Arab Students in Ukraine Warily Watch as Tensions Mount
Arab students and professionals in Ukraine have been warily watching for days as tensions mount on the country’s borders with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin deepened the crisis on Monday evening, when he announced that Moscow recognised the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and that the Minsk Agreements—cease-fire accords signed in 2014 and 2015—no longer existed.
Speaking earlier in the day, however, Taif Al-Hadeethi, an Iraqi sixth-year medical student at Sumy State University in northeastern Ukraine, played down the threat of war. He told Al-Fanar Media he thought the international media had been overdramatising routine security problems in Ukraine since 2014.
“Apart from Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions claimed by Russia, life is quite normal,” Al-Hadeethi said. “People have not started to store food. Arab residents and Ukrainians are not afraid. They would laugh if you asked them about a possible war.”
Hamad Al-Khrisha, a Jordanian first-year medical student at National Pirogov Memorial Medical University, in Vinnytsya, in west-central Ukraine, thinks it is a mere propaganda war. “I do not think serious things will happen. My parents are urging me to go back to Jordan, but I am not afraid.”
Other observers think differently. Ghaith Ahmed Munaf, head of the Ukraine-based International Organization for the Protection of Human Rights, Ukraine–Iraq (BFNGO), said that Putin’s statements were “almost a declaration of war”.
He said, “Our organization’s monitoring cell has recorded over 2,500 breaches on the three fronts from the northeastern border with Russia, the northwestern border with Belarus, and the southern Crimean border. The war seems inevitable.”
“Apart from Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions claimed by Russia, life is quite normal. People have not started to store food. Arab residents and Ukrainians are not afraid. They would laugh if you asked them about a possible war.”Taif Al-Hadeethi
An Iraqi sixth-year medical student in Ukraine
International 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. Despite the violent protests that overthrew a Russian-backed government in 2014, the number has grown steadily from 53,000 in 2011.
Munaf said the largest proportion of international students in Ukraine (22 percent) came from India, followed by Morocco, with 10 percent. Egypt is also in the top 10 sending countries (4%). There are also students from Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, and nearly 200 Iraqi students, he said.
Al-Hadeethi, the Iraqi medical student at Sumy State University, said there were 11 international students in his class, including four Arabs: himself and three Palestinians. “Our Indian colleagues have left the country,” he said.
Al-Khrisha said a few of his colleagues had gone back to Jordan and the Palestinian territories. “There are 13,000 students from India in my city and almost 500 Arab students,” he added.
Ukrainian universities switched to online teaching from the second semester of this academic year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Al-Hadeethi said he did not know how his clinical lessons would be taught. “We have no clue so far, but third and sixth-year medical students have to sit for in-person ministerial exams that are held throughout Ukraine.”
Since 2014, Russian-backed separatists have been battling government forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that Kyiv says has cost around 14,000 lives.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the United States and Western European governments have warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Hopes for a last-chance summit between the American and Russian presidents to forestall an invasion appeared to have faded by Tuesday evening.
In Monday’s televised address, Putin said that Ukraine had never had a tradition of genuine statehood and had historically been an integral part of Russia.
He accused Ukraine of being little more than a “puppet” of the United States. Russia had previously asked for Western guarantees that NATO would not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join, but Ukraine saw giving such guarantees as an attack on its sovereignty.
Foreign Students’ Evacuation Plans
Munaf, whose NGO works in 25 Arab and other countries, said it had provided emergency hotlines to help evacuate Arab nationals and students either to locations outside the country, or to Lviv, the safest city in western Ukraine, about 70 kilometers from the Polish border..
“Our organization’s monitoring cell has recorded over 2,500 breaches on the three fronts from the northeastern border with Russia, the northwestern border with Belarus, and the southern Crimean border . The war seems inevitable.”Ghaith Ahmed Munaf
Head of a Ukraine-based human-rights organization
“We have told them how to contact their embassies and Ukraine’s Red Cross if they need medical help, or the closest police station if they feel unsafe,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, Mohammed Ali, a Kyiv-based software engineer and graduate of Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics, told Al-Fanar Media he had ruled out going back to Iraq.
“Everything is quite peaceful,” he said. “Prices and Hryvnia exchange rates have not increased like last time. As immigrants, we seek a stable life to focus on our work. Going back to Iraq is the worst-case scenario. Flights are still available between Ukraine and many Iraqi airports.”
But Ali admitted that some of the international staff at the company where he works had left the country out of fear of a Russian invasion and of Russia’s cutting the pipeline that supplies most of Ukraine’s energy and heating fuel.
Ukrainian Fears and Disappointment
The recent escalation coincided with the eighth anniversary of the Maidan Revolution, the 2014 protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
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Munaf, who is also an Iraqi pharmacist, said, “As we commemorate the victory of the Ukrainian people over the Russian-backed government in 2014, Russia comes again with more propaganda and weapons. We feel abandoned by the West, which insists on sanctions and non-intervention. It is a huge setback to be left alone facing the Russian Bear.”
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