The project is entirely voluntary and depends on one person so far—a teacher from Kyiv, Olena Chekryzhova. Rubryka asked her what civilian life is like on a military base, how classes with military personnel differ from standard classes, and how hundreds of volunteers got into the experimental project in the first months.
In the middle of nowhere
A dozen people in pixel camo gather at a massive table in the open air. Olena is the eleventh person. The notes are laid out, the homework is done, and the class has already started. It's 8:59 on the clock, so in a minute, one of the soldiers will signal it's time to honor the defenders who died in this war.
The group stands up. Everyone is silent for a while. Then they sit down again, and the lesson continues. English language classes in these parts are not just a part of self-development but a guarantee that the received weapon will work effectively.
"During the first lesson with each group, I conduct a briefing, explaining: 'Friends, you are experts in military matters. You understand weapons that I have never seen before. But you will show it to me. And I'm an English language specialist. I'll show you how it works.'
That is, I admit that I don't know absolutely all specific vocabulary. But it's normal; I'm not a military person. We are all learning here. And we all experiment," says teacher Olena Chekryzhova.
She is 34 and has her English language center ENGINFORM, a home in Kyiv and the Donetsk region, which she left as a displaced person back in 2014. Since the beginning of the summer, Olena also has her special educational operation—the woman has settled in a military base and teaches English to Ukrainian defenders there.
In the middle of nowhere—that's how she describes this place. It's a place in the wilderness, and it is unclear where it is. She cannot name the settlement or the region where she has been for four months. But she can talk about her carpet, completely different English, and unusual students.
"I teach in the 2nd separate battalion of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps of the Right Sector, and it is a newly created unit. It is flexible and open to experiments, such as learning English on the base.
I'm an instructor. My job is to provide information and clear instructions on what to do with it. My function is that, with clear instructions, students precisely work out the patterns I need. It's not as creative as the work of a teacher. And it also has a nuance because the military atmosphere needs a particular order. Everything must be planned down to the minute so that I give the fighters the minimum maximum," Olena says.
A war that started twice
When russia attacked Ukraine eight years ago, Olena was already doing business in Donetsk, so she had to leave the occupation. Even then, she looked for ways to make English more accessible to the military. Still, to find the most successful format, she had to postpone the idea for years and first lead an utterly different volunteer movement.
"When the full-scale invasion began, at first, I had no intention of leaving. But later, when I started considering the option of evacuation, I realized that I could not reach any station or evacuation point from the left bank of Kyiv, where I live. And I am entirely cut off from everything because walking to the station is not a very good idea in wartime.
A lot of people needed transport services. I immediately understood my target audience because I was a part of it. I had three drivers I knew, who tried to pick someone up and drive them to the station on their own, but my coordination would make their task easier. I offered, and they agreed.
My main job, an online English language center, also has an online team I've never seen. These are teachers we connect with students and then coordinate their work. There are also drivers here that I have never seen before. And there are many passengers from Kyiv who need our help. My task was to competently coordinate them so that the drivers take the passengers to the evacuation points with the least number of steps and with the least effort," says Olena.
It is how the Transporting Kyiv initiative was born, thanks to which a team of drivers and coordinators managed to transport 1,211 people, of which 116 were children, in three months. People were transported around Kyiv to train stations, from the occupied suburbs, and even from the Chernihiv region. In addition, they transported older people who had been waiting for hours for buses that could not get on the route due to shelling.
Then life in Kyiv gradually returned to its previous pace, and the need for volunteer transportation disappeared. The project was put on hold with readiness to resume if needed. Olena speaks inspiringly about how she worked out the logistics, recruited new drivers, and on the very next day, felt she needed help with coordination because there were so many who needed help.
When the project ended, Olena began to think about what to do next—writing articles in English and translating. However, everything fell into place after Olena's military acquaintance asked her a decisive question.
"Since the beginning of summer, I moved to a military base"
"When we put our project Transporting Kyiv on hold, this question came to me: how can one establish the study of English for soldiers at the base? And we began to analyze different ways.
The online format is not an option because the military cannot always be online. We came to the point where I had to go to the unit and see how everything was happening there. I came, developed a test, conducted a survey, and found that many people want to study English. Our first competition had three people per seat, or even more.
Since the beginning of the summer, I have moved to a military base. I decided this project was critical, much more important than my stay in Kyiv. It is an exciting experiment I saw from the beginning as something that could be expanded to the entire country because English is undeniably important. I did not see other options to complete this project. It required total immersion," says Olena.
When we met, Olena had lived at the base for three months and returned to Kyiv for a few days. Walking along the bustling Khreshchatyk Street, she says it's strange to see this city full of people again. Olena left when life was recovering here and returned on the eve of Independence Day when it was raging more powerfully than usual.
Everything is raging at the base as well. Olena's schedule is not as strict as that of the military. She doesn't have a fixed pick-up and drop-off time, but she must plan her day in detail because the woman continues to take care of her English center in addition to classes at the base.
"I have scheduled classes, and it depends on which groups are at the base, which groups are on training, which went on rotation. Sometimes we adjust the schedule depending on my students' military assignments.
Most of the time, I am engaged in the project preparation, materials, and communication because now, quite a lot of native speakers and other volunteers I've invited to develop materials are joining me. I plan to expand this initiative. I see that I don't have time anymore. Time flies very quickly when you are constantly engaged in something meaningful.
I try to get involved in all activities that are held for the military. That is, I join the training when the instructors come, I read the literature they recommend, and I can say that during these three months, I have advanced enough in this vocabulary. I have already translated these pieces of training.
Nothing is so complicated that a person can't figure it out. You have to start somewhere and not wait until you become a super expert. You become it in the process, and first, you need to outline your areas of competence," says the instructor.
"Of course, the boys notice that a flower garden appeared at the base"
"And if someone looks at the thermal imager at night, they will see how I am alone in the middle of the base, covered in several layers of mosquito repellent, emitting infrared radiation and looking at the stars. It's when it's not raining, and the sneakers are drying," says Olena on her social media.
She writes a lot about the role of English for Ukrainian soldiers, about the fact that it is still necessary to decide on an official name for this educational operation, and, of course, about life on a military base. Here the teacher has her carpet and what she has been dreaming about and has been putting off for many years—her flower garden.
"I got a carpet because, at first, I thought not to get any paraphernalia of civilian life. But then I realized that there are things that help us somehow create comfort and warmth. It is stressful to work in stressful conditions. So I decided that I needed a carpet.
I bought it on the local OLX. We came to the seller in a military vehicle, and it was evident that I was accompanied by military personnel. And then he gave my phone number to different people. They started calling me and saying: 'Are you Olena? Are you collecting carpets for the needs of the Ukrainian army?' I said yes, and many more strangers offered us various things and products and asked us to call when we needed something. It was very nice.
Besides the carpet, I started a flower garden because, for many years, I dreamed of a flower garden at home on the balcony. I had one in the village; I sat next to it and read. And then I thought that summer was passing again and I didn't have a flower garden again. I thought I should start it in August because I didn't know what would happen next, so I had to do some small things for myself that would make me happier and support me. That's why I have a carpet and a flower garden. It's pretty strange for a military base. And, of course, the boys notice that a flower garden has appeared at the base, but it is vital for me," the woman shares.
Before this volunteer project, Olena studied English with students at the C1-C2 level. Now sometimes it starts with what "to be" is. Classes have an almost unbreakable rule—only English. Instead of the usual program, there is a special one based on NATO standards. Even among the project volunteers, native speakers of the language are engaged in consulting Olena about specific features of the British army.
"For military English, you don't need to know high-level idioms or adjectives. Therefore, I worked out what was required within the competence of the course for starting studies and understood what exactly I could do. Indeed, I had my doubts because there is the vocabulary I did not even understand what it is in Ukrainian, so it was difficult. But at some point, I thought that if I followed these doubts, I would not start anything. I would study and jump into some sources, and nothing would start. I realized that I have all the knowledge to start this course, and along the way, if necessary, I will improve something."
The project team is at the stage of forming. Olena remains the only teacher who lives on a military base. But she is helped by more than 100 native English speakers who communicate with the military in a foreign language, advise Olena, and help develop materials.
In addition, some Ukrainian teachers and translators are preparing translations of military manuals, improving training manuals, and looking for an answer to the central question of how to expand the initiative to other units effectively. The plan is to create a full-fledged platform, manuals, and video courses for the Ukrainian military. For this, the project will need financial support and probably even more human resources. Now it is entirely voluntary.
"When people are assigned ten sentences to write about themselves in English, they write about what is most important to them even in their simple language. They write about their families, children, dreams, Ukraine, and how important it is for them to fight. It is an honor to teach these people. They motivate me a lot. Especially now, English is a component of our struggle and our connection with the rest of the world," says Olena.
And in a few days, she will be back at a military base in a city that cannot be named. Another lesson will begin. She'll hear the sound of the alarm again at nine in the morning.
Everyone will stand up again to honor the fallen heroes.
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