Warsaw, Poland—Life in a refugee camp in Warsaw has left Vera* (surname withheld) without much to do other than reflect on all the war has cost her after she fled Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
After more than three years at a Ukrainian university, she is left with little proof of her hard work and investment in her education but also financial uncertainty back home in her native Nigeria.
“I wouldn’t say my dreams are shattered,” she said. “They’re just on hold.”
In 2019, the Nigerian national, now 24, moved abroad to study international relations at East Ukrainian National University in Luhansk, thanks to nearly $16,000 in savings and money from her family.
“It was no small [effort],” she told Al Jazeera. “[So], It had to be worth it. I had to work hard to succeed.”
A year later, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Vera moved to Kyiv to continue her degree remotely, where she paid for her school fees with money earned as a part-time cleaner.
Before the first bombs fell, she had no plans to leave, until Russian President Vladmir Putin authorised the invasion of Ukraine and shelling began.
At the time, she was just one semester away from graduation and hitting the workforce for a well-paid job. But now, all her work over the last three and a half years seems to have gone, literally, up in flames.
Escape from Kyiv
About 76,000 international students are registered in Ukraine, many from Africa, India or the Middle East. Nigeria accounts for the majority of these students.
Among other reasons, Ukraine provides a cheaper alternative to elsewhere in Europe and Nigerian students also want to escape regular strikes by university lecturers at home, which disrupt lessons.
Like thousands of others, Vera’s escape from Ukraine began when she woke to the sounds of bombing in Kyiv. She packed a small suitcase and began a four-day journey that included struggling to get on packed trains, buses and walking in the cold, all with little food or water.
She travelled with her younger sister, also a student in Ukraine. They kept each other warm when huddled in the cold, at temperatures sometimes as low as -8 degrees.
All of this was made more difficult by the fact that Vera is three months pregnant with her first child and had to flee Ukraine alone, as her husband, a used-car salesman, is back in Nigeria managing their remaining source of income.
She explained that her pregnancy has been difficult. “Carrots are the only thing that I can eat right now,” she said, sitting up in bed to eat her first meal of the day in the middle of the afternoon.
Soon after she crossed the border into Poland she fainted from exhaustion, she told Al Jazeera. She woke up in a Polish hospital near the border with a feeding tube in her neck and after three days of recovery, continued by train to Warsaw, where she found her current shelter.
While Ukrainian women passed through the borders within minutes, Vera said the border officials made her wait more than four hours in the cold to cross. When she reached shelter at a camp in Warsaw, more than four hours away from the border by car, she was given a bed, food and medicine.
She also received legal advice to help her navigate whether she will be allowed to stay or will be forced to travel again.
Dreams on hold
But it is not her long journey that keeps her up at night, she said. It is the financial crisis she may face at home, due to the continuing war.
To pay for her education, her husband first took out a $4,000 loan from a Nigerian loan shark to cover the last semester of her undergraduate degree. The investment was worth it, based on the earning potential from a degree at a foreign university. She and her husband even had plans to move abroad to a more vibrant economy than Ukraine – perhaps Canada or the United States.
To secure the loan, her husband had to put up collateral, so with limited options, he offered the deed to his family’s land back in southern Nigeria, which has been passed down for generations. The land was intended to one day provide a home for them and their future children.
Vera said the value of the land – perhaps as much as $12,000 – far surpasses the loan amount but the heritage of the land and its importance to her husband’s family is priceless.
“It is so hard for me to think about this,” she said, tearing up at the Warsaw refugee centre dedicated to Nigerians fleeing Ukraine. “I cry when I am alone.”
Her family have no idea how they will repay the money, she said, adding that her husband has just two months to pay it or his family’s land will be seized.
Because she is pregnant and a non-European Union citizen without the right to work in Poland, or elsewhere in the EU, she fears that she will have to return to Nigeria with nothing to show for her years of hard work and investment.
“The loan shark doesn’t care if I’m dead,” she said. “He is going to get his money back, one way or another.”
Vera is still seeking other options, such as possibly transferring to another university. The idea of starting all over again, especially when her husband is still in Nigeria and she has a baby on the way, seems too much to bear.
On March 2, the European Commission said it would help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine under its Temporary Protection Directive – a law established following the refugee crises in Europe in the 1990s as a result of the Yugoslav wars. The programme promises up to 18 months’ stay in the EU with access to welfare, jobs and healthcare, and is extendable up to three years.
However it will not benefit international students and short-term visa holders.
Ylva Johannson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, in a March 8 speech, said she was “so proud of how member states were able to get together and make this decision when it was really necessary” before adding the caveat that students and short-term visa holders would be ineligible to seek asylum.
“We welcome them, we help them to evacuate, but they also have to go back to their countries of origin,” Johannson said of short-term visa holders in Ukraine.
For international students like Vera, this means she likely faces forced repatriation to Nigeria.
But Vera says she is uncertain if her future is there. “I left Nigeria because I wanted to find more stability in a better place,” she said. “I worked hard, I became a student, I deserve to be able to continue to reach my goals. I want a future.”