Arab Students in Ukraine Try to Flee as Russian Invasion Begins
The world woke on Thursday to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on three fronts, with bombardments heard near airports and major cities. The new turn in the conflict put thousands of Arab students and professionals in Ukraine in a tight spot with limited evacuation options.
Alaa Ishteiwi, a third-year engineering student from Jordan at the Karazin Kharkiv National University, said none of the students there had expected the war to erupt so quickly. “We all feel scared and concerned about our lives and educational future, amid lack of information,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, is the country’s second-largest city, after Kyiv, the capital.
Amid closed airports, depleted food supplies and the sounds of military aircraft overhead, many people sought refuge in underground metro stations. However, Alyaa Gaber, an Egyptian fifth-year medical student at the Kharkiv National Medical University, said that Arab students chose to remain at their rented houses in the city centre for now.
Fadi Shehab, a Lebanese sixth-grade medical student at the Kirovohrad Medical Institute, in central Ukraine, confirmed that the prices of food and fuel have risen by about 25 percent. “This is negatively affecting my ability to stay, especially with the deterioration of the Lebanese pound against the dollar,” he said.
The institute is Ukraine’s largest and leading medical institute. It was moved to the Kirovohrad province in 2014 from the separatist Donetsk region.
Limited Help from Embassies
Gaber said European embassies had informed their students about return trips about two weeks ago. However, Arab embassies communicated with their students via WhatsApp groups only after Russia started the attack on Kyiv. The embassies asked students to send their data, pending actions that would be taken later to help them leave, students told Al-Fanar Media.
“The university administration did not allow us to leave last week because the study was in-person. Yesterday, they turned it online and the war began. I was forced to stay, as I am in the final year and was afraid to lose an entire academic year.”Fadi Shehab
A sixth-year medical student from Lebanon at the Kirovohrad Medical Institute
Bashir Bahaaddine, an engineering student at Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics, told Al-Fanar Media: “It is very complicated. The shops are closed, hundreds of people queued in front of the markets and ATM machines. All offices and business have stopped. We call on the Lebanese embassy to help us return to Lebanon.”
In a press statement, the Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Abdullah Bou Habib, said that he had held a crisis meeting with the Lebanese ambassadors in Moscow, Romania and Ukraine to review the situation. He said the ministry had launched an online application to help the Lebanese register their data, phone numbers and whether they want to leave, and was making an evacuation plan.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahhaf said in a statement that his country’s embassy in Ukraine had “approached 27 Ukrainian universities and institutes where Iraqi students are studying, and requested them to show more care and attention to them and to facilitate granting them emergency study leave in case the security situation deteriorates.”
He added: “The embassy called on those Ukrainian universities and institutes to provide it with detailed information about the conditions and numbers of Iraqi students studying there.”
Tunisia lacks an embassy in Kyiv. Mayada Mubarak, a Tunisian dental student based in Kiev, said she was trying to contact her country’s embassy in Moscow. “Earlier, they asked us to provide our names and data, yet nobody has contacted us since then,” Mubarak said.
She added: “I feel reassured that I am next to my Arab colleagues. Fear haunted us after the closure of the banks. I hope things will not go worse.”
Bombardments Heard in Kyiv
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest attack on a European state since World War II, Reuters reported. Explosions and gunfire were heard throughout Thursday in Kyiv and elsewhere in the country.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a video statement released after midnight on Friday in Ukraine that 137 Ukrainians, military and civilian, had been killed since the invasion began.
Several U.S. officials told Newsweek they expected Kyiv to fall within days, and the country’s resistance to be effectively neutralized soon thereafter.
In Kyiv, Murtadha Al-Ameri, 34, an Iraqi dentist who has lived in Ukraine for 10 years, confirmed hearing the sound of a dozen bombardments Thursday morning.
“It is calm now, but everyone is in panic,” he said. “Everyone was packing their belongings and taking their cars to move to Lviv on the borders with Poland. Since a week or more, even rent prices skyrocketed there.”
Few Evacuation Options
Evacuation by air is not an option for the present. Ukraine has closed its airspace to civilian flights, citing a high risk to flight safety.
Neighbouring Moldova also said it was closing its airspace and Belarus shut part of its airspace. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency warned of safety risks in flying in airspace near to Ukraine’s borders, including in Russia. Several students told Al-Fanar Media they were unable to leave earlier, as they had to attend classes in person until last Tuesday.
“Students face unknown destinies. So far, we got no clear answer about the next destination, given the closure of the airspace.”Alyaa Gaber
An Egyptian fifth-year medical student at the Kharkiv National Medical University
Shehab, the Lebanese medical student at the Kirovohrad Medical Institute, said: “The university administration did not allow us to leave last week because the study was in-person. Yesterday, they turned it online and the war began. I was forced to stay, as I am in the final year and was afraid to lose an entire academic year.”
In Kharkiv, Gaber, the Egyptian medical student, said students “face unknown destinies. So far, we got no clear answer about the next destination, given the closure of the airspace.”
Determined to Leave
Ishteiwi, from Jordan, confirmed that most students want to go back to their home countries as soon as possible.
Hamad Al-Khrisha, a first-year medical student at the National Pirogov Memorial Medical University, in Vinnytsya, west-central Ukraine, contacted the head of the Jordanian community in Ukraine. “Thirty Jordanian students and I want to go to Poland or Romania by land as soon as possible,” he said. “The embassy there might help us go back by flights to Jordan.”
Boukedjar Lakhdar, an Algerian master’s student at the Kyiv National University of Construction and Architecture, contacted the Algerian embassy in vain. “Five of my Algerian friends and I will leave to Poland within hours,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “I was about to finish my master’s studies within three months. My parents are scared. I am afraid of losing eight years of my life I spent studying here.”
Foreign Students in Ukraine
The Ukrainian State Center for International Education at the Ministry of Science and Education said that in 2020 Ukraine was hosting more than 80,000 international students from 185 countries. Almost a third of them were studying medicine.
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Gaber moved from Egypt to study medicine for $5,000 annually. She chose Ukraine because its admission rules are based on students’ marks in scientific subjects (physics, chemistry, and biology) only, rather than total grades, and because English is the language of instruction.
She explained that admission rules in Egypt and most Arab countries made it impossible for many students to enroll in public medical and engineering colleges, and that private higher education institutions charge high tuition fees.