Hapless victims: Lebanese students in Ukraine caught in no man's land as Russian war rages on
In the early hours of Thursday morning on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the start of a "special military operation" in several Ukrainian cities. The attack followed months of speculation about Russia's intentions as it massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border.
These hectic hours became crucial for foreigners in Ukraine to understand what to do: to remain or to leave.
But for Lebanese students studying in Ukraine, the situation became more burdensome due to their home country's economic crisis.
"Lebanese citizens don't know what they can do. Who will pay for the travel? We don't know"
Having to cope with Lebanon's economic meltdown, some students chose to study in Ukraine as university fees were much cheaper than in their home country. But since the economic crisis erupted in Lebanon in 2019, families have struggled to send financial aid to their sons and daughters.
The Lebanese currency lost more than 90 percent of its value, and, according to the United Nations, multiple economic crises have left 82 percent of the population trapped in multi-dimensional poverty.
Many students had asked Ukrainian universities' deans to give them time to pay their fees as they were struggling to afford them due to the devaluation of the Lebanese lira.
However, the fees became the least of their worries, as on February 13, Lebanon's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants advised Lebanese nationals in Ukraine to voluntarily leave as quickly as possible until tension subsided and things returned to normal.
The following day, the parents of the Lebanese students in Ukraine gathered to protest in front of the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, where the Parliament opened a plenary session. They demanded the Ministry develop an emergency plan to help the Lebanese students get back home and to exempt them from the high financial fees imposed on them through the Lebanese embassies. They also denounced the delayed application of the so-called "Student Dollar Law", which should allow students' parents to transfer up to $10,000 at the lowest rate (LL 1517.55 per $1).
Supported by the Lebanese Association for Parents' Students in Foreign Universities, parents also demanded the Lebanese government support their children by providing them financial assistance and reducing the prices of tickets set by the Middle East Airlines to come home safely.
However, with Ukraine closing airspace for commercial flights, hundreds of Lebanese students are now struggling to find a way out.
Some are stuck in cities besieged by Russian forces, others are trying to find alternative ways to flee the country, and most cannot afford a ticket to go back to Lebanon.
Ghada Salma, 23, a Lebanese medical student in Ivano-Frankivsk, Western Ukraine, left everything behind. As her parents couldn't send her money due to the economic crisis in Lebanon, she ran into debt. Unable to pay rent, running into around $4,000 charges, her landlord seized her passport.
She is now trying to flee Ukraine and is about 17km from the Polish border along with nine Lebanese friends. "I am walking towards Poland," she tells The New Arab while on crutches following recent surgery. "I don't know if I can cross the border. I don't have much money as my funds are stuck in my bank account, and I can't withdraw anything. I have so much pain in my hips. But I need to walk," she said, adding that her landlord didn't give her passport back and she will try to use her residence permit as an identification card.
Ali Al Dhaibi, 20, studies medicine in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine. Before the invasion, he was confused about whether to remain or leave because he had to attend classes. But his doubts have since been wiped out by the latest development.
He has taken refuge in his cousin's house. "Today, Russia bombed Kharkiv. The Lebanese embassy told us that they are talking with their embassies in Poland and Romania to help citizens get back to Lebanon, as we would need a visa to enter an EU country," he tells The New Arab.
"However, I can't get out of Kharkiv. I don't have enough money to get to Poland, just around $80 and we can't use a bank account or OMT services as everything is closed here. The Lebanese embassy won't help us financially," he added.
Ali also revealed how bus prices had expeditiously increased, and a ticket from Kharkiv to Lviv, in Western Ukraine, 70km from Poland "could cost up to $500."
Like Ali, Mouhamad Mlouk, 27, studies medicine in Kharkiv. Since the economic crisis started in Lebanon in 2019, Mouhamad has struggled to live in Ukraine where in recent years, prices for goods have also increased.
"The Lebanese embassy hasn't done anything. I have tried calling them many times, but they are not answering the phones," he reveals to The New Arab. "I would need at least 14 hours to get to Lviv from Kharkiv. Many people are trying to reach Poland's borders, but it is too dangerous. Also, I don't have much money, and ATMs have run out of cash. Now, I am just praying and waiting," he poignantly adds.
Just two days before the invasion, Ali Sadaka, 21, a dentistry student in Kharkiv, asked his teacher what to do: Stay or leave. "She spoke to me as if I was her son and told me to leave as the situation was getting worse and escalating rapidly," he said. Some hours later, he received some money from his uncle and travelled for 28 hours by train to Lviv so he could get a flight to Lebanon.
Waleed Khodor, a spokesperson for the Lebanese community in Ukraine, told The New Arab that the Lebanese embassy had advised them to reach Poland, Moldova, or Romania and get a flight to Lebanon. "There are around 3,000-5,000 Lebanese in Ukraine, but a small percentage of us are unable to afford flights out. We don't know what to do. Who will pay for the travel? We just don't know."
Hours after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lebanon's Foreign Affairs Ministry announced a platform on which Lebanese citizens living in Ukraine can register if they wish to leave. The New Arab attempted multiple times to reach Ali Daher, Lebanon's Ambassador to Ukraine and his staff to learn more about the plan to help Lebanese citizens leave the country and to find out how they aim to financially support those who have no money to get out of the country due to the economic meltdown in Lebanon. The Lebanese embassy did not reply at the time of the writing.
But not all Lebanese students share the same sentiments as those trying to leave, with some opting to stay in Ukraine, "no matter what".
Just hours before the invasion, The New Arab asked Rafael, a 28-year-old computer science student in Kropyvnytskyi, central Ukraine, what he would do if war happened. "Well, I won't go back to Lebanon," he said. "Everywhere is better than Lebanon... Ukrainians treat us (Lebanese) like humans – they give us respect and are good people."
He tells The New Arab how his parents are frightened and have been calling him "every two seconds" since the invasion, but he stays firm on his choice to stay. "We are around 200 Arabs, including 15 Lebanese in the city. We have offered the local institutions our availability to fight with them," he adds.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi