Arab students fleeing the Russian war in Ukraine said the kindness of local people and border guards made their difficult journeys easier.
As Russian tanks approached the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the students were among over one million refugees driven out of the eastern European country so far.
On February 25, a day after the start of the invasion, Hussein Al-Rubaei, an Iraqi master’s student in aviation engineering, woke to the sound of airstrikes. He tried to leave Kyiv immediately, but it was not easy.
“A day later, we managed to leave Kyiv by my friend’s private car heading to Lviv,” Al-Rubaei told Al-Fanar Media in a voice message. “Most of the difficulties related to the massive exodus of people fleeing the war. That was heartbreaking.”
Al-Rubaei explained that days later, roads to Lviv, the safest city in western Ukraine, had become less easy, with concrete barriers and checkpoints.
“Moreover, the curfew in Kyiv has been increased and is now between 6 pm and 6 am,” he added.
Difficult, Expensive Journeys
To drive from Kyiv to Lviv usually takes six to seven hours. It took Al-Rubaei and another postgraduate in aviation engineering, two days. “We were advancing so slowly,” he said. “On the way to the borders, Ukrainians were so good and provided us with meals and aid.”
“Iraqi students in Kyiv said there is no way to flee now. The trains are still working but so crowded. The exits from Kyiv are not that safe either.”Hussein Al-Rubaei
An Iraqi master’s student in aviation engineering
But the two students did not know which border crossing to choose to enter Polish territory. “Unfortunately, we found ourselves at a very difficult and crowded passage,” he said.
Mohammed Shaker, an Egyptian medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University, and two colleagues got out of the second-largest city in Ukraine just in time. “We left the city 40 minutes before the Ukrainian authorities imposed a curfew,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
While the borders with Romania were less crowded and easier to cross, the high cost of taxis forced the three students to go to Poland. “Each one of us paid $150 to travel the 150 kilometers to the border,” he said.
“Ukrainian taxi drivers took advantage of such a situation,” he explained. “They asked for about $400 to take us to the Romanian border, where passengers enjoy easier crossing compared to those of Poland, which witnessed clashes and restrictions on some nationalities.”
Five Days on the Borders
After five harsh days on the borders, Al-Rubaei found that many other exits were better. “The furthest points from Lviv were less crowded,” he said. “Our friends who went through those points managed to leave within hours. Some within a day. The one we chose was terrible.”
Shaker preferred to leave the congested border crossing point. “We moved to a smoother exit rather than wait,” he said.
“The Polish authorities were so friendly. Ukrainians also provided us with meals, SIM cards with Internet, and offers to host us in their homes.”
In Poland, it took Al-Rubaei five minutes to stamp his passport. “They were so gentle,” he said.
“If you have no shelter or nobody to wait for, they would offer you shelter and food. Some of my friends are now in those camps. The Iraqi embassy also provided hotlines to help the 450 Iraqi students.”
Amid reports and videos of possible discrimination against non-European refugees, Shaker said that some Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, and Africans faced insults and restrictions on their crossing in the first two days.
Ukraine hosts over 80,000 international students, including 20,000 Indians and large numbers from Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt.
“Ukrainian taxi drivers took advantage of such a situation. They asked for about $400 to take us to the Romanian border, where passengers enjoy easier crossing compared to those of Poland, which witnessed clashes and restrictions on some nationalities.”Mohammed Shaker
An Egyptian medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University
“We faced no racism at all,” Al-Rubaei said. “Of course, families and elderly people were given priority, leaving young people in the cold. However, this is quite understandable. Besides, some refugees from all nationalities might misbehave and lead to some frictions.”
From Warsaw, Al-Rubaei said many Iraqi and other Arab students are still stranded in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities.
“The Russian airstrikes are getting harsher and approaching residential areas,” he said. “Iraqi students in Kyiv said there is no way to flee now. The trains are still working but so crowded. The exits from Kyiv are not that safe either.”
He called on embassies to help their students and nationals. “I call on our respected embassies to help them, for they have no food or water,” he said. “An Algerian student was killed by the Russian invaders. Families call to help their sons come back home.”
He also called for safe passages and establishing committees on the borders to help students.
Waiting and Uncertainty
Poland allowed students to stay for 53 days or return to their countries of origin by flights run by their embassies.
Al-Rubaei, who had discussed his dissertation late in December and received his master’s diploma on February 23 a day before the war, preferred to wait in Poland.
He explained that some want to stay in Europe, others want to go back to their home, and some want to wait for 10 or 20 days to see what will happen in Ukraine.
“Most of the students are in panic and feel concerned about their educational future,” he said. “Busy with the war, the Ukrainian ministries and officials provided no answers so far.”
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Students who have not finished their studies are in a worse situation.
In the hope that the war would stop soon, Shaker also chose not to return to Egypt so that he could take one final exam to graduate and get his degree.
“I am afraid of going back to Egypt at the present time without obtaining my degree that proves my studying medicine,” he explained. “With the current situation, nobody will recognise my studies, neither in Europe nor in Egypt. This is a huge obstacle that I need to tackle.”