Ismail Adedolapo, a 23-year-old Nigerian studying in Kyiv, Ukraine, heard explosions starting around 5 a.m. Thursday morning as Russia began its invasion. “My girlfriend and I were up all night literally watching it unfold around us,” he says. They were evacuated from his apartment and got on a train bound for Lviv in the western part of the country. “Never thought I’d run for my life like this, and that’s saying a lot as a Nigerian.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Nazish Ehtesham, a student from India at Ternopil National Medical University, joined an early-morning scramble in his neighborhood for emergency supplies. “There was total havoc,” he says. “Everybody was rushing to [the] supermarket to buy groceries ….Shops are not taking cards. That’s why everybody was running toward the bank to get cash.”
Some 80,000 international students study in Ukraine, according to data from Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. The largest number come from India, followed by Morocco, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Nigeria. Some say they are drawn to a more affordable education than they can find in their home countries. Others say they are seeking a better, safer life. The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and the resulting snarling of transportation systems has left the entire Ukrainian population vulnerable, with nowhere to go. Many of these international students stranded and uncertain of their safety — or what to do next. “[It’s a] pretty grim situation, to be honest,” Adedolapo says. “And it’s a lot worse for a lot of young international students without a reliable embassy or exit plan.”
Around 5:30 a.m. Thursday, Kyiv International University student Coy Emerald awoke to the sound of an explosion. The 26-year-old from Nigeria, who asked to be identified by the name he uses online, is enrolled to study computer science after he finishes his studies of the Ukrainian language. Emerald says he came to Ukraine thinking it would be a safer, more peaceful environment than he left in Nigeria. Before the attack began, although tensions ran high, he thought Vladimir Putin would not move forward with the invasion, particularly because in a recent speech, the Russian president described the people of Ukraine as “comrades,” “colleagues,” “friends,” and “people bound by blood.” Now, everything has changed. “Unknowingly to me, lives are valueless to the clueless leaders of this part of the world as well,” he says. On Thursday, he posted a video from the reception area of his university hostel, where he says he and other students found instructions to go to a nearby bomb shelter.
“I can’t return to Iran because of religious reasons. What shall I do now?”
Other students face additional complicating factors in an already fraught situation. Mahdi, 21, from Iran — who asked to be identified by his first name only — has been a dental student at Kyiv International University for about five months, and during that time he says he became a Christian, making a potential return to Iran dangerous for him. “I can’t return to Iran because of religious reasons,” he says. “What shall I do now?” He’s hoping another country will accept him as a refugee. On Thursday, however, he and other students were sheltering in a parking garage below their hostel.
On social media, students and their supporters mobilized, asking their home governments to charter planes out of the country, sharing locations where students were stranded, and offering advice about where to find shelter. Users also circulated emergency contact numbers for stranded students from various countries. “Students are panicking and are planning to move,” says Omotayo, a Nigerian student studying in Kyiv who asked to be identified by his first name only. “No one feels safe in Ukraine right now anymore. It’s sad how things have come to this.”
Despite the chaos on the ground, some governments indicated they are making plans for students in Ukraine. The Indian embassy released several statements over the course of Thursday. The first, a letter to Ukraine’s president, acknowledged that there were over 15,000 Indian students “stranded in Ukraine in various regions” and asked the Ukrainian government to provide them food and water and to keep them safe. Another statement advised students to use Google Maps to find bomb shelters if they hear air raid sirens. The Indian Ambassador posted a video message urging Indians in Ukraine to stay in their homes and saying that the country was working on efforts to evacuate Indian citizens along the western border of the country.
Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying the Nigerian government had “received with surprise” reports of the Russian invasion, and that once airports are open, it would assist people who wish to leave. “In the meantime, the Nigerian Mission has confirmed that military action by the Russians has been confined to military installations,” the statement said.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which blamed the invasion on provocations by NATO, said in a statement, “The most important current mission of Iran’s Foreign Ministry is to fully and urgently address the situation of Iranians living in Ukraine, which is underway according to predictions made using all capacities.” Rolling Stone reached out to the Ukraine embassies of India, Iran, and Nigeria for more information about evacuating students, but did not hear back.
On Thursday evening, 19-year-old Ehtesham was sitting with his classmates in their hostel, his classes having moved online and an exam for Friday having been canceled. “We hear sirens all around,” he says. He and his friends were reading news reports and communicating with friends and loved ones in India, waiting to be evacuated. “They are afraid.”
Adedolapo, from Nigeria, is hoping to make his way to Poland or another country with NATO protection. “I’ll probably be denied a visa because of my country of origin but it’s the only feasible option,” he says. “Sure beats waiting for the Russian Army to bombard Kyiv.” He says he feels like he and his girlfriend have left their lives and careers behind them. “One thing’s for sure,” he adds. “I can’t return to Ukraine while it remains under Russian control.”