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Displaced: Foreign Students Who Fled Kharkiv Fear For Their Education

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Displaced: Foreign Students Who Fled Kharkiv Fear For Their Education

Like many people, Victor heard Russia had invaded Ukraine through a phone call. “My friends called me because they heard the explosions,” he remembers. “They told me there were missile sirens, so I went out and checked. It turns out it was true.”

After going outside and hearing the sounds of war for himself, Victor went to the store to stock up on food and water. That evening, he packed a toothbrush, a change of clothes and a phone charger and headed for the nearest metro station. 

"I could hear, and feel the vibrations of missiles," he tells UNILAD over the phone. "Any time we'd hear a sound, everyone would look up to see where it was coming from."

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Passengers boarding a train out of Kharkiv (Alamy)
Passengers boarding a train out of Kharkiv (Alamy)

Just days earlier, the 20-year-old Nigerian had been attending classes while studying for his computer engineering degree at Kharkiv’s National Technical University. One month on, he’s made it out of Ukraine, but the war has left him stranded, and unsure what is going to happen to his education.

Victor’s story is one mirrored by thousands of non-Ukrainians at universities across the country. According to the most recent government data, approximately 71,000 foreign students were living in Ukraine, including 14,000 Nigerians. Many of them studied in cities like Kharkiv and Sumy, which have become the scenes of some of the most brutal atrocities carried out by Russian forces.

Like most Ukrainians, foreign students saw a full scale invasion as unthinkable until just hours before the first shells hit, leaving thousands scrambling to escape any way they could.

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Victor says he was given little help from his country’s embassy, which issued a statement advising students to ‘remain calm,’ even as the Russian tanks rolled in.

Red cross volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees (Alamy)
Red cross volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees (Alamy)

“A lot of people heard about it on social media,” Victor said of the weeks-long military build up prior to the invasion. “In Ukraine it wasn't a big deal, it wasn't a new thing because they've been living with problems from Russia for a long time, so I don't think they really thought they would actually attack.”

The reports on social media had led Victor to book a flight back to Nigeria, scheduled for February 27. It was cancelled, and after spending the first night of the war underground in one of the many metro stations in Kharkiv now housing thousands of residents as a makeshift bomb shelter, Victor joined the mass exodus of the city, spending more than 12 hours in a crowd of people trying to get on evacuation trains heading west.

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“Everyone was trying to leave,” he said of the situation at the station. “We basically spent the whole day there trying to get on the train, and [on] the train we got onto, there weren't really any seats, we had to stuff ourselves in the walkway, it was really stuffy and uncomfortable.”

Then, a 28 hour train ride spent standing in a corridor, with the windows closed to avoid light from the carriages marking them out as a target for Russian bombers.

Eventually, Victor made it to Uzghorod, where after hearing stories from friends who had experienced racism while trying to cross into Poland, he decided to walk to the Slovakian border. From there, he and his friends found help from a group of Christian volunteers, before connecting with an NGO which was helping students from the African diaspora who had been studying in Ukraine.

Yet unlike the generous refugee schemes set up for Ukrainians fleeing violence, the EU offers little assistance for foreign students once they’ve made it out.

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Charity workers are helping students crossing from Ukraine (Alamy)
Charity workers are helping students crossing from Ukraine (Alamy)

Information for people fleeing the war states that non-Ukrainian citizens with valid Ukrainian residency permits may access the temporary protection scheme only if they can’t return in ‘safe and durable conditions to their country of origin,’ with the EU ‘in principle’ looking to repatriate those who can return home.

Upon crossing the border, Victor and thousands of students like him were left with a choice: either return to their home country and figure out what to do from there, or stay in Europe and attempt to find a university willing to let them enrol and continue their studies. Victor is now in Germany, where he spends his days emailing and phoning different European universities in the hopes that one will let him enrol.

“I'm just trying to find a different school… where I could continue my education or start again, because that's the reason I'm here, for my education,” Victor says of his plans to stay.

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"I've got my [Ukrainian] residence permit and everything but a lot of countries only do stuff to help [Ukrainian] citizens… they aren’t really giving the same benefits to foreigners.”

His classmate Dammy took the opposite route. After a ‘stressful’ journey out of Kharkiv that left him scrambling to find his sister, who was also studying in the city, before embarking on the same 28 hour train ride to Uzghorod, he made it across to Hungary, and decided to book himself on a flight to Nigeria, returning home for the first time in seven years.

Both Dammy and Victor say their experience of getting out of Ukraine as foreigners was mixed, and chimes with reports from other Black students who claim to have been told to go to the back of the queue by some border guards.

Students arriving at the border (Alamy)
Students arriving at the border (Alamy)

"When I got there they said we should go find another border [crossing] because there was a quota for foreigners, which sounded like bulls**t. I didn’t believe it so I didn’t leave," Dammy says.

His sister was let through first, leaving him with a seven-hour wait as the border officials switched between processing Ukrainians and foreigners every 30 minutes.

"One random security guard came and told all the foreigners to move to the back of the queue," Victor recalls. "But once we got to the Slovakian part of the border it was really nice, they gave us blankets and food."

After the war broke out, Dammy was told by his university that they would attempt to resume online classes in April, but with Kharkiv still one of the fiercest sites of fighting in the country, it’s not clear whether that’s going to be possible.

Like Victor, Dammy says he ‘would love’ to transfer to another university to continue his studies in person, but has been given no indications that any schemes are being set up to facilitate that. 

Victor says that his university transcripts and high school certificates were kept by his faculty, meaning he has none of the documents that he needs to apply for a transfer. Some universities have agreed to look into his case, but many have been unable to help, with no policies in place to deal with the unique situation that foreign students forced to flee Ukraine now find themselves in.

Indian protesters ask for help for students (Alamy)
Indian protesters ask for help for students (Alamy)

“Higher education institutions are already looking at how to welcome and integrate students and academic staff fleeing Ukraine into their campuses,” the European Commission said in a statement. “Flexibility is needed to facilitate access to courses and offer opportunities to students who benefit from temporary protection and need to continue their education.”

A Commission spokesperson was unable to provide further information around specific plans for foreign students who may not qualify for temporary protection.

Both Victor and Dammy say it’s right that Ukrainian refugees are being prioritised by the EU, yet they are both concerned that foreign students like themselves are falling through the cracks, leaving their education, and their futures, in limbo.

All Victor and Dammy want to do is to continue their studies. Neither of them wanted to leave Ukraine; Dammy’s initial plan had been to bunker down for a few days in the hopes that the war would be over quickly.

Nigerian students returning home on evacuation flights (Alamy)
Nigerian students returning home on evacuation flights (Alamy)

But with returning to Kharkiv looking unlikely in the near future, they and thousands of their fellow students are begging other European countries to step in.

There are signs that some countries may be willing to help. Victor is currently in the process of applying for a residency permit in Germany, and says that earlier this week his friend’s application was approved, potentially paving the way for him to access the education system there. But without an official policy it remains a deeply stressful and uncertain situation.

“Most of the laws they are making are for Ukrainian citizens and permanent residents, but they haven't really said anything about people who are there temporarily or are students, so everything is just confusing for a lot of us,” Victor says. “I just wish they'd make it clear, whether it's good news or it's bad news, please just make it clear.”

If you would like to donate to the Red Cross Emergency Appeal, which will help provide food, medicines and basic medical supplies, shelter and water to those in Ukraine, click here for more information 

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: Features, Ukraine, World News, Education

Hannah Smith
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