Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming

This week, my 2am thoughts have been replaced from the fear of the 9th May with “Hey ho, let’s go” but at least it is nice for once to see social media on Moldova featuring, mostly, the success of the country getting through to the final of this weekend’s Eurovision. I wonder if the UK will break its “nil point” duck. It’s been extremely warm in Moldova as we come to the end of Spring and summer is definitely right around the corner.  Chisinau is looking at its greenest right now and I know summer is here because the swifts have returned outside my window in my neighbourhood. The familiarity and the normality are very welcome as we get into the final stretch of school before the vacation. 

I had a very kind invite from H.E. Ambassador Logsdon and Mrs. Logsdon, to attend the reception at their residence in Chisinau and to talk to new families and the community about our international school.  Ambassador Logsdon made it very clear how committed the international community is to Moldova and supports the building of a better society in the country. Ambassador Logsdon has very kindly agreed to be one of our Founders’ Lecture speakers for the 4th series in the new academic year. 

The UN Secretary General made the very important point about Moldova on his visit to the country & to see President Sandu earlier this week that Moldova “is a small country with a big heart”. I was asked in the COBIS annual conference I attended last weekend, how we keep focussed as a school community and so positive.  The answer is very simple, we are living the very values Mr. Guterres celebrated.  All of us, as we make sense of these times to make sure our students have hope for the future so tomorrow definitely belongs to them. 

It would be very difficult to write any Mail from Moldova without a reference to the war that has dominated our corner of Europe since February especially as we are right next door to Ukraine as a neighbouring country. There are many lessons and developments coming out of this situation, not least the number of “experts”, who until last month probably hadn’t heard of Moldova let alone Transnistria, but now are suddenly armchair military experts up there with generals Washington, Napoleon, Grant and Zhukov. Three things I want to state here; firstly, I am extremely grateful for the very detailed, regular informed information and advice I get to plan, prepare & anticipate the school’s operations and strategy in this extraordinary time. Especially directly from our colleagues in the professional international community, physically here in Chisinau.  

This means being able to inform the school community accurately when needed. Secondly, much as I love social media, we know from the curriculum work we undertake with our students, media literacy, critical thinking and spotting misinformation are key skills for all of us if we are going to navigate the 2020s and not be paralysed by fear because of a post we see from someone with 4 followers on Twitter, who joined in March 2022 but is definite, without sources, that “Moldova is next!”. Thirdly, our community is our absolute strength and having gone through two extraordinary years of a near existentialist crisis with the pandemic where learning and everything else had to adapt fast, we know the strength and bind of the glue of the moral fabric of our community when we are at our best. We are very fortunate to also be connected globally to so many professional networks from Cambridge to COBIS to ETwinning to the British Council.  All of them give their support and advice to me and my colleagues constantly. It is a vision of the World we believe in strongly and our global humanitarian values we need to remember when we feel fear creeping into our minds. This is how we will get through these weeks and months and ensure we give our children the certainty of education, hope and a better future, during these tough & sometimes uncertain times.

Without a shadow of doubt the invasion of Ukraine and the war now lasting into its 3rd month, has changed this corner of the globe irrevocably and we are still in the position where we don’t know where this will end.  We have gone through a lot of stages of emotion since that Thursday morning when missiles rained all over Ukraine but fear, apprehension and uncertainty predominate still in a very nervous Moldova.  The history of Moldova is a complex one with its near neighbours and Moldova is neither in NATO or the EU, with a small population of around 2.5million, unprepared without a very modern military. The original Soviet frozen conflict of 1992 with Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, has suddenly become a lot more known because of the implications the Russian soldiers stationed there could play with wishes to link up captured Ukrainian territory to create one land bridge.  

This tension did seem to ease in late March, but suddenly in late April, lots of attention on Moldova and the possibility it could be invaded became prevalent again.  Within the school, we have worked hard to keep the focus on the daily routines, getting through the calendar events, IGCSE and A Level exams are underway and we live our international, humanitarian values as a school community of over 20 nationalities.  This war is very painful for so many of our communities especially with family ties to both Ukraine and Russia.  I myself spent time working with schools in Siberia, in and around Tomsk, for the British Council, and it feels very personal to know the World has changed this way, so dramatically and so violently. 

Right from the beginning, we have taken our steer from the Moldovan government and President Sandu. We were arranging collections to support refugees who were coming across the border from the 24th Feb.  The first weekend of the war, the student councils were onto this and this is a small part of the whole efforts of Moldova, a country not wealthy or abundant in resources, but it has supported 100ks of refugees, being described as a “small country with a big heart”. We have a number of Ukrainian families who have joined us, as well as Russian families who have also felt the need to leave Russia because of the war and climate there. On the recent national day of mourning, we lowered our flags to honour and commemorate the victims of the war in places like Bucha and the students and staff appreciated the ability to show our community’s voice here. 

Our students and staff volunteer to support the special shelters the government has set up.  These have been spontaneous and it makes me very hopeful about the civic values and dedication to public duty and to help others, that is one of the best things about this country. We have been making sure we support the calls for peace and a number of recent speakers in our current Founders’ Lecture series have been experts to offer a wider view such as the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here, Violeta Agrici and the BBC/Guardian journalist from Moldova, Paula Erinzanu.  These talks have been joined by schools across Moldova.  

We have been very fortunate to be in many key networks including COBIS and the British Council.  The COBIS Black Sea schools group has been extraordinary and Steve Priest the chair from BIST, as well as the CEO, Colin Bell, have ensured our colleagues in Ukraine, and ourselves in Moldova, are very supported as they use their connections and abilities to keep us connected. David Cole, the Head of the BISU in Kyiv, has been invaluable and his courage leading his schools in Ukraine is a very powerful and inspirational example to follow as a school leader dealing with such unimaginable and existential threats. The British Council has given us the platforms to share our stories and our students to speak directly to global audiences, especially to ensure there is a clear and informed narrative about what is happening here.  Our colleagues in The School Collaborative have brought experts in family welfare, crisis management and disaster events support, and both myself and my students have shared our experiences. Cambridge International and the head of Europe, Martin Nuttall, have worked closely with us and I cannot imagine how these weeks would have been without their professional guidance and support. 

I am part of the TTF/Varkey global school leaders group and my colleagues here have given personally lots of time, support and a forum to speak my fears and how we steer and navigate our schools through such times. Students being able to focus on their IGCSE and A Level qualifications gives them hope the future is a hopeful one.  The global narrative that is playing out here only underlies and re-enforces our values and why we are an international school. 

Interestingly enough, we seem to have had an increase in applicants for our regular vacancies expected at the end of an academic year. One candidate I spoke to, an American English teacher, stopped me in mid-flow and said “Mr Ford, I’ve worked in Gaza for several years , I am ok with the security situation in Moldova”.  Moldova is an ex Soviet republic, it has had a frozen conflict for 30 years and Putin and his government have made it clear that the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 wasn’t something they went along with.  I’ve worked with post Soviet societies, including Russia, for a number of years so in many respects, the current tumultuous events are something new but at the same time, it all belongs to the history and turbulence of this part of the World as it develops and wants the prosperity and stability of the rest of Europe and North America. 

Countries like Moldova are very resilient places especially given their recent history. We will get to the end of this academic year at the end of May, our international Summer School is getting ready for June and July and the number of international families from the diplomatic communities, NGOs, UN, business leaders here, are all visiting for tours and to commit to Moldova.  This is a very good sign for the only international school here and we know from the security advice we get from the senior diplomatic community, with many students in our school, we can navigate the changes in the operating environment, as we did with the pandemic for two years.  Incidentally, in April, we were finally given the go ahead by the ministry here to remove masks.  

I think the support from the beginning of the war from Cambridge solved a huge headache for us and gave very clear certainty for our staff, students and families here. What I had to follow from day 1 was a very clear narrative that the issues of the war didn’t spill into school, it is too complex for us as a country and we already see Russian families who have left Russia, being blamed for the war.  At the same time we wanted to support Ukraine in terms of the refugees and to support very clearly the need for the war to stop and for peace to be restored. Heritage’s mission is to prepare students for the challenges of a global future so in addition to events like the Founders’ Lectures or speaking at special events, our strong media literacy commitment in the wider curriculum has proved invaluable especially with so much misinformation out there.  

There was a moment at the end of April when even respected commentators were saying all embassies were telling nationals to leave and good colleagues in the UK and US Embassies respectively refuted this to allow people to see the actual information and to be calm about any imminent threat.  There has always been a risk of war from the moment in 1992 the new Moldovan state fought a brief civil war 30 years ago, against the separatists in Transnistria.  Putin made it clear at the end of the 1990s that he believed the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.  So, anyone living in Eastern Europe, especially in somewhere like Moldova, with all things being equal, knew that one day, this day would come.  The risk we should be focusing on is the economic risk and that won’t just impact these border states of the conflict. 

I think though, even with this in our heads constantly, there has also been a lot of appreciation for what we actually have and the precious time of being in school.  The beautiful sunny weather in Chisinau in Spring and the pandemic restrictions being lifted means we have trips to the parks, zoo, sports events, inter house competitions, all the good glue that binds a school and we cannot keep being eaten away with the fear of what may or may not happen.  It really has been “game face” time and as the head of the schools I have made sure my colleagues get certainty, accurate information and we have the most comprehensive crisis management plan that the head of security at the US Embassy said would put some diplomatic missions to shame. 

I hope no one has to face what these months have been like but before February 2022, there are many long standing conflicts in the World, and like the mail, education always gets through. I think it goes to the heart of your duty as a school leader and I know this has motivated David Cole in Kyiv and how he has responded.  For me, the strength of the school community to face adversity, to be very open, honest, transparent and communicate the plan to all the community, is paramount.  The connections in the wider community and the international networks are probably the crucial difference in feeling overwhelmed and knowing there is a way through all of this.  Our students deserve certainty and hope for the 2020s and the World narrative we believe in at the core of our values is going to be left standing. They hear a better tomorrow coming, even in these uncertain times. 

Recommended reads/listens:

  1. Putin’s dilemma: what is his next move in Ukraine?; https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2022/may/11/putin-dilemma-next-move-in-ukraine-podcast
  2. “War has brought to light all human beings who are human”. Radio Free Europe Journal, Tatiana Popa. https://moldova.europalibera.org/a/r%C4%83zboiul-a-scos-la-lumin%C4%83-tot-omenescul-din-acei-care-sunt-oameni-/31838907.html
  3. “A fragile stability in Moldova”. https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/87099?utm_source=carnegieshare
  4. What Victory Will Look Like in Ukraine. There will be no return to normalcy or status quo ante. By Eliot A. Cohen; https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/ukraine-russia-goals-win-war/629815/
  5. World War II Is All That Putin Has Left. The regime offers Russians little more than selective memories of Soviet-era military triumph. By Anne Applebaum; https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/putin-speech-ukraine-invasion-soviet-union/629825/
  6. This war is not about the west v Russia. It is about Ukraine. By Ruth Deyermond. Western politicians and commentators should not deny the agency of Ukrainians https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/this-war-is-not-about-the-west-v-russia-it-is-about-ukraine
  7. Vladimir Putin is running out of options to avoid defeat in Ukraine. By Taras Kuzio https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/vladimir-putin-is-running-out-of-options-to-avoid-defeat-in-ukraine/
  8. The Bear Next Door BBC World Service Podcast by Paula Erizanu

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