Patriarchal problems don't stand in our way
In December 2018 courses of Russian language for migrants and refugees began in Open Space. They are quite popular: at one o'clock on Mondays and Saturdays students wishing to learn to speak Russian come in. The courses are instructed by a Russian language teacher Daria Apakhonchich; an activist of an art group "Rodina" and a feminist


How did you come up with the idea to teach Russian to migrants and refugees?
The idea Simple Russian (currently still a work in progress title) occurred four years ago when I was working in the university on the preparational faculty. These were courses that cost money for the students and then realized that the needs of the students aren't really met with these courses. We formed a discussion club with the students, once a week we met with one another, talked, and exchanged languages. However, that institute closed and the meetings stopped.

With my current group, I became acquainted through the Red Cross and they had the presidential grand that allowed 5-7 to study. When the grand ended the students asked if they could continue to study, and I thought why not. Later on, new people joined us even those that didn't come to the Red Cross.
How many students are being taught?
Classes are the only opportunity to speak Russian
Currently, the group has 12 students out of which 7 attend on a regular basis. Every student has a difficult story. The women come from the Republics where they are expected to sit at home. These people live already five years in Russia but have been studying Russian only for a year. Prior to this, they were in full isolation, communicating only with their relatives. For them, the courses are the only chance to practice Russian other than the kid's daycare, supermarket, or the doctor's visit. They really appreciate this opportunity and come with enthusiasm and recommend to their friends to come here. Moreover, on the "Elekrtosila Metro Station" we have a group for advanced students, they are already working but still struggle with the Russian language.
How many teachers do you have in your project?
We started with two teachers but now we have from 2 to 5 people teaching in turns.
What kind of syllabus or program do you use to teach?
It's the basic program Russian as a foreign language. A full detailed program isn't really current because I am not sure with whom I'll start the course and with whom I'll finish it. Often we have cases where by the end of the year it's a completely renewed classroom and things we might have covered two months ago can and ought to be revisited for the new people. But I don't see this as a problem, Russian is a rich language we always have something to do. The program and the exercises I create myself. We received some donations and with that money, I bought language learning books for all levels and markers. It's great there is Open Space where we can have our lessons. It's very comfortable, hospitable and close, our students love coming in here.
Are the patriarchial ideas from your students' countries of origin visible somehow during the lessons?
For sure the patriarchal problems exist but not in our classroom, they don't bother us
I have had experience still during the university lesson years when the husband would bring his wife to the lessons and during the lesson would stand in the hallway peeking and listening making sure there wouldn't be anything dangerous or immodest taught to her. This baffled me. People who come to our courses usually have solved this problem by that point. If the husband forbids the wife from coming to our courses, in most cases she simply doesn't ever reach us. Naturally, the students come to us with their own baggage of questions, contradictions. Sometimes we get really interesting discussions when students share their own experiences such as; "in our culture, it is taboo for men and women to sit at the same table together but I'm really glad to study all together". For sure the patriarchal problems exist but not in our classroom, they don't bother us.
Have you faced any discrimination?
Our day group consists mainly of women, nevertheless, most importantly people come here to learn more about the culture and what is the tradition in here. It is really great that people not only want to get something but also share something with us, during the lessons they actively tell me about themselves and how are things for them. We have really friendly and curious students, come and see for yourselves.
Do you teach mainly everyday language or the literature language?
I try to make the lessons maximally practical. Before the students don't have enough knowledge of Russian to go to the doctors, store, to pay the bills, to talk with the police, the literature is a bit beyond the scope for them. I build the lessons to have a bit of everything; theory and practice but also that the language would be something beyond an instrument, something amazing too. We listen to music, read poetry. Yet, my main focus is on the everyday language and functional topics. I understand that a person can come to me five times and each time has a different situation at hand. These people are forced to work a lot to survive. Any minute they can have problems with their documentation, this is why it doesn't make sense to give the students something they won't need. We can get acquainted a bit with verbal practices but after that, it is better to look at the vocabulary needed to go to the doctors' office.
Do you give homework?
Yes, but I never scold anyone if they have not done them. The students make them with great enthusiasm because they like studying. Often I hear that this is their only second time studying, the first time was in school and there they didn't enjoy unlike here.
Currently, you also organize extra lessons on gynecology?
The doctor asks you something and you nod without the knowledge what they want from you
During the lessons, ordinary everyday questions often arise, such as how to rent an apartment. Recently, there was a demand from some students for vocabulary for the gynecological consultation visit. Women go to the gynecological consultation without the knowledge of what is called what and the ability to ask something. This is why we have 30 minutes before the lesson starts where I give the students the necessary vocabulary that they need. The migrant women feel very vulnerable, they don't know something will be in Russian but don't have anyone to ask this. The doctor asks you something and you nod without the knowledge what they want from you.
You cooperate with the "Children of Petersburg"(an NGO working with the integration of children of migrants and refugees)?
We are friends, they know of us and send us new students when there are some. They teach children and teenagers, people up to the age of 23, anyone older they send to us.
You have a philological education?
Yes, I am a philologist by profession, I finished the Saint Petersburg State University and love all the other languages too.
From what countries are your students from?
We have an amazing collection of countries; Afghanistan, Syria, Tunisia, Columbia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These are those that attend on a regular basis.
A talk by Alla Ignatenko. Photographs provided by Daria Apankhoncich and from her Facebook page
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