Much has been written about the bravery of the Ukrainian people and the terror of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. But as both sides dig in, politicians trade barbs, and the humanitarian crisis worsens, a large community inside Ukraine without local connections or resources is trapped terrifyingly in the middle: the international medical students training in Ukraine.
Ukraine enjoys a long history of excellence in medical education, dating back to the late 1700s with the establishment of the Collegium Medicum in Lviv—later incorporated into Lviv University. Throughout the Imperial Russian era, Ukraine’s universities prospered as the Ukrainian region enjoyed significant prosperity from its rich agriculture and surplus of valuable commodities.
When Imperial Russia became the Soviet Union, the USSR sought to invest heavily in its top institutions to attract talent and grow its “soft power,” primarily from areas in Africa and India. As Ukraine’s highly prestigious universities were nationalized by the Soviet government, they directed funds toward those already highly respected institutions.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the relationship only grew. Studying in Ukraine is seen as a bridge to the European and U.S. job markets: Classes are taught in English and the high quality of graduates has engendered a positive reputation amongst U.S. and EU employers. Pre-invasion, just over 75,000 students were studying in Ukraine—many of them medical students like the ones we at AMOpportunites serve each day.
At the outbreak of the invasion in late February, we immediately reached out to our medical student clients that were due to attend rotations in 2022 and 2023. Many of these students were due to graduate in only a few months, and we assisted them in any way we could.
The students not only told us of the horror they felt as Russians attacked civilian targets and the racism they faced from members of the Ukrainian army while trying to flee the country—but of the precious help they received from everyday Ukrainians and citizens of Poland, Moldova, Romania once they arrived at the border. Many received little-to-no help from their governments and instead relied on media appeals and these Good Samaritans to help them to safety.
Dennis, a final-year medical student from Zimbabwe and one of our clients in Ukraine, was willing to answer questions in detail on his harrowing journey:
What was studying in Ukraine like before the invasion?
I came to Ukraine to study medicine, and I had just finished my degree last year. Studying in Ukraine was very interesting. It was a very interactive way of learning. We received a good education from those universities. The war is destroying this country.
Can you describe what happened when you learned Russia was invading?
When the rumors started spreading about the Russian invasion, it was an unthinkable thing. I asked my Ukrainian friends, and they didn’t seem to believe the rumors, and the same with taxi drivers. I was actually awake when the first bombings happened. I just thought maybe it was some truck or something, but then I heard the loud sounds four times, so I went outside and walked to the main street and asked people what was going on. It was around 4 or 5 in the morning. I got mixed responses. I saw people packing and leaving. It was scary.
You were able to leave Ukraine for Poland. What was that experience like? How are you doing now?
On the second day of the invasion, I was outside and there was a big explosion that made the ground shake. I was trying so hard to get a ticket to get out of Kyiv. The bank was a nightmare, but by chance on the morning of March 7, it worked.
I tried before that to get into a free train but almost got trampled and decided to go back. When we got to Lviv, the train station was fully packed, and we couldn’t get out of it easily to go to a hotel for some rest. Finding a taxi was a nightmare. I spent 40 minutes with no success. We decided to walk to the hotel. It was a bit far, but luckily, we flagged a taxi on our way there and he took us. Around 9 or 10 a.m. I started researching ways to get to the Polish border. I found a taxi and we rushed to the border, but he had to drop us 30 kilometers away from the border because there was a very long line of cars. We had to walk through mountains in the cold to the border. Nice Ukrainians were giving us and others food on the way. Just 2 miles off the border we were detained in the cold for no reason at all by the Ukrainian army for six hours. There was a lot of discrimination by the Ukrainian army against Indians and Africans. We had to walk 2 miles after being detained and found another long line. The time it took to cross at that moment was 25 hours. We decided to go to a motel and rested there for four days. When the U.S. embassy told us that the wait time was one hour, we quickly rushed out to the border and were warmly welcomed by the Polish people. Right now I am doing fine and happy to be safe.
What more do you think the U.S. government, NATO, and EU governments could be doing to end the war?
I think the U.S. government and EU government should continue providing aid to Ukrainians. They should also help to find ways to diffuse the situation. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian president Putin must have very serious negotiations and end this unjust war. I pray that this will not end in WW3. I don’t have the strength to run away again.
Have you begun to make plans to resume your career journey toward becoming a doctor? If so, what are you considering?
I am beginning my career journey plans. Right now, I am working towards writing Step 1. I am also exploring rotation options.
Finally, I would like to thank AMO for all the support and help they have provided for me during these difficult times. You guys are awesome and amazing.
There are many thousand stories like Dennis’, and it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that students like Dennis are not only taken in as refugees but are empowered to finish their education and become the next generation of physicians and caregivers. AMO calls on the governments and schools of the EU and U.S. to establish programs for these refugee students to continue and complete their medical education with as little additional disruption as possible. With their lives uprooted, it is a moral imperative that these future doctors do not have their dreams destroyed alongside their lives in Ukraine.
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