SA students desperate to complete their studies after harrowing escape from Ukraine

SA students desperate to complete their studies after harrowing escape from Ukraine
Vuhlari Mtonga, one of the South African medical students who was studying in Ukraine, is embraced by her sister, Mikateko Mtonga, after arriving from the country invaded by Russia, at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 2022. (Photo: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

While medical students wait to find out if SA varsities will accept them, some have organised to help other stranded Africans to get out of Ukraine.

Nearly all of the more than 50 South African students who were forced to flee their universities in Ukraine after Russia invaded the country last month are back home – thanks to the joint efforts of South Africans from all spheres of life: civil society, business and ordinary citizens.

Many of the students are medical students who were studying at universities in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and Vinnytsia – names that now conjure up images of bombs, destruction, death and despair.

The students are now desperate to complete their medical studies at South African institutions. On 10 March, representatives of the students and several university medical deans and vice-chancellors attended an online meeting to hear about the students’ ordeals and find ways to help the students complete their degrees.

The institutions represented were the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Rhodes, Nelson Mandela and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University. It was also attended by Universities SA, a membership organisation representing the country’s universities.

At the meeting, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the former vice-chancellor of UCT, admitted that assisting the students would be hard, but, she emphasised, “war is not something we can prepare for”.

According to Ramphele: “We are offered an opportunity to rethink the way we address support to young people to develop into better versions of themselves to build the country.”

This crisis was an opportunity to “get our act together and open conversations about how to create effective, inclusive programmes for young people”, she said.

Several students spoke movingly about their ordeals. Luphumlo Ntengu, from Gqeberha, who has been studying at Vinnyitsia National Medical University in Ukraine since 2016, described how he had only two months of a clinical elective left to complete his degree.

“We were so close I was even hesitant to leave. But we got scared.”

Ntengu pleaded with the Health Professions Council of SA: “Let us sit for exams… We promise not to disappoint.” He added: “We hope to add value to the South African healthcare system.”

He said other countries, including Namibia, had already made plans to absorb their students.

The response from the universities was overwhelmingly positive. Professor Lionel Green-Thompson, dean of the faculty of health sciences at UCT, undertook to convene a meeting with all the medical deans with the Health Professions Council of SA, the regulatory body that admits foreign-trained doctors and students to practice. The meeting would look into the practicalities of registering students.

Professor Richard Cooke, the head of the department of family medicine and primary care at the University of Witwatersrand, set out details of a proposal for integrating fifth- and sixth-year students into the existing Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro (Cuba-South Africa) medical programme. “We have space,” said Cooke.

The universities, however, did not underplay the scale of the challenge. In the past few years, through a combination of pandemic and war, the world has suddenly become much less stable.

The more than 50 students from Ukraine are just the latest group of young South Africans studying abroad who have had their studies disrupted. There are, for example, also hundreds of students who were in China before Covid-19 who have not been able to return to their universities.

And it is feared that they may soon be joined by up to 300 students currently studying in Russia, should it become necessary for them to leave. Students interviewed by DM168 said they had applied to study medicine in Ukraine after their applications had been unsuccessful in South Africa. Because South African universities offer limited spots to study medicine, it’s a competitive degree to get accepted into and many prospective students turn to studying overseas.

Mandisa Malindisa (25) started studying a Bachelor of Science at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (formerly Medunsa). In her third year, she applied to study in Ukraine, a process she says was uncomplicated.

She was accepted by Kharkiv National Medical University, and is now a fourth-year medical student there. On the day that she was preparing to fly home for the holidays, Malindisa heard the first bomb from her apartment on the outskirts of the city of Kharkiv. She says the first sign that war could be advancing was when one of her lecturers started to focus on military field training, which teaches students how to take care of people wounded during military operations.

Malindisa was told by classmate Nkateko Muyimane (24) that the airport had been temporarily closed.

“That was when I got scared because, three hours later, I heard the first bombs going off.”

On her brother’s advice – he had been checking in on her from South Africa – she packed a light bag, which had extra shoes, two shirts, a pair of jeans, a hoodie and jacket because it was cold. She wore comfortable sweatpants in case she had to run.

Malindisa tried to make her way to her classmate Muyimane, who was with a group of students. It was an arduous journey as all public transport had ceased and Uber prices were soaring through the roof.

All around her, people were frantic, trying to get to bomb shelters. There was a 9pm curfew, at which point the city would go dark in an effort to curb bomb attacks.

“I remember sharing a bomb shelter that had some old people and two dogs in it and when the bombs went off, the dogs would whine and the ground would shake,” she says.

When she finally found Muyimane, they walked for hours, sometimes eight hours at a time, trying to get to the Hungarian border.

Malindisa told DM168: “People got violent trying to get on the train to Lviv, they were biting and stabbing each other to try to make sure the train didn’t leave them behind.”

After enduring the gruelling and frightening evacuation out of Ukraine, Malindisa and Muyimane landed back in South Africa on 4 March and almost immediately started the work to get the remaining students back home safely. They set up SA Safe Corridor for Students (SASCS), an NGO for the safe corridor for African students.

Muyimane, who is also a medical student, replied to one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s tweets with: “My name is Nkateko Blessing Muyimane, one of many medical students currently stranded in Ukraine Kharkiv. The situation here is dire, missiles and bombs have been thrown in an area known as Zakhysnykiv, not too far from myself.”

He shared photos and videos of people hiding in bomb shelters to escape the military onslaught.

Muyimane said he never thought he would make it home alive.

“What kept me going was focusing on keeping the group of students that we evacuated together fed and safe. Things were so bad that people around us were fighting each other for food because of shops being closed and the few that were open were limiting the number of people able to enter at a time.”

Muyimane is on a mission to ensure the safe passage of African students and says he is motivated by what he and other students had endured.

They had to “figure things out on our own – how to get tickets, how to survive off the limited food, people boiling ice for water because the only water left was sparkling water”. He is sending stranded people PCR tests, which are critical, especially if flying home from Hungary.

Beyond that, however, the SASCS aims to protect students’ right to accessing education.

“I have been on the radio, crying to be embraced. I would have expected the government to be more compassionate towards us,” he says. “A lot is going on in the world, life is so uncertain. Maybe I’ll go back to engineering, but what about others who don’t have another plan?”

In their journey to escape Ukraine, the students have been helped mostly by the kindness of active citizens.

A small cross-continental team – made up of Victoria Tumisang Maheso, the founder of the South African International Students Association, who is still in Russia; Lebone Kganyago, a former student and founder of Expat SA; and Nicola Spurr, a South African working in London – banded together over WhatsApp and Zoom to coordinate help.

The group soon became the centre of a much larger relief effort, catalysing concern, media attention, resources and commitment to trying to ensure the students reach safety and can complete their degrees.

The relief effort has grown to encompass humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers, which has not only been assisting South Africans but Ukranians as well. Zane Dangor, the newly appointed director-general of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, is also involved.

Gift of the Givers has been assisting with the wholesale purchasing of critical supplies, such as baby food, diapers, medicine and fuel, as well as supporting medical personnel in Ukraine.

According to a statement by Gift of the Givers: “Suzanne Ackerman from the Ackerman Family Foundation has pledged R1.5-million towards the repatriation of South African and African students.

“McKinsey is putting together a package for the same purpose.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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