Some Lebanese Students Escape Ukraine After a Harrowing Journey
BEIRUT—Ahmad Abdallah and Hussein Chokor are among the lucky Lebanese students who made it home safely following a perilous journey across Ukraine to escape the bombardment of Kharkiv by invading Russian troops.
The first group of Lebanese expatriates fleeing the war in Ukraine, including 40 university students, arrived in Beirut early on March 2 through Romania. While relieved to be safe, students were worried about the fate of their education.
“I was supposed to graduate in two months,” said Abdallah, 24, a sixth-year medical student at the Kharkiv National Medical University. “Now my future is hanging by a thread.”
He added: “I am fortunate to get out. Many are still trapped in Ukraine.”
Abdallah said he spent several days sheltering in a subway station with other students with no light, listening to the sounds of explosions and gunshots.
“We were very scared. No one dared to go outside. A fellow student from Algeria was shot dead when he ventured outside to buy food.” (See a related article, “Ukraine War Claims 1 Algerian Student’s Life; Others Live in Fear”.)
“It was a nightmarish journey or a horror movie. We had to fight our way onto the jam-packed train. One student was crushed and had her arm broken.”Ahmad Abdallah
A sixth-year medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University
Universities Advised Students to Stay
In the days and weeks before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, on February 24, parents of Lebanese students were pressuring them to leave. But Abdallah told al-Fanar Media that most students remained because they were concerned about missing classes and losing their progress toward degrees.
“When we asked the university to give us some guidance, their answer was, ‘Nothing will happen, tensions have been there since 2014. If you leave, you will have to bear the consequences because teaching will continue as usual.’ So we did not have a choice but to stay,” Abdallah said.
While embassies of many nations were urging their nationals to leave Ukraine immediately, Lebanese were only asked to be vigilant. “The embassy told us that it is up to each person to decide whether to stay or leave, and that they take no responsibility,” Abdallah said. “Afterwards they were not answering our calls because they were also under attack in Kyiv.”
Gallery: Safe Arrival in Beirut
On the first day of the invasion, residents of Kharkiv woke up to the deafening sound of explosions and air raids, causing panic and bewilderment. The city, Ukraine’s second largest, is located only 42 kilometers (26 miles) from the Russian border.
As the shelling intensified and people ran low on water and food supplies, Abdallah and three fellow Lebanese students decided to leave.
“It was a nightmarish journey or a horror movie,” Abdallah recounted. “We had to fight our way onto the jam-packed train. One student was crushed and had her arm broken. Suitcases were thrown out of the train to make space for people and oxygen was running low.”
Forced to Walk in Freezing Cold
The train journey to Lviv, near the Polish border, took more than 24 hours, which passengers spent standing. Abdallah and his companions walked for three hours in freezing temperatures until they were able to find a taxi that drove them to the Romanian border at the astronomical price of $1,400.
Chokor, 22, a fourth-year medical student at the same university in Kharkiv, was also on the train.
“We were about 25 Lebanese students on the train. Some crossed to Poland and others to Romania and Slovakia. Anywhere outside Ukraine,” he said.
“We will seek the assistance of the Ministry of Education to help us complete our education in local universities. We definitely have to find a solution.”Hussein Chokor
A fourth-year medical student at the Kharkiv National Medical University
In Romania, a Lebanese businessman, Mohamad Murad, took care of 40 Lebanese students, hosting them in a hotel he owns in Bucharest and paying for their plane tickets home, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported.
Worried About the Future
For the students, their future education is the main worry at present. Chokor’s and Abdallah’s university was badly damaged in the shelling of Kharkiv.
“Are four years of my life wasted?” Chokor asked. “How can we continue our education in a country at war? We are waiting for the situation to calm down to be able to contact the university. We are totally lost. Our future is up in the air.”
He added: “We will seek the assistance of the [Lebanese] Ministry of Education to help us complete our education in local universities. We definitely have to find a solution.”
Unofficial estimates put the number of Lebanese living in Ukraine at about 4,500, of whom about 1,300 are students.
According to Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee, the agency responsible for helping nationals stranded in Ukraine, a second batch of Lebanese evacuees will arrive from Poland soon.
“We may accommodate them in the Lebanese University like we did previously; however, they have to be evaluated through exams first. For this, the council of ministers will have to make an exception and issue a special decree.”Albert Chamoun
Spokesman for the Ministry of Education
Albert Chamoun, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said the authorities will find solutions for the students to complete their education. He compared their case to that of the Lebanese who were studying in Syrian universities and had to flee after civil war broke out there in 2011.
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“We have a precedent, but first we need to assess how many want to continue their education in Lebanon. Some might prefer to go to another European country,” Chamoun said.
He added: “We may accommodate them in the Lebanese University like we did previously; however, they have to be evaluated through exams first. For this, the council of ministers will have to make an exception and issue a special decree.”
- Ukraine War Claims 1 Algerian Student’s Life; Others Live in Fear
- ‘No Safe Corridors’: Thousands of Arab Students Are Stranded in Ukraine
- Arab Students in Ukraine Try to Flee as Russian Invasion Begins
- Arab Students in Ukraine Warily Watch as Tensions Mount