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Marie Topolová, Klára Žantová: Students have been operating a preschool for Ukrainian children for more than a year. “It sounds like a cliché, but when something important is at stake, you will discover you have superpowers.”

Marie Topolová, Klára Žantová: Students have been operating a preschool for Ukrainian children for more than a year. “It sounds like a cliché, but when something important is at stake, you will discover you have superpowers.”

We can choose from two types of paths to take in life: more convenient ones where we stay within the confines of what we know, what works, and what seems to be safe to us as long as we can, or paths of change, courageous decisions, personal development, and new directions and visions. The latter option will likely involve a lot of work and uncertainty for us, but in the end, it will also give us incomparably more fulfilment and inner satisfaction.
The AMU students and graduates who we will present in this series have chosen the latter path. They are people who have been successful in pushing their jobs into new directions, developing them, and pursuing them with all their talents and skills; people who have had their own successful projects. Without a doubt, they are people who are worth meeting.

Tábor solidarity (Camp Solidarity) is an informal preschool facility formed with the aim of helping families that flee the occupied Ukraine. It can operate thanks to the effort of two students of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) who opened it along with other volunteers right after the outburst of the war in Ukraine. Intended to be a short-term, one-year affair initially, it has turned into a long-term project.

Marie Topolová, a Department of Scriptwriting and Dramaturgy student, and Klára Žantová, a Photography student at FAMU, describe their journey from babysitting intended to help each other towards establishing an official preschool facility.

It all came together spontaneously, at the very beginning of the invasion. “A person we knew wanted to help the refugees and offered us space in Prague’s Letná quarter, and we decided to make a meaningful use of it. We considered various alternatives, and as time passed, it evolved into a plan for babysitting, a neighbourhood kind of preschool facility. Back then, we thought it would be a short-lived affair, but it turns out the need for this is still urgent a year later,” says Klára Žantová.

Several people were rolling out the plan to babysit for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, including another FAMU schoolmate, Hermína Peričová from Scriptwriting and Dramaturgy. “At this point, there are three of us on the team, including Tadeáš Polák,” she adds.

They genuinely believed they would run the preschool for a few weeks, or months at most, until an official authority takes over. “It should have been a temporary, emergency solution. However, one year has passed and the preschool is still in demand,” Marie Topolová says.

I suspect that running a preschool requires complying with a plethora of regulations and ordinances. How did you tackle this issue?

Marie: It all started like a guerrilla action. We saw refugees coming in, whether families or individuals with children, seeking babysitters. As it turns out, our estimate was quite good, since the idea met with a great response right off the bat. Initially, we didn’t want to involve any official structures, but that changed in time. We didn’t think we possessed the required experience or knowledge. We didn’t even meet legal requirements for our activity – at the beginning, there was no time to fuss over anything that was not absolutely necessary.

Klára: As the preschool continued working, becoming more serious and with more children coming in, we started working towards meeting the requirements for a proper preschool.

Marie: For instance, we wanted to make sure we could offer contracts to people who started working at the facility as educational staff and transform the effort into a legitimate, 100% legal format. At the beginning, though, it was very much a punk sort of affair.

How did you advertise the fact that such a place exists, operates, and accepts refugee children?

Marie: We made posters and posted them in refugee centres. We also made it public using social media. It didn’t go through any official channels.

How exactly did a guerrilla affair transform into an official preschool facility?

Marie: The pivotal point when we realised that we should aim for more stability was when it became obvious the facility would have to keep going, even if that meant continuing for as long as three more years if necessary.

Who is in charge of the children in the preschool?

Marie: At the beginning, our friends and people we knew worked voluntary shifts. Then, we thought about expanding the support, and we searched for people with teacher education among refugees from Ukraine to work at our preschool. We also opened a transparent account where people could donate money to support the facility, and we started to pay Ukrainian teachers from that. Over time, we didn’t just want it to be a part-time job for them – we wanted to give them the assurance of a steady income. That’s when we realised that we should no longer depend on contributions from individuals – we had to set up an official structure. Our task was not only to provide babysitting – it was also to give both them and the teachers a solid background in the kindergarten.

Who helped you with that?

Klára: We struggled with it on our own, gaining experience as we went. Now, we have an accountant who is in charge of all the paperwork.

Where does the preschool reside now?

Marie: The facility relocated from its original site in Letná to Nitranská Street in Vinohrady where the local scout organisation offered us their clubroom. That was great. For technical reasons, our facility had to leave the premises eventually, and now it resides in Mánesova Street in a facility that offers more activities for children.

How many children use your preschool, and what is their age?

Klára: There are about 20 children coming regularly, and they are aged three to five.

Do people with educational background from Ukraine take care of them at this point?

Marie: It has been this way for some time now. But, in order to make the preschool structure official – since we are currently trying to transform it into an adaptation group – we have Czech teachers too. As an adaptation group, we can obtain funding from the government.

What does ‘adaptation group’ mean?

Marie: It aims to help Ukrainian children adapt to Czech society. This is why we’v had to employ two Czech guides to teach Czech language to the children.

Klára: Two teachers from Ukraine and a Czech one take care of the children on an everyday basis. We had a Czech teacher coming in earlier and the children were exposed to Czech, but now the language teaching is reinforced by the full-time presence of one Czech teacher.

How to help
You can help Tábor solidarity, a preschool facility that provides background to children fleeing from the war in Ukraine free of charge, by donating to transparent account number 2302164464/2010.

Did the two of you actually babysit at the beginning of the preschool operation?

Marie: We were there at the very beginning, though volunteers who spoke Ukrainian or at least Russian would approach us from the very first week. Since then, we haven’t actually done any babysitting, but we were always ready and within reach.

Klára: We started seeking volunteers who spoke Ukrainian or Russian right from the start, and there were many of them. As a result, people who could speak Ukrainian kept an eye on the children most of the time while we took care of the preschool’s everyday chores such as meals, cleaning, communication with volunteers, and other organisation work.

Marie: Most of what we did, especially during the early weeks, was being on the phone and computer all the time, taking care of all topical issues that came our way.

What advice would you give someone who intends to pursue a similar project, given the experience you have gained?

Klára: Actually, Marie and I think we’re not sure if we can recommend anyone to launch a project such as this right now. After all, the war has been going on for over a year, and we believe the situation should be addressed ‘from the top’, by the government, so that ad-hoc efforts such as ours should no longer be needed. It would be great, though, if people came up with different forms of support. If there is any advice that we can give at all, it would be: make sure you have something to lean on at the beginning. Prepare in advance.

Marie: I think there is time for action such as this during the chaotic moments of crisis. By now, though, the official structures should have taken over, working harder towards helping families and children from Ukraine. One year into the war, everything should function better ‘top to bottom’. With that said, we don’t want to demotivate anyone. Forming adaptation groups is a good thing to do. This is a legal path, and you can currently apply for grants to support such efforts. So, if anyone has the drive to do this, let them go ahead.

How much does actually the preschool operation cost, and where do you get the funds?

Marie: Running the preschool costs a little over CZK 100,000 per month, including the wages for Ukrainian guides who are actually war refugees too. We raise the funds any way we can. Individuals and organisations can donate to the preschool’s transparent account; that’s one option. Benefits are another option that has proven useful and helped a lot. All that we raised in concerts and other benefit events was used to fund the operation of the facility.  

Klára: We also received support from major groups such as People in Need and the VIA Foundation. The Association for Integration and Migration has provided us with language courses and art therapy for children.

Can you estimate how much of your time you spend on the preschool?

Klára: It depends on the period and on whether hot issues pop up that need resolving. When the facility was moving, we had to spend more time on it. It is more sort of sustainable now. The preschool has become part of our lives, however.

Marie: Initially, it was a period of insane focus on this one affair. By now, there are teachers working at the kindergarten and they can tackle many situations on their own. The need to raise funds is never-ending, though. And it’s really stressful. You know, we promise the teachers they will get paid without being sure we’ll actually have the money. Suddenly, you bear a truckload of responsibility. At the same time, it’s not within your powers to make everything work. It’s also very emotionally draining. In certain respects, the responsibility was much bigger than we had expected, but we accepted it because that’s what comes part and parcel with this. At any rate, the beginning was a very difficult, exhausting period.

Did you discover anything new in yourselves as a result?

Marie: Abilities we didn’t know we possessed. I never thought I would be able to do things like that, yet there I was, answering one call after another, writing e-mails to everyone imaginable…

Klára: We found out that if something matters to you, you can display abilities you never knew you possessed.

Marie: It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.

The interview can also be found at www.universitas.cz/en

Monika Otmarová

25. April 2023