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ENGin is Teaching English to Displaced Ukrainians, One-on-One

The nonprofit connects volunteers to students online, wherever they have found themselves.

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In the pre-Covid-19 winter of 2020, when Katerina Manoff, a Ukrainian American education entrepreneur in New York, founded the ENGin project, she could not have imagined that just over two years later, it would involve approximately 9,700 students from Ukraine and nearly 8,900 English-speaking volunteers.

“I just wanted to help somehow, and one day I discovered that in most Ukrainian schools, English is taught like it was back in the Soviet times. Students are just taught grammar rules and new words, but they hardly get a chance to communicate,” Manoff, now ENGin’s CEO, recollects in an interview via WhatsApp.

That’s how ENGin, a sprawling volunteer project, began. 

Katerina Manoff came to the U.S. from Ukraine when she was almost 8 years old, but she never ceased to feel an attachment to her motherland. “I’d had some ideas about helping the country I’m originally from for a while, before I got the idea for ENGin,” she says.

The essence of the ENGin project: Thousands of volunteers from the U.S. and more than 80 other countries regularly launch Zoom meetings to communicate with people from Ukraine who want to improve their skills in speaking English. Although the main purpose of these meetings is educational (there is even a syllabus, or, to be more precise, an original speaking-focused session plan), communication is not limited by strict academic protocols and is based on the mutual interests of the volunteers and their Ukrainian interlocutors. 

 

“I have learned a lot about Ukraine, too, about the food and people’s hobbies and lots of other things,” says Gabas Yagoub, making it clear that cultural enrichment is reciprocal.

 

“Matching students to the right volunteers is really hard work, as you need to take into account lots of factors, such as age, interests, and backgrounds,” Manoff explains. “It’s full-time work.”

The volunteers benefit from the project as well. ENGin is a good chance for many of them, including high school students, to find themselves on the path of volunteering for the first time in their lives. Some, such as Gabas Yagoub, greatly appreciate the experience. A high school student from New York, Yagoub intends to pursue a medical career, and tells the Voice in a Zoom interview that the ENGin experience has convinced her that she will always have space for charity work in her life. According to Yagoub, she and her student, Yana Iliuk, a girl of the same age from the city of Chernivtsi, in Western Ukraine, have become real friends, although they have never met in person. “We often have a good laugh together sharing our school stories,” she relates.

Volunteers and their clients from Ukraine do laugh together, but the program itself is organized in a serious way. ENGin has its curriculum, and although participants are not obliged to stick to it, it is still a great resource, especially for beginners who do not really know where to start. “We thoroughly check the people who want to be volunteers with us to find out their real aims and to see if they really want to make a contribution,” says Manoff, noting the main challenge the project faces—“We cannot attend the Zoom meetings. So the careful selection of volunteers is the only guarantee of quality we can get. All volunteers fill out an application form, are screened via a video interview, and must successfully complete online training.” 

The war in Ukraine unleashed by the Russian government on February 24 forced millions of Ukrainians to seek refuge abroad, and many faced serious communication issues because of their lack of knowledge of foreign languages. “We have over 200 Ukrainians who need help on our waiting list,” says Manoff. “There are more and more senior people wanting to join our project, and we don’t think it right to match them to 15-year-olds, because nobody wants awkward situations where the people don’t have any common topics to talk about. So now we are in need of more volunteers, preferably some of older ages.”

Although ENGin is essentially a project aimed at language education, it is also about cultural enrichment. The situation in which displaced Ukrainians have found themselves has revealed to them the broader cultural parameters of Europe and the U.S., the countries where they are mostly seeking refuge. Explains Manoff, “Our clients just have to be broad-minded and push back the remains of the Soviet era prejudices if they want to merge with American culture. And some things are really new to many of them—we can’t comply with a client’s request to have or not to have a teacher of a particular race, ethnicity, or sexuality, because this is just part of the new culture they have to integrate into.”

 

“Today, we fight Russia’s attempts to isolate and destroy our nation. Tomorrow, a generation of English-fluent, culturally competent young Ukrainians will rebuild it.”

 

Yagoub notes, “I have learned a lot about Ukraine, too, about the food and people’s hobbies and lots of other things,” making it clear that cultural enrichment is reciprocal. “I mean, we are both from high school, and we have lots of things in common, but still I didn’t know many things about Ukraine before I met Yana.” 

Another challenge for Manoff is obtaining the funds for further development of the project. “Matching together hundreds of people every week is really hard work and requires lots of physical and psychological effort. Some of our 30 managers work for up to 40 hours a week, and they can’t do all that for free!” she says, adding, “We do receive grants for our activities, but funding is still an acute issue for us.”

ENGin appears to be an unprecedented project. Although sporadic volunteer help with teaching English to Ukrainian refugees has become widespread, especially in European countries since the war started, none of them are at the scale of ENGin in coverage. “We are always on the lookout for partners to learn from and collaborate with, and I’ve never come across anything similar,” says Manoff. “Most organizations teaching English do group classes, which are much less effective than one-on-one.” There are other organizations that offer one-on-one teaching, but they are smaller, and many charge fees (Preply, italki). 

ENGin has also inspired student-run “copycats.” “We actually encourage copying our model, since it amplifies our impact,” says Manoff. “The true magic of ENGin is scale. We are using the power of the English language and international connections to transform an entire country.” She concludes, “Today, we fight Russia’s attempts to isolate and destroy our nation. Tomorrow, a generation of English-fluent, culturally competent young Ukrainians will rebuild it.”

Anastasiia Starchenko, a student from Ukraine who recently had to flee the country, concurs. “It’s a lot more than just learning the language,” she tells the Voice in a Zoom interview. “It’s all about confidence. I have recently passed my IELTS test [International English Language Testing System] successfully, and it was partly thanks to ENGin, because thanks to this project I started to feel confident about my speaking. But it’s not only about speaking. I am 18, two months ago I had to flee my hometown of Kharkiv, my family is in Germany now, and I’m all alone here in Montreal, where I live now. I really don’t know how I could possibly cope with all that if I hadn’t learned confidence at ENGin’s Zoom meetings.”    ❖

Kirill Frolov is a writer, translator, and English teacher from Russia, who left the country after the Putin government started the war in Ukraine. His story was chronicled in an earlier Village Voice article.

 

 

 

 

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