After week of terror to leave Ukraine, North African students rejoice at rescue

Co-ordinating on Snapchat and Instagram, students band together to make it home

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By nightfall on the first night of the war, Anass, a radio engineering student from Safi, Morocco, was shivering in the metro station being used as a bomb shelter just a few metres from his apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Above the sound of the air raid sirens he could hear the shelling as Russian forces pummelled the city, but it sounded far enough away.

“I wasn’t wearing warm clothes since we’d just hurried straight to the shelter, and I thought, I’ll just run home and grab my parka, maybe a pillow if we’re going to spend the whole night here,” he said.

But as he made the mad dash up 10 flights of stairs to his apartment, he was stopped in his tracks by a group of heavily armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms.

“I didn’t know if they were Ukrainians or Russians, if they were going to shoot me or let me go.”

They told him he had five minutes to get his documents, money and clothes and get out – the beginning of a harrowing, weeklong journey out of the besieged city and to safety in Romania.

After more than a week of dodging shelling and gunfire, hiding in underground bunkers and packing on to evacuation trains and buses, Anass and thousands of students from across the Maghreb who had been studying in Ukraine are finally making their way home.

On Thursday night, he and more than 300 other students landed at Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport to tearful reunions with family and friends.

Among them was Chaima, who was preparing for a critical exam for her third year of medical school in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro when the war broke out. In the crowded lobby of a hotel near the Bucharest train station, she told The National that when the shelling started “it was a disaster, I couldn't even think ‘what should I do? What are the steps I should take?’”.

She rushed to the shops to buy food and water, before starting to make plans to flee on an evacuation train to a city near the Romanian border.

Like many others, Chaima relied on social media to co-ordinate with other Maghrebi students trying to get out. Friends and strangers shared information about train schedules, border crossings, and embassy contact information on Telegram channels or Instagram stories to help the more than 10,000 North African students in the country flee.

Mouloud Addouche, an Algerian Instagrammer in Paris, who gained a large audience for his breezy travel vlogs, used his 310,000 followers to solicit and share evacuation information for Maghrebi students.

“Okay team,” he started each dispatch, before relaying the latest insights on which border crossings were least crowded, which of the North African embassies were active, and sharing footage from those inside the country of long lines at train stations, crowds at border crossings and the long walks many were undertaking to get to safety. Each post includes the message “partager maximum” – share to the max – and his followers are obliging.

Even those in the midst of the crisis took time to document and share what was going on around them. Anass posted photos and videos to Snapchat of the jam-packed evacuation train out of Kharkiv – people attempting to catch a moment’s sleep on top of piled suitcases, huddled three or four to a bunk, crammed into the aisles with dazed children and pets and nowhere to rest.

He also documented the destruction visible on the way out of the city, and captured the sound of shelling and gunshots in one video. “It was surreal, like a moment from a film,” he said.

“My Ukrainian friends keep sending me messages, telling me that the Russians are shooting anyone they find now – soldiers, civilians, it doesn’t matter – it’s a nightmare.”

Foreign students escape from Russian invasion of Ukraine

Foreign students escape from Russian invasion of Ukraine

Once Anass and Chaima made their way to Romania, volunteers and their embassy stepped in to assist.

“There were so many who helped us, people offered us food and warm clothes and everything,” said Chaima. “Once we reached Bucharest our embassy was ready to take us to hotels.”

But not every country has made the exodus as smooth. After early evacuations of several hundred students on military planes, the Tunisian government has struggled to co-ordinate with those still fleeing the war. The foreign ministry estimates there are 1,700 Tunisians living in Ukraine, most of them students.

Aymen, a Tunisian studying in Kyiv, said in a voice memo that after a four-day journey by train, bus and on foot he was able to cross into Poland, but was unable to get details about an evacuation flight.

Russia has agreed to humanitarian corridors, Ukraine says

Russia has agreed to humanitarian corridors, Ukraine says

“I called our embassy, but they said they can’t give me any information yet.” He plans to buy his own ticket home.

Others are stuck in besieged cities with no assistance to flee.

Anas Chtioui, a Tunisian student in the north-east border city of Sumy, posted a desperate plea to Instagram saying he and a group of Tunisian students were trapped in the city and unable to make contact with Tunisian officials.

“The city is encircled by the Russian forces, me and 14 other Tunisian students are stuck and we do not know what to do,” he wrote.

For those who managed to flee, reunions with family and friends are joyful, but bittersweet. The uncertainty of interrupted studies, the lives and friends they leave behind, are ingrained in their minds.

“Leaving Ukraine was like leaving home,” said Chaima. “From the very first day they took us in and welcomed us, and now seeing people there suffering and staying in shelters is breaking my heart.”

Ghaya Ben M'barek contributed reporting from Tunis

Updated: March 04, 2022, 1:22 PM