “head’s up” or “two truths and a lie” to get conversations going. Following the lead of participants to gauge what they want to talk about has been helpful, and some are open about their experiences. One Ukrainian woman I befriended is from Berdyansk on the Azov Sea coast. She recounted her experience of fleeing, and the pain of leaving her mother behind. She told me she likes Riga because the beach at Jurmala reminds her of home. “We’re beach girls,” she told me.

This summer has been hugely insightful for me, and I am excited to be continuing my work with BSF as a visiting fellow this fall. BSF’s next research publication will focus on lessons for Baltic Security from the war in Ukraine, and I’m looking forward to contributing a chapter. As I resume classes in Boston and work towards my capstone, my perception of the atrocities of this war have been deeply influenced by my experience getting to know a few brave Ukrainians living in Riga.

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