‘Hiding in basements’: Thousands of Lebanese trapped in Ukraine

KYIV (Agencies): Ali Chreim’s phone has been ringing non-stop. “Good morning, what’s the situation where you’re at? We slept underground and we heard sounds,” a Lebanese student in Ukraine tells him in a voice message, trying to hold back her tears. “We’re so exhausted. My body is shaking.”
A Lebanese university professor who has lived in Kyiv for 33 years, Chreim said thousands of his compatriots trapped in Ukraine are trying to leave, as Russian forces continue to bombard the country. “We have Lebanese families with two or three-month-old babies who recently emigrated because of the economic crisis,” he said, referring to his country’s financial woes. “We’re trying to send them food.”
Chreim heads the Lebanese Community in Ukraine, a diaspora group in the country. He said there are some 4,500 Lebanese living in Ukraine, of whom about 1,300 are students. Some are barely 20 years old. “They didn’t live through [Lebanon’s 1975-1990] civil war or through the wars with Israel,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like and they’re horrified.”
Some students have posted videos on social media, appealing to the Lebanese government to help them evacuate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address on Friday morning that 137 people, both civilians and military personnel, have been killed and hundreds more wounded since Russia launched its multi-pronged attack in the early hours of Thursday.
Lebanon’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it would form a crisis team composed of ministerial officials and the Lebanese ambassadors of Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Romania to “exchange information and propose next steps that need to be taken”. The ministry also set up a signup form and hotline for Lebanese in Ukraine. Lebanese trapped in Ukraine told Al Jazeera the country’s embassy has either not responded to their calls or said there was nothing they could do.
“Two weeks ago, the embassy told us word for word, ‘Your government is very poor now and can barely feed themselves, how do you expect anything from this government’,” said a medical student in Kyiv, who did not want to share her name, fearing reprisals. The student lives with five other Lebanese students in the capital, all between the ages of 23 and 25.
After an “overwhelming” night where they heard the sound of explosions, they decided to pack up and drive westward towards Poland. They left their home early in the morning, but have been stuck in traffic for hours. “We’re not angry [at the Lebanese government],” she said. “We’re disappointed, but not surprised by our government.” Lebanon’s government is nearly bankrupt amid a deepening economic crisis that has decimated the Lebanese pound by about 90 percent and has pushed three-quarters of the population into poverty.
Meanwhile, Hassan Fahs, a 20-year-old medical student in Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border, said his university has been speaking to Romanian authorities to see if they could evacuate their students. Fahs said that while the situation was relatively calm in the western city, tensions were rising.
“Today I saw a gas station with a full line,” he said. “I even saw many people on bus stops with their bags, which never happens around here. Even most taxis were full,” he added. “I also tried contacting the Lebanese embassy in case of an emergency to register my name in there and all I got in the phone call was simply, ‘Please email us, goodbye’.” He said his email has gone unanswered. His United States-based brother was able to get in touch with the embassy, and was told there is still no clear plan and advised Fahs to stay at home.
Lebanese officials at the foreign ministry and in the embassy in Kyiv did not respond to numerous inquiries from Al Jazeera. One designated spokesperson only shared the link to the signup form. Chreim urged Lebanon’s government to act quickly, especially since there are Lebanese living in eastern parts of the country including Dnipro and Kharkiv. “They’re hiding in basements,” he said, shaken and angry.
He has been trying to secure food and transportation for them, and is outraged that the embassy is not doing that themselves. “They have a budget. Who is this money for?” Chreim said. “The embassy should call on all Lebanese to head to the embassy to be taken care of.” For many, the professor has become something of Lebanon’s de facto ambassador to Ukraine – and he said he would not leave Kyiv. “It’s getting scary here, but I can’t flee and leave all these people.”
Meanwhile, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s half-hour speech declaring war on Ukraine, Annora Omolu, a Nigerian undergraduate at Kyiv Medical University heard a small blast by the window of her apartment. The blast startled the 20-year-old who started simultaneously shaking and praying. In the days before Putin’s speech, she had been calm because everything in Kyiv had seemed normal. But as she remained glued to the television, her calmness quickly gave way to crippling fear.
“I don’t even know right now [how I feel] because I cannot think,” she told Al Jazeera. “I’m literally shaking.” At daybreak, she tried to book a flight to Lviv in western Ukraine, some 469 kilometres from the capital, to join other Nigerians there and cross to Poland. But the Ukrainian government had shut down its airspace.
Confused and scared, she began to reach out to the Nigerian embassy in Ukraine for assistance. “Can they send us flights?” she asked. Over the last two decades, Ukraine has emerged as a choice destination for African students, especially those in medicine-related fields, because it is cheaper compared with elsewhere in Europe, and the United States. Even during the Cold War era, students of African descent were given scholarships to study in different states across the Soviet Union as the communist enclave sought to increase its soft power in Africa.
An estimated 4,000 Nigerians were studying in tertiary institutions across Ukraine in 2020, according to data from the government – the highest number of African nationals there, along with Morocco. Ahead of Russia’s invasion on Thursday, more than a dozen European and Asian countries were urging their citizens to leave Ukraine. The United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and other countries have evacuated members of their diplomatic staff and their families. But even after the invasion, no African country has announced concrete plans for the evacuation of its citizens.
Morocco, as well as Egypt, which also has a high number of citizens studying in Ukraine, have only urged them to ensure their personal safety. ‘’Many of the African governments do not simply have a sense of responsibility to their citizens,’’ Ibrahim Anoba, a fellow at US-based Center for African Prosperity at the Atlas Network, told Al Jazeera.
Nigerian student unions in Ukraine said they made several calls to the Nigerian embassy in Kyiv without getting a response. ‘’There has been no embassy response,’’ Anjola Ero-Phillips, president of the Nigerian Students Union in Lviv, told Al Jazeera. ‘’All they say is check the website and the last update on the website is January 26. Everybody is absolutely on their own,’’ he said.
Al Jazeera called one of the embassy representatives who said it had to get Abuja’s approval to be able to initiate any form of evacuations. A statement released by the embassy on Thursday simply urged Nigerian nationals to “remain calm but be very vigilant and be responsible for their personal security and safety”. “Should any of Nigerian nationals considers (sic) the situation as emotionally disturbing, such nationals may wish to temporary relocate to anywhere consider (sic) safe by private arrangements,’’ the statement added.
Nigeria’s lower chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives, tweeted that it would “shoulder the immediate evacuation of Nigerian students from Ukraine” and that the chair of its foreign affairs committee would fly into Ukraine on Friday, but did not outline the details of its plan. In September 2019, after a week of xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg, the South African capital, authorities arranged for 600 Nigerians to be airlifted home.
Geoffrey Onyeama, the country’s foreign affairs minister, told the state-run Nigerian Television Authority that willing and ready students would be evacuated as soon as the airports open. “The advice we were getting was that we should not panic, the embassy was in touch with the students telling them to take reasonable precautions,” he said. According to Onyeama, the government was undecided given Russia’s position about not initially invading Ukraine and intelligence reports from the US and the U.K. that an invasion was imminent. “It was very difficult to take a definitive position with regards to advising everybody to leave,” he said.
Aanu Adeoye, London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation Academy Fellow at Chatham House, who researches Africa-Russia relations, told Al Jazeera that a number of supposedly “first-world” countries also lacked mass evacuation plans for their citizens. But “I think where Nigeria has not covered itself in glory is that their communication has been muddled”, he said. “They basically have not had a unified message to Nigerians,” Adeoye added. “Even something as basic as having a functional website, that just shows a lack of strategy.”
In Ukraine, Nigerian students remain unsure of whatever comes next. They have continued to express grievances with the embassy, accusing the authorities of neglecting their concerns even though they say they already have low expectations. “From experience, I don’t think we can count on [the] Nigerian government to do anything,” Owolabi Gbolahan, former President of Nigerian Students’ Union in Ivano-Frankivsk told Al Jazeera. His tenure coincided with the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, when he accused the government of neglecting Nigerian students as other countries were evacuating their citizens from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Omolu is desperate to return to Nigeria or even get to Lyiv first but remains trapped in Kyiv where she cannot even move about. “I am just tensed [but] thinking of a plan to leave,’’ she said.