When Naeem Hijazi heard the rockets and missiles landing in Kharkiv, Ukraine, he could not believe he was going to have to escape yet another war.
“It was like déjà vu and so frustrating. I escaped Syria to not go through the situation again and I kept thinking, why did this happen?” he tells The National.
There was little time for Mr Hijazi to brood over his bad luck, however. The bombardment was intensifying and he knew all too well how bad the situation could get.
“We know what Russia is capable of, we have experience of it in Syria. They have a scorched-earth policy, so when the war started in Ukraine, I knew quite quickly I had to leave,” he says.
After the Russian invasion began on February 24, Mr Hijazi stayed at a friend’s house for a night before they decided to head for the border the following day.
Escape from Kharkiv
Taking just his laptop, phone, passport and the clothes on his back, he set off on an incredibly difficult overland journey of several days in freezing conditions before reaching Germany, where he is now.
First he had to make it on a train out of Kharkiv to the western city of Lviv.
“We waited for about 14 hours for the train to come and the platform was so, so crowded with people,” he says on a WhatsApp video call.
“Then it took about 30 hours to get to Lviv. It was a really slow train and it kept stopping along the way to collect more people. The train was overflowing.”
He tried to buy some food and water at Lviv station before continuing his journey to the border but supplies everywhere were sparse. Finally finding some juice to quench his thirst, Mr Hijazi set about finding a car to take him to the border. Eventually he found a taxi to make the 20-minute journey at a cost of €150 ($164).
Finding an “insane” queue of cars approaching the border, he left the taxi and continued on foot.
It took him 11 hours to walk the remaining 65 kilometres to the border in bitterly cold conditions with temperatures dropping to minus 15ºC at night.
“It was freezing and snowing all the time. I was sweating but I was also so cold and just shaking all the time,” he says.
After passing through the first border control relatively quickly, the second barrier five kilometres away was “crowded like crazy” and took 24 hours to cross.
“We were standing in this line outdoors, still freezing, no shelter, no food, no water, no toilets. People started to set some of their belongings on fire just to keep warm.
“We didn’t sleep for days and began hallucinating. I saw someone talking to his luggage.
“We all just fled from our houses, from war. It was extremely devastating.”
After eventually passing the second border control, it was all Mr Hijazi could do to keep upright and moving, with his legs numb and blue from the cold.
“I kept falling over. It was extremely awkward and humiliating.
“It took all my will to keep going across to the Polish barrier. As soon as I passed through I collapsed,” Mr Hijazi says. He spent a few hours at one of the refugee reception centres that now line the Polish border.
After recuperating, he jumped on the first bus he could find that was heading towards Germany, reaching the north-eastern city of Cottbus on March 3, six days after he left Kharkiv.
Grateful to have made it out of the war zone alive, Mr Hijazi's search for a stable refuge — which started years ago — was plagued by conflict and rejection.
From war to war: the Syrian refugee's search of refuge
As a teenager, Mr Hijazi, now 24 years old, was forced to leave his home in Syria in 2013 as the war spread and raged through the country.
He and his parents became refugees in neighbouring Lebanon where he continued his schooling but he could not afford the cost of higher education there.
After graduating from high school in 2016, he travelled to Sudan, one of the few countries then offering visa-free travel to Syrians, to study medicine at university in the eastern city of Port Sudan.
Two years into his degree, however, civil strife followed him when in late 2018, street protests erupted and spread, precipitating the Sudanese revolution of 2019.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Mr Hijazi's parents, Sarab and Abdulmajeed, were accepted for refugee resettlement in the UK and moved to Dumfries in Scotland in 2018. Unfortunately, because their son was in Sudan at the time and over 18, he was unable to join them.
Civil conflict, Covid-19 and counter-coups made Sudan an increasingly untenable place for Mr Hijazi to live and safely continue his studies. By 2020, he was seeking a way out, but all avenues seemed blocked.
He moved to Egypt but the universities there would not accept his Lebanese high school certificates. He applied for a visa to study in Ukraine but was unsuccessful. In 2021, he applied for family reunification to join his parents in the UK but that too was rejected by the Home Office.
When his second attempt to get a student visa in Ukraine came through in the latter half of 2021, Mr Hijazi thought his fortune was finally turning but, he says, “I’m very unlucky”.
A week after landing in Kharkiv at the end of December 2021, he fell ill with Covid-19. Just as he recovered and started his enrolment process at the university the war erupted, forcing him to put his studies on hold and putting his life in danger.
“I didn’t even get a chance to explore the city or get to know the people before I had to flee,” he says.
Thousands of kilometres away, his parents, who had not seen their son in four years, saw him on videos sent from his smartphone as he made the long and icy treks across borders.
The all too familiar scenes of warfare in Ukraine were too much for his parents to bear. Fearful of losing their only son to yet another war, they begged the UK government to bring him home.
The family had already lodged an appeal against the UK Home Office’s earlier decision to reject the family reunification application.
The war in Ukraine compounded his parents' desperation to save him and the couple quickly mounted a campaign to get their son to the UK, lobbying their local MP, contacting lawyers, calling the Home Office and launching an online petition.
While they waited, Sarab and Abdulmajeed travelled to Germany to see their son. Sitting next to him on a sofa, Sarab regularly squeezes her son’s arm and looks at his face in loving disbelief.
“I feel like I am in a fairy-tale now that I can finally see my son, I can’t live without him,” she says.
Her smile is particularly wide because two days after landing in Germany, their lawyers told them that the Home Office had reversed its earlier decision on their son's visa to the UK.
“I hope this is a new life for all of us. Ever since we came here we have been fighting, all of this struggle has come to something in the end.
“A lot of people in Dumfries helped me,” Sarab says. “They’ve been so supportive and kind. We really felt that we were in our country and that they are truly our family.”
After years of hoping and waiting, Mr Hijazi will also be part of a family again.