Broken dreams: Palestinian students who escaped the Ukraine war | Occupied West Bank

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Hebron, Occupied West Bank – Palestinian university student Mohammad Hafith recalls the moment when he shut the door to his apartment in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and left towards an unknown fate.

He was forced to leave his two cats on the street. “I gave them all the food in the house and left. I don’t know what happened to them,” he said, tears in his eyes.

Mohammad also left behind all his clothes, books and other belongings from his five years of study in Ukraine. The 23-year-old was due to graduate in May with a degree in international law from the MAUP institute, but was forced to leave along with several relatives when the war began on February 24.

He was one of 2,400 Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip living in Ukraine, including 400 students, according to the Palestinian Authority’s foreign affairs ministry.

“I really feared for my life,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera from his home in the village of Nuba on the outskirts of Hebron city in the southern occupied West Bank.

Noting the non-stop bombing on his journey from Kyiv to the Romanian border, Mohammad, who was evidently sensitive to any noises outside, said “the sound of the bombardment has not left me yet”.

Palestinian students - Ukraine
Mohammad Hafith, 23, was one of 400 Palestinian students from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip studying in Ukraine [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

Mohammad stayed home for the first few days of the Russian invasion hoping the crisis would end, but the shelling only edged closer to the house he shared with his sister, her husband, and their children. Fortunately, his sister and the children were away visiting family in Palestine.

Within a week, he left the house with his brother-in-law, Wissam, and the two took refuge in a nearby hospital thinking they would be safer there, but clashes on the streets forced Mohammad to take the most difficult decision: to leave.

While Wissam chose to stay behind, Mohammad left Kyiv with other relatives of his, and took a train to Lviv city in the west, where they met up with 15 other Palestinians.

After coordinating with the Palestinian embassy, the group took cabs to the closest point they could to the Romanian border and then walked for hours before they were able to cross – a journey that took 16 hours.

Wissam remained at the hospital for a few hours until the bombing drew closer, upon which he decided to leave. There was no news from him for a while.

“We lived through hours of real terror because we did not know his [Wissam’s] whereabouts,” Mohammad’s sister, Ma’ali Hafith, 29, told Al Jazeera.

“When he was finally able to communicate with us, he told us that he got lost with others.”

Wissam made it to the Hungarian border, and relatives he had in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) booked him a ticket and relocated him there.

Palestinian students - Ukraine
Ma’ali Hafith and her two children, Ahmad, 3, and Julia, 18 months, who were born in Ukraine and hold Ukrainian citizenship [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

‘Dreams collapsed in an instant’

On his way out of Kyiv, Mohammad was accompanied by his cousin Hussam Dababsa, his wife and daughter, who had been living in Ukraine for four years.

When the family left their home, Hussam said he forgot the milk for his baby daughter, who he had to carry during their exhausting journey from Lviv to the Romanian border during a snowstorm.

“We did not expect the war to last more than a week. We had bought basic supplies that were enough for two weeks, and never considered leaving,” 32-year-old Hussam, who works in the medical equipment industry, told Al Jazeera.

The war did not only rob Dababsa and his wife of their home and everything they owned, but it also crushed their dreams of being reunited in Palestine, as his wife is from the Palestinian diaspora.

Palestinian students - Ukraine
Hussam Dababsa, 32, was only three months away from receiving Ukrainian residency after four years [Mosab Shawer/Al Jazeera]

During the 1967 war, her family was displaced from Palestine, leaving her without a Palestinian identification card that would allow her to live with her husband in the country. The couple immigrated to Ukraine hoping to obtain foreign citizenship so they could live in Palestine together.

They were due to receive Ukrainian residency cards just three months before the war unfolded.

“Our dreams collapsed in an instant,” said Dababsa. “But thank God that we made it out alive.”

After leaving Romania, the family made it to Amman, Jordan. While Hussam was able to cross into the occupied West Bank, he had to leave his wife behind with her family in the Jordanian capital. He said he is trying to get her an Israeli permit to enter.

‘Racism against Arabs’

Majduleen Arar, a 22-year-old from Ramallah in the central occupied West Bank, faced a similar fate.

The fourth-year medical student at Bogomolets National Medical University decided to leave Kyiv on the third day of the war, as the bombing was approaching her home.

She left everything behind, taking only a bag of her official papers, trousers, and a pullover.

“We had to reach Lviv in the west and then the border with Poland. Throughout the journey, the bombing was continuous, and the train stopped its journey for five hours until the bombing stopped,” Arar told Al Jazeera.

She walked with a group of people for 12 hours to reach the Polish border, during which she said she encountered racism from Ukrainian authorities.

“At every Ukrainian checkpoint, we, as Arabs, were subjected to searches and detention. At one of the checkpoints, we remained for five hours in the cold and rain,” she said.

On the Polish border, the situation was not any better. Polish authorities dealt with Arabs differently, taking them hours to let Arab refugees pass through, while processing Ukrainians and other Europeans within minutes, Arar recalled.

32-hour journey

Another Palestinian student, Ghazi Mohammad Sallaq, was a first-year medical student when the Russian war on Ukraine began.

In his home in the village of Surif in the southern occupied West Bank, Sallaq is still in shock, and cannot stop thinking about the ordeal he went through.

His mother told Al Jazeera that he does not sleep nor eat. He had hoped to return to his family with a medical degree, but the war shattered his dreams.

Sallaq was studying along with 57 other Palestinians at the Dnipropetrovsk Medical University in eastern Ukraine. At first, he did not consider leaving the student dorms, but within days of the war, clashes unfolded on the streets, so he decided to leave.

“It was no longer safe,” the 20-year-old told Al Jazeera.

It took him 26 hours to reach the Romanian border, followed by six hours on foot.

Despite the long and exhausting journey, he – along with other Arab students including Palestinians, Sudanese, Egyptians, and Moroccans – had to wait for long periods until they were able to leave.

Other nationalities, including Ukrainians, other Europeans and Israelis did not have to endure the same long waits, he said.

Palestinian students and families unanimously agreed that Palestinian officials dealt effectively with the crisis and helped evacuate them safely.

Ahmad al-Deek, senior adviser to the PA’s foreign ministry, said the relevant bodies were able to act quickly because of their evacuation experience with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the war even started, we asked non-essential workers and students who could continue their studies online to leave Ukraine. Several of them heeded our instructions and left,” al-Deek told Al Jazeera.

He said those who left Ukraine received help from Palestinian embassies in the countries they arrived in – including a place to sleep and a ticket to Palestine. The ministry also helped Palestinians with travel documents from other Arab countries, who numbered about 200, to make it home safely.

“Thankfully, we have not had any casualties or missing individuals,” he said.

While surviving the war was the greatest achievement for all the Palestinians who left Ukraine, their dreams and hopes still hang in the balance.

“Although I am a Palestinian, I live the details of the war daily,” said Ma’ali.

“I constantly follow up with my neighbours on what happened to the city which I loved and which had embraced me for four years. I feel that it is my second home.”

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