At Immaculate Heart of Mary School, fifth-graders from all walks of life listen intently as their teacher tells them a Ukrainian folk tale: the more pysanky eggs made, the more goodness will prevail.
The 18 children will soon be decorating pysanky eggs, which are made with melted beeswax and dye, an Easter tradition.
The North End Ukrainian Catholic School has brought nearly 60 children whose families have fled Ukraine since the war began in 2022. Some sit among their peers, raise their hands and nod as they listen intently to the story. Some have a hard time answering questions in English, but they try anyway, and their Canadian-born peers give them the space to do so.
It’s the first Easter in Winnipeg for many of the Ukrainian newcomers to the class, including 10-year-old Vlad Abrmiak, who is quick to offer feedback on his teacher’s explanation of psyanky. He describes in detail the different types of egg decoration in Slavic culture to an engrossed audience.
When it’s time to paint the eggs, Vlad, whose family arrived in Winnipeg last May, accidentally squashes the first one, but takes it in stride. He never painted a pysanka egg, but he said he knows that in his country, his family has a deep connection to the craft.
“My baba said that there is, in the Pysanka Museum in Kolomyia, Ukraine, my baba said that there is some pysanky (of) my family,” he said.
Sitting across from him, 11-year-old Vira Pivniak is more of a seasoned egg decorator.
“I’m doing it for the third time, so it’s easy for me to do it,” he said.
He joined the school in September and came to Winnipeg from kyiv earlier this year.
“I like it because here, the Immaculate Heart, my school, this school is very nice,” he said. “I have many more friends here. I can speak English, (I’m) practicing every day and practicing French.”
Her eyes narrow at the design she has traced on her waxed egg.
“He shows me the Canadian flag,” she said, but notes that she’s not sure if that’s the design she was trying to do.
“I didn’t know what to draw, so I draw what I want.”
The activity is one of several Easter events at Immaculate Heart; Earlier this week, students and staff baked paska.
This year, traditions take on new meaning. After the war in Ukraine began and newcomers began pouring into Winnipeg, the school, which provides education in Ukrainian culture, language, and religious studies, was quick to offer its services.
The public also responded quickly, and Immaculate Heart of Mary School collected nearly $100,000 in donations from Manitobans. The money has paid for tuition, uniforms, school supplies and English programs for all students in Ukraine.
“We are doing everything we can to help them feel supported here in Winnipeg and at our school. Perhaps what is a little more special about our school is that we have a lot of fluent Ukrainian-speaking staff, we have a lot of fluent Ukrainian-speaking Canadian students,” Principal Rod Picklyk said.
“So right away, when new families come to us, you can see that there’s a comfort level, that at least there’s a common language that they can relate to, and I think it just helps, to put them at ease a little bit more.”
Donations also go to support the parents of their students. Some of the students who arrive do so with just their mother, said Picklyk, who often has to find work quickly. Childcare for parents in need is also covered by the school.
“There are families that we know have come and are going to establish a life here and stay here,” he said. “So if we can help in that settling-in process and help them adjust and feel comfortable with it all, we want to do everything we can to achieve that.”
Many of the Canadian-born students have been there for seven years, starting in kindergarten. Yovini Garg is 10 years old and has spent most of her short life at Immaculate Heart of Mary School.
As she focuses on her pysanky, she describes how her new friends from the Ukraine have fit in well and she has learned a lot from them, too.
“It’s nice to meet people from Ukraine,” he said.