Cultural ignorance at Issaquah Middle School | Letters

Letter to the editor

An incident at Issaquah Middle School during their Multicultural Heritage Fair was a stark reminder that not all lessons are learned from textbooks. I am Lina Ngo, a Ukrainian refugee and a voice for at least 25,000 Ukrainian refugees in Washington state. I have experienced first-hand the effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West, now I have also experienced the effects of cultural ignorance during war.

At the multicultural fair on March 22 at Issaquah Middle School, the display tables for Russia and Ukraine were arranged side by side. The Ukrainians staffing their table were forced to hear the Russian language and to see the large flag under which they have seen the murder and oppression of their families and friends in Ukraine, as well as a model of the Kremlin by whose authority this has been done. To add insult to injury, the people staffing the Russian table were handing out candy made in Ukraine that they called Russian.

Putting these tables next to each other – against the expressed wishes of the Ukrainians present – was extremely misguided at best. When I approached the administration and event organizers to express my concerns, I was met with dismissive remarks about “unity and hope for the future.” We all hope for peace, but unity with Russia is in fact what we as Ukrainians desperately need to avoid. A review of our history, from Imperial Russia to the Holodomor to Chornobyl to the present genocide, illustrates that our survival depends upon distancing ourselves. A nation’s right to choose its own loyalties is a critical component of freedom, and it’s what we as Ukrainians are fighting for. Forcing us to smile for “unity” next to Russia is consistent with Russian ideology and not what I expect of America.

The dismissive reaction from school staff clearly failed to take into account the context of the past and present, while ignoring the deep wounds and ongoing strife faced by the Ukrainian nation and by Ukrainian children and families in Washington state today.

True hope and future prospects can only be built on understanding and recognizing the realities of the atrocities perpetrated against us. Educational institutions bear the responsibility of teaching context and history. Without the context of the past, it is impossible to build a better future.

Some may argue that the event was intended to promote unity and hope across political and national divides. While the intention to promote cultural diversity and unity is commendable, the organizers of the event failed to take into account the necessary context and impact on people directly affected by Russia’s brutal and ongoing invasion of Ukraine. To understand the impact, imagine the outrage if the school had insisted on featuring German culture right next to Jewish culture during World War II – or Burmese culture alongside Ryohingan culture – or Confederate culture during Black History Month. Indeed, fostering an environment in which students learn about each other’s cultures is very important. However, this learning must be both nuanced and grounded in the realities of those cultures, especially when those realities include aggression, genocide, and trauma.

Every member of the school community deserves to feel safe and respected, especially those whose lives have been directly affected by wars and conflicts. A safe environment is required for children to learn. Schools should seek to be places of safety, genuine understanding, and compassion, by educating their staff on trauma, world events, and cultural sensitivity. Staff must prioritize the needs of oppressed minorities rather than dismissing them, and under no circumstances should a staff member representing an oppressor nation be given the power to discriminate against members of the community their nation is oppressing. We cannot ask future generations to fix our mistakes if we set an example of ignoring the context of the present.

Lina Ngo, Issaquah