Looking forward: Yale program helps Ukrainian refugees adapt to new lives
On a Friday afternoon this spring, a group of students slowly streamed into a classroom at 370 Temple Street, chatting as they found their seats. As they settled in, the instructor, Lauri Lafferty, grabbed their attention. “Today, we’re learning about phrasal verbs,” said Lafferty, a lector in Yale’s English Language Program (ELP).
Phrasal verbs, Lafferty told the group, combine a verb with an adverb or preposition (or both) to create a phrase that functions as a verb whose meaning is different from the meaning of the original words. To illustrate, she shared some common examples: “fall through,” “hang around,” “look up to.”
For many of these students, Ukrainian refugees forced to leave their homes in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, wrestling with such nuances of the English language likely was something they never thought they’d be doing even 18 months earlier. But now, having found themselves at least temporarily settled in Connecticut, this classwork had become not only practical but critical.
Launched last December by the Yale Center for Language Study’s (CLS) English Language Program, the class seeks to prepare Ukrainian refugees — many of whom had little experience with the English language before arriving in the U.S. — for everyday situations in their new setting, whether ordering food, making phone calls, or navigating public transit systems.
The program was initiated by James Tierney, a senior lector in English in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and associate director of the CLS (and director of the center’s English language programs), in partnership with the Connecticut nonprofit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).
“Our ELP faculty have been incredibly generous in volunteering their time, in designing and teaching this course,” Tierney said. “It has been a team effort from the start. It is a little different than our regular work here, which focuses on academic English, but it has been extremely enjoyable for us.”
Tierney, who started his career as a language teacher working with refugees and immigrants in Seattle, is all too familiar with the complexities faced by every individual forced to leave their home. For Ukrainian refugees, whose homeland has been paralyzed by war since February 2022, the circumstances are particularly difficult.
“They don't really know when — or whether — they'll go back,” he said.
The Yale program ultimately seeks to help students navigate this uncertainty.
One of the students, Iryna, was an instructor in mathematics and music before leaving Ukraine. (She used only her first name for privacy reasons.) Iryna, who came to the U.S. from a village near Kyiv in October 2022, regularly attends the class with her husband and son. She says the program has not only improved her language skills, it has enabled her and her classmates to acclimate more quickly to their new lives, and to access needed assistance in finding employment and community-building opportunities.
Iryna said she needed to learn relevant English mathematical vocabulary before she could begin teaching mathematics at the Nathan Hale School and at Music Haven.
“[Now] I feel more prepared and confident during job interviews and at work,” she said.
‘They don’t have to figure this all out on their own’
As of July, an estimated 6.2 million Ukrainians had found refuge globally since the start of the Russian invasion, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. While Poland has welcomed about 60% of those individuals, more than 271,000 were received by communities across the United States during the first year of the war, the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense reported. And while it’s difficult to know just how many have settled in Connecticut, nearly 4,800 sponsorship applications have been filed by Connecticut residents since the start of the war, according to IRIS.
In New Haven, as in places across the world, a network of organizations and volunteers pooled their resources and expertise to help those who have been displaced find comfortable homes and assimilate into their new communities.
In the days after the invasion began, Joseph Doran, a 2020 Yale College graduate and senior investment analyst in the university’s investments office, began volunteering with IRIS. Working with Kathy Sheppard, a member of the IRIS team who until recently managed the Ukrainian program, Doran helped new arrivals get connected with social services, secure housing, and most critically, tackle the language barrier. He and Sheppard connected with Tierney and began laying the groundwork for the English language program.
“I felt very passionate about helping in any way that I could,” said Doran, who studied Ukrainian for four years as a Yale student. “I figured Yale has all these resources and it couldn’t hurt to reach out and ask. The CLS really took it from there.”
IRIS specifically helps guide not only recent arrivals, but also their civilian sponsors. The speed with which Ukrainians were emigrating led to a high percentage of “people who agreed to do the paperwork for the friend of a friend, just to get them over here,” according to Sheppard. (So far, IRIS has helped nearly 350 families from Ukraine.)
In their outreach, IRIS seeks to act as a resource for both parties involved in resettlement.
“We assist [Ukrainians and their sponsors] and get them integrated and help them address all the things they need to become self-sufficient,” Sheppard said. “It seems like an overwhelming task, but they’ve got IRIS behind them. They don’t have to figure this all out on their own.”
According to Tierney, the English language courses for refugees are just one part of the CLS’ planned involvement. This fall, he hopes to involve Yale College students in the program. One goal is to provide short-term training in language-teaching/teacher training for Yale students going abroad. This training, he said, would be linked with the Ukrainian program and allow for further support for the program’s participants and provide professional development and teaching experience for Yale students.
“Our hope is to get a small group of students who are interested in learning about language teaching,” said Tierney. “And then the thought is that those students would go on to work with Ukrainian refugees and perhaps a larger group in the future.”
Tierney envisions Yale students working with Ukrainian families directly in a capacity beyond just language learning, helping them with language needs related to job applications and interview preparation.
“Having somebody who knows their way around New Haven and the states, and who also has some language training, is an ideal combination,” said Tierney.
‘There are kind, caring people’
The benefits of the English language classes have been profound for students and instructors alike.
Lauri Lafferty, who teaches a course for more advanced speakers, described her participation in the program as “a privilege.” The students, she said, have been “open, warm, and eager to learn.” Their ability to find joy despite the turmoil in their home country, she said, has been inspiring.
Another instructor, Elka Kristonagy, a lector in the English Language Program whose own parents and grandparents were war refugees from Hungary, called the experience “profoundly meaningful.” “For me, the decision to support them was made in a heartbeat,” she said.
Iryna, the mathematics and music instructor from Ukraine, is one of the students in Lafferty’s advanced course. She called the class an important building block for her future in the U.S.
“The English language classes have played a crucial role in helping me improve my language skills, expand my vocabulary, and enhance my overall fluency,” she said. “I have gained the confidence to engage in conversations and express myself more effectively.”
Critically, she said, the classes also have served as a platform for cultural exchange and understanding. Through the interactive nature of the courses, she has gained insight into American culture, social norms, and customs. And she has built meaningful connections with both native English speakers and fellow language learners. “Now, I know that there are kind, caring people living in America who are ready to help and that's what warms my heart here,” Iryna said.
After the invasion, she and her family remained in Kyiv for a time before eventually relocating to Connecticut with the help of her U.S. sponsor, a past schoolmate named Helen who is now a research scientist at Yale School of Medicine. (Helen used only her first name for privacy reasons).
Engaging with immigration lawyers and contacting her senators, Helen worked to help Iryna and her family emigrate. United for Ukraine, a federal program created to help Ukrainian refugees come to the United States, eventually helped streamline many of the difficult processes that were hindering the emigration of many Ukrainians fleeing the war.
“We attended a boarding school that specialized in math and physics, and there was a very small percentage of girls, so all of us girls were closely connected,” said Helen. “When the war started in Ukraine, many people from my department, including me, shared a feeling that we needed to do something. Many of my colleagues did step up, and continue to do so. And when I realized that Iryna was in Kyiv, I wanted to help her to move to a safer place.”
For Iryna, the class has helped to disabuse stereotypes of Ukrainian refugees. Often, she said, refugees face perceptions of being “an additional burden for American taxpayers” and unwilling to work. In reality, the students simply need the language guidance that programs like the CLS class provides.
“These are incredibly educated and very hardworking people who need to be seen as the professionals they are,” said Helen, Iryna's U.S. sponsor. “They just need people who understand the system [to help them] connect to the resources here. They can offer so much to the community here. For instance, most of them, starting with Iryna, are very highly trained in STEM disciplines and could help addressing the existing need for STEM teachers in K-12 schools and beyond.”
Added Iryna: “It is crucial that someone helps us take the first step by offering part-time employment and providing guidance on what to learn. The advice I’ve received from the English teachers has been helpful in finding my place here.”
The program, Tierney said, has also allowed the Ukrainian students to create “some cohesion and camaraderie, to meet other people, [and] to provide a bit of an escape from daily concerns.”
This community-building is what is especially notable about the Yale program, said IRIS’ Sheppard. The CLS courses give students the opportunity to learn English, and also to “meet other Ukrainians and have some community within the New Haven area.”
“I wish I could duplicate [the Yale group] and put them all over Connecticut,” Sheppard said.
Back in the classroom at 370 Temple Street, Lauri Lafferty asked each student to come up with their own sentences using phrasal verbs.
One student looked deep in thought before settling on her example.
“I look forward to Ukraine winning the war,” she said.