Maverick Citizen

WAR IN EUROPE

Massive effort to save SADC students trapped in and around Ukraine, please help

People fleeing Ukraine arrive at the Western Railway Station from Zahony after crossing the border at Zahony-Csap in Budapest, Hungary as they flee Ukraine on 2 March 2022. (Photo: Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

Several hundred students from South Africa and other SADC countries still need to be evacuated from Ukraine and neighbouring countries — and possibly soon from Russia — to escape the war that is disrupting lives across Europe. Now, a cross-continental network of volunteers in Africa and Europe is mobilising resources behind the scenes to assist them. You can help too.

Based on what Maverick Citizen has been told, some students are still enduring the horrors of war in Ukraine; some have now made it out to neighbouring countries where they are on 15-30 day asylum permits. Up to 40 have managed to return to South Africa. 

All have experienced fear and dislocation — some have encountered racism, others the generosity of strangers. Students report that once over the Ukrainian border, they have felt an outpouring of “warmth and support”. 

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People arrive at the Western Railway Station from Zahony after crossing the border at Zahony-Csap in Budapest, Hungary as they flee Ukraine on 2 March 2022. (Photo: Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

Some have had their vital documents and records destroyed or lost. 

But now all fear the seeming destruction of their and their families’ investment and dreams of higher education.

Even amid the horrors they have witnessed and endured, at the forefront of their minds is the question of how they can finish their education. Fortunately, because of social media and internet access, the students have been supported through a global network of volunteers. 

Geolocating and WhatsApp groups have been used to assist individuals and groups to safety. Sadly, students report that it is mostly people from developing countries whose governments have not shown up to support their citizens.

According to Nicola Spurr, a South African based in London who is working day and night to assist the students, “We don’t have everything in place yet, but we are working hard. We know that this is time-critical and people are in emergency situations. The situation is fluid and changing rapidly.” 

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A young woman who with many others had just arrived at a makeshift transit centre near Korczowa, Poland from war-torn Ukraine on 6 March 2022, indicates that she and a fellow traveller need seats on a bus. The Korczowa border crossing is among the main crossing points for people fleeing Ukraine. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Spurr is among a growing group that includes the South African International Students Association (Saisa), Lebone Kganyago from Expat SA and individual alumni of foreign and South African universities.

Saisa in particular has members in the affected countries and is playing a leading role compiling databases, guiding students on WhatsApp and providing emotional support. But now they are being aided by other citizen volunteers, alumni and academics who are raising their hands all over the world.

Gift of the Givers responded immediately to the request for support and, in addition to preparing to provide humanitarian support on the ground, is offering to help stranded students pay for transport to return to SA (donations can be made here).

Communication with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation is said to be ongoing. In particular, students praise the assistance they received from SA ambassadors in the region, including the former ambassador to Ukraine André Groenewald, who has since been evacuated to Hungary. 

“Some have been really heroic,” say students.

Spurr says it is estimated that there are 1,000 students of all nationalities, including several from SA, Zimbabwe and Botswana, stuck in the besieged city of Sumy, on the Ukranian northeastern border with Russia. 

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Instructions received by foreigners in Sumy yesterday on the process for their evacuation.

Yesterday, a humanitarian evacuation along a corridor to the Russian city of Poltava began, but is still very dangerous with reports of firing and attacks on civilians.

Medical students appeal for continued access to higher education

Spurr says that members of the group working in London, Europe and SA, are all unpaid volunteers. 

“We have no official authority or any funds of our own. Our goal is to ensure that all students from SADC countries currently studying in Ukrainian and Russian tertiary institutions are safely brought out and supported into universities to continue and complete their courses of study.”

According to the students Maverick Citizen has spoken to, most are medical students and those in Ukraine are almost all self-funded. By contrast, most of the more than 300 students in Russia are on bursaries from SA government departments.

In the words of one anxious student: “I cannot afford to go back to South Africa not being a graduate. We are using education as a lifeline. If I don’t get an education, I’m finished. I can’t afford to go back with nothing.” 

Another wrote in a letter appealing for admission to a university that she is “desperate to complete my medical degree”. The student is in her final semester and “was about to graduate in three months… The thought of going back without my degree makes me shiver.”

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A couple embraces as refugees arrive from Ukraine at a temporary shelter on 28 February 2022 near Korczowa, Poland. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Nonetheless, after fleeing from Ukraine in late February, she reported from the country to which she fled that “the doctor in me has me involved in humanitarian aid as a volunteer, assisting refugees fleeing from Ukraine”.

The students are appealing to Dirco and the SA government to understand that, as frightened as they are, they are not only concerned about their immediate safety, but about rescuing their futures and dreams.

For these reasons, initially, many of the fleeing students had expressed the desire to continue studying in Europe. However, given the uncertainty about the scale of the conflict and the refugee crisis that is developing across Europe, students are now being advised and assisted to return to the relative safety of South Africa.

To try to bridge this gap, Saisa and others are now coordinating efforts to talk to SA and SADC university vice-chancellors. They want concrete plans to be developed setting out how soon and by what means the returning students can be absorbed into continuing their education in SA. A number of universities have already responded positively.

Commitments have been made to try to draw in Universities SA to coordinate a response. “Fruitful conversations about ongoing educational pathways that would enable all students to complete their studies” is what the students most desire, said Spurr. DM/MC

This is a developing, ongoing situation. We appeal to all our readers to assist the students in any way they can.

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All Comments 5

  • Where is the wonderful “struggle” Party when they are needed? Absolutely disgusting but it really shows them up as to what they are.

  • One hopes that once the fleeing students have made it to some sort of ‘safe harbour’ they will make the time to all write a letter of commendation to CR in SA and Modhi in India, for making their life hell on earth …. with their ‘neutrality’, regarding a “man of peace” called Putin ! Despicable and shameless scoundrels .

  • Are South Africans really so self-centred that, at a time when Putin is blasting central Europe into oblivion, at a time when so many are simply trying to flee to safety, our students are concerned solely about what “someone else” can do such that they can finish their studies?

    Our Government, the ANC, put them in harms way, and as they did so, did not even have the moral backbone to even remotely hint that the war is solely and fully the result of the madman Putin; and they now expect, the rest of the World to come to their aid, even as they toss around taunts of racism.

    President Ramaphosa, you have failed the most basic test of acting with any shred of humanity – sacrificing every single thread of decency on your warped sense of history.

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