Crisis leaves Indian students in Ukraine worried

Indian students in Ukraine say there’s no clarity from New Delhi if it’s safe to stay and what happens to their studies.

The Ukrainian coat of arms and national flag is projected onto a building in Kyiv, Ukraine
Indian parents want to know if it's safe for their children to continue their studies in Ukraine [File: Ethan Swope/Bloomberg]

New Delhi, India – It was the first day of 2022 when Firoz Ahmed returned to medical school in Ukraine after attending a sibling’s wedding in India. Since then, things have gone downhill quickly as tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been on the rise. Now, the 23-year-old is worried that his dream of becoming a doctor may not come true especially as his college has not outlined any plans for the students to complete their studies in case of a Russian invasion.

Ahmed, who is in the fourth year of his six-year course at the Odesa National Medical University, is one of the nearly 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine, many of whom have been in touch with Indian authorities and local government and college authorities in Ukraine as they worry about incurring huge expenses and their studies getting interrupted in case they need to return to India.

“The atmosphere is tense for more than a week now and what we are worried about is the lack of clear answers,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. The students have no clue if the courses will continue online in case they return to India or if they will be marked absent. There is also the added stress of the cost of a ticket to India and back, equivalent to half the fee for a semester, he said.

The students, he said, are in touch with the Indian embassy, which has assured them that they are talking to Ukraine’s ministry of education to find a way out. But in the meantime, at least some of the students have opted for safety and have gone back.

For Ahmed, who chose to study in Ukraine as the fees there was nearly one-fourth what he would have to spend at a private medical college in India, the choice is not so easy as “money is obviously a consideration”, he said.

‘Consider leaving temporarily’

On February 15, amid growing Ukraine-Russia tension, the Indian embassy in Kyiv issued an advisory that said in view of the “uncertainties” in Ukraine, Indian nationals in Ukraine, particularly students whose stay is not essential, “may consider leaving temporarily”.

“Indian nationals are also advised to avoid all non-essential travel to and within Ukraine,” said the advisory which also asked them to keep the Indian embassy informed about the status of their presence.

However, the families of many Indian students in Ukraine believed the advisory came late and failed to answer basic questions like whether to continue staying in Ukraine or leave, and if the former, then which areas were safe to stay in. As a result, several students have already returned to India and the situation is giving sleepless nights to those who are scheduled to go to Ukraine in the next few days.

On February 13, Mumbai-based Himanshu Dhoria tweeted that with no updates or directions from the Indian government, he and a few other parents booked their children on flights back to India. “Better safe than sorry,” he posted.

The Indian government’s advisory, he told Al Jazeera, came “very late”, by which time he had already brought his daughter back. “What we saw was no communication from the Indian embassy or government from January 25th till February 15,” Dhoria said. “There was no engagement whatsoever.”

He has a few basic asks of the government: Give clear instructions if the students should come back or if it is safe for them to continue in Ukraine and direct airlines to operate sufficient flights and let the students leave if that’s what they want to do.

‘Period of uncertainty’

Kanika Singh, a 21-year-old Delhi-based student who asked for her name to be changed as she did not want any trouble from college officials, is scheduled to leave for Ukraine’s Vinnitsa National Medical University on February 23. For her, the geopolitical developments and the subsequent advisory by the Indian government means a “serious period of uncertainty”.

People holding flags take part in a march in Kyiv, Ukraine
India has walked a ‘fine line’ during the Ukraine crisis [File: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters]

Singh, who, for the past two years, has not managed to clear India’s extremely competitive public medical school entrance exams, finally decided to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor in Ukraine and has been preparing for this move since November. The advisory and the continuing tensions “has changed it all. My career is ruined if I am not able to go this time,” she told Al Jazeera.

The 21-year-old is closely tracking the situation and is in touch with the agency in the national capital that is helping her in the admission process. While the Indian student community in Ukraine that she has been in touch with has told her “everything is fine”, the embassy advisory for Indian students to take precautions cannot be completely ignored, she said. She is also worried about the fact that so far her college has not informed her on how safe are students and how do they plan to help the students in case of an invasion. “I will wait for the next few days before taking a final call about my travel plans,” Singh said.

Singha and Doria are among the hundreds of students and parents who are reaching out to the Indian establishment through social media outlets, such as Twitter. The Indian embassy in Ukraine has since followed up its advisory with a “Frequently Asked Questions” document that advises those who wish to return to India to book available commercial flight tickets, even as the government was in discussions with airlines to expand flights between India and Ukraine.

Catch-22 situation

The uncertainty and the response from the Indian establishment have frustrated many students. Richa Dwivedi Saklani, head of the study abroad consulting firm Inomi Learning in Gurugram, a satellite city on the outskirts of the Indian capital, said, “It is certainly a Catch-22 situation for students.”

“The government is advising students to come back temporarily to avoid untoward incidents, but students who are pursuing long professional courses … are heavily invested,” Saklani told Al Jazeera. COVID-19 has already taken a toll on their education and returning now would mean spending more money. “It is a difficult place to be for them and their parents,” she said.

While both students and parents have been dismayed by how the Indian government has responded to their concerns so far,  Professor Swaran Singh of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament at Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University said India has walked a “fine line” during the Ukraine crisis due to its historical alignment with Russia and relationship with the US.

“The stand taken by India to seek peace without clearly taking a clear side of either Russia or the US could result in some costs, but I think it is something that the Indian establishment has decided to take in stride,” he said.

Professor Singh acknowledged that as far as Indians in Ukraine and their safety is concerned, “India’s ground assessment seems to be that the crisis will blow over soon with some tensions remaining at the Ukraine-Russia border … but largely due to its relations with both Russia and Ukraine Indian interests and citizens won’t be harmed.”

For now, none of that is reassuring the students stranded in Ukraine and in India.

Source: Al Jazeera