Refugee students witness war dangers their lecturers face

Despite being under bombardment and facing shortages of personnel because of the number of academics joining the army or rescue operations, Ukrainian universities have started online classes for their students, many of whom are scattered throughout the world. But lessons are often interrupted by sirens, shelling and internet outages, and no-one knows how long such classes will be feasible.

Yukti Verma, a third-year medical student of Ukraine’s Ternopil National Medical University, is one of thousands of Indian students who were forced to leave Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

She attends online classes from the safety of her home in Indore in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. She worries about her teachers in Ternopil whose lectures are frequently interrupted by sirens indicating an attack. At the same time, she is anxious about her own future.

“The problems facing the teachers in Ukraine are different from ours. They are facing the horrors of war. They are teaching in extremely difficult circumstances. We can see the anxiety and nervousness on their faces. Their dedication and concern for the students are laudable. We pray for their safety and want the bloody war to end as soon as possible,” Verma told University World News.

The mayor of Ternopil has arranged for the internet to be available in bunkers in the city so that classes can continue even under shelling, according to Verma. “When the sirens sound, our teachers are ordered to rush to the bunkers,” she said.

Worries about the future

While recognising that the efforts of Ukrainian universities to continue teaching are nothing short of heroic, Verma wonders how long they can continue and what the outlook is for the practical components of her medical training.

“Like all other Indian students who have returned from Ukraine, I am worried about my future. Everything is uncertain and unclear. We don’t know what will happen,” Verma said.

“After two months, I will move from the third year to the fourth year. But what will be my future? Will I be able to study further?”

Verma said the students try to talk to the teachers about the situation in Ukraine, “but they mostly insist that we should only talk about our studies, as they avoid discussing unforeseen situations in their country.”

Shubham Jirati, a fifth-year student at Ternopil National Medical University, is also studying online from India using various applications. All students were given a login ID to join the classes held every day from 12.30pm to 6.30pm, Indian time.

Teaching in a war zone

Jirati said sirens indicating the city was under attack could be heard during his class on Monday 21 March. The lecturer told students he would have to suspend the class but promised to return soon. Jirati said after about 15 minutes he came back and resumed the class.

“We understand the difficult situations in which they are teaching us. There are many such teachers who are teaching, sitting away from their families, and they do not even know how long all this will continue. That’s why we fully sympathise with them. It is not easy for anyone to teach sitting in a war zone,” Jirati told University World News.

He said some of the teachers are in Ukraine but others are teaching from neighbouring countries. “They are joining us from different locations,” he said.

The higher education ministry in Ukraine has called for classes to continue even under these difficult circumstances, but students are concerned about the safety of their lecturers. “We do not want them to take classes in this situation,” Jirati said.

As well as delivering their lecture, lecturers are required during the class to respond to individual student queries about a subject because it is not possible to talk to them outside the class, said Jirati.

Many students have concerns beyond the short term. “We do not know when we will be able to return to Ukraine for studies. Besides, the teachers are also not in a position to tell us anything.”

Classes from a washroom

Lakhan Goud, a fourth-year student at Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk State Medical University, said he could see one of his teachers was delivering online classes from a washroom. “Perhaps he was in a neighbouring country and facing accommodation problems,” Goud told University World News.

“It is really commendable that even in the midst of war, our teachers are thinking about us. It is definitely not easy for them because they are teaching us while risking their lives,” he said.

It can be an emotional experience. “We can clearly see the sadness on the teachers’ faces. Many times, while teaching us, tears fill their eyes. We have come back to our own country. Now we don’t have any such problem as we are safe. But our teachers are watching the war [going on] in front of them.”

“We do not want to talk to them about the war there because we think it will be painful for them,” Goud said.

Despite the disruption to internet access, the students said online classes are able to continue through the use of satellite internet, although in some areas of Ukraine this can be spotty and marked by unpredictable disruptions.

According to media reports, shortly after Russia invaded, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX sent shipments of Starlink satellite kits to Ukraine. The kits come with an antenna, a mounting tripod and a Wi-Fi router. Ukrainians use this to connect directly to SpaceX’s network in orbit, with the company having launched about 2,000 satellites to date.

Indian student campaign

Prior to the Russian invasion, India had almost 20,000 students in Ukraine – the largest group of international students in the country. Given the uncertainty of the situation in Ukraine, they are now campaigning to be allowed to continue their studies at universities in India.

The Ukraine government this week announced the cancellation of the mandatory medical licensing examination and said MBBS degrees would be awarded to all final-year students without their having to sit the national licensing examination, known as KROK, which is required for state certification as a doctor in Ukraine. India has said it will allow qualified students to do hospital internships in India.

Students in India have formed an association called the Indo-Ukrainian Student Front in support of their demands to the Indian authorities to be able to continue their medical degrees at home, with demonstrations planned in New Delhi for 24 March.

In virtually every Indian state, students have met officials or the responsible ministers of their respective states. Members of parliament have also been invited to the demonstration.

Front convener Pulkit Pareek told University World News: “We do not know what our future will be. But we want the Indian government to help us so that our future remains secure.

“We are regularly meeting officials to find solutions to our problem.”