Living rough in Morocco, migrants dream of a Spanish enclave

DUBAI: In January this year, Ameera Souheil Al-Halabi, 19, from Akkar in Lebanon, left her family and her country to start her life as a first-year medical student at a university in Ivano -Frankivsk, western Ukraine.

For Al-Halabi and his brother, a third-year engineering student at another Ukrainian university, being away from Lebanon was a huge relief. Despite its many political and economic problems, Ukraine seemed a world away from the power cuts, fuel shortages, corruption and dysfunctions of its country.

“I had decided to study in Ukraine because the situation there was relatively better and the expenses were manageable,” she told Arab News on Wednesday from a hotel in Krakow, Poland.

The siblings’ hopes for a stable life and a good education in a foreign country were dashed, however, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24 after weeks of mounting tension.

About 10,000 students from the Arab world, including about 1,300 Lebanese, were studying in Ukraine before the invasion, part of a population of 760,000 international students. Many of them uploaded video footage asking for help.

Jordanian nationals arrive in Amman from Romania after fleeing Ukraine following the Russian invasion. (AFP)

Among Arab countries, Morocco had sent the largest number of students, around 8,000, followed by Egypt with over 3,000.

What attracted foreign students to Ukraine was the low cost of living and, in many cases, the relative safety compared to their own country. Ukrainian universities also have a strong reputation for affordable medical courses and tuition.

But now, families from Morocco to India, from Nigeria to Iraq, are desperately appealing for help from their governments to get their sons and daughters out of the war-torn country. African students shared their experiences online using the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine.

At least two students, one Indian and the other Algerian, were killed in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which saw the heaviest bombardment of the war on Monday.



Foreign students in Ukraine in 2020.

Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanese Foreign Minister, said the government was drawing up plans to help nationals trapped in Ukraine. Planes will be sent to Poland and Romania on a “date to be announced later”, he said.

Others, like Egypt, have started organizing repatriation flights from neighboring countries. Thirty Egyptian students have already returned. For Tunisia, which has no embassy in Ukraine, getting in touch with its 1,700 citizens is complicated.

Authorities said they have been in contact with international organizations such as the Red Cross to organize the repatriation of Tunisian nationals. “We will start the operation as soon as we have a full list of the number of Tunisians who wish to return home,” Mohammed Trabelsi, a foreign ministry official, told AFP.

Algerian authorities, who did not ask their 1,000 Ukrainian nationals to leave, told them to stay inside and only go out “in case of emergency”.

Al-Halabi, the Lebanese student, said she and her brother started looking for ways to get out of Ukraine as soon as they heard the news of the invasion. She described the escape of the 10 Lebanese from Ivano-Frankivsk Medical University as a heartbreaking experience.

Ameera Souhei Al-Halabi. (Provided)

It took several days for the group to reach the Polish border, she said, adding: “We walked more than 40 kilometers after the taxi left us. Nobody helped us. We went three to four days without food or enough water. It was very cold. We went through snow and rain.

“Nobody gave us an evacuation plan, so we decided to do it ourselves. We were all together until we reached the Polish border, when we parted ways. Some of us went ahead while others stayed behind.

More than a million people have fled Ukraine in the week since the Russian invasion, the UN said, adding that unless the conflict ends immediately, millions more are likely to leave.

“In just seven days, we have witnessed the exodus of one million refugees from Ukraine to neighboring countries,” Filippo Grandi, the UN refugee chief, said on Thursday.

Many Arabs who have waited in vain to start a new life in the West have compared their fate to that of Ukrainians to whom European states have now opened their arms.

Activists and cartoonists contrasted the Western response to the refugee crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the way Europe sought to hold back Syrian and other refugees in 2015.

Last year, 3,800 Syrians applied for protection in Bulgaria and 1,850 were granted refugee or humanitarian status. The Polish government, which has come under heavy criticism for using force to stop migrants crossing into Belarus, has welcomed the new arrivals from Ukraine.

In Hungary, which built a barrier along its southern border to prevent a repeat of the influx of people from the Middle East and Asia in 2015, the arrival of refugees from Ukraine sparked a wave of support as well as offers of transport, accommodation, clothing and food.

Some Western journalists and officials have been criticized for suggesting that the crisis in Ukraine is different from those in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, as Europeans can better identify with the victims of the Russian invasion. .

“We don’t have the wave of refugees here that we’re used to, and we don’t know what to do with people with unclear pasts,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, describing Ukrainians as intelligent, educated and highly qualified.

“These are Europeans whose airport has just been bombed, who are under fire.”

While some Arab refugees in northern Syria, Lebanon and Jordan told Reuters the responsibility for their fate lay with closer countries, the perception of a double standard in European attitudes towards people fleeing the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East will be difficult to dispel.

Then there is the issue of racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces and border officials. Al-Halabi said that at the border crossing, students like her witnessed such behavior.

Many of his Arab friends, especially those from Morocco and Egypt, and other foreigners, suffered prejudice and even violence. Khaled, a Lebanese student, had his phone stolen while crossing the border.

“They (Ukrainian security) hit us, cursed us and insulted us,” she said. “A line they said is still stuck in my head: ‘No black people are allowed to come here.’ We were also pushed by the police.

As a Lebanese citizen who knows the adversities of life, Al-Halabi said, she can understand what Ukrainians are going through. “Still, that’s not the way to treat people,” she said. “No matter

what happens, you have to treat people well.

Responding to the accusations, Ellina Vashchenko, a Ukrainian who lives in Paris, said she “apologizes” for the behavior that non-Ukrainians have suffered.

“There is no excuse for this situation. But I want people to know that not everyone is bad,” she told Arab News.

“I’m Ukrainian and I have a lot of friends who help me (foreigners). For example, my friends in Poland tried to go to the Moroccan embassy to help. My family is open to welcoming anyone who needs help.

On Wednesday, Al-Halabi was preparing to travel from Krakow to Warsaw, where she hopes to catch a flight to Beirut.

All she and her brother want now is to return to Lebanon and feel safe. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I’m happy to return to Lebanon now,” she said. “I don’t think I want to go back to Ukraine even after this war.”

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