"My grandfather was a pharmacist and my father works in a Delhi government dispensary. It was my grandfather’s dream that I become a doctor... I went to Ukraine to fulfil that dream," said Shivam Chawariya, a 20-year-old student who was in his first year of his course at Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University in Ivano, Ukraine.
Like 18,000-odd Indian students in Ukraine, Shivam’s world turned upside down on 24 February after Russian President Vladimir Putin a "special military operation" in the country.
Visuals of Indians pleading to the Indian government for help have been making rounds on social media. Most of them are students who have gone to Ukraine to study medicine.
Shivam said that he decided to pursue the course in Ukraine because not only the country's course is well-recognised, but also it is relatively cheaper in comparison to private Indian colleges. Many others chose to study in Ukraine for similar reasons.
On 27 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged India's private sector to help produce more doctors. "Today our children are going to smaller countries to study, especially for medical education. They go despite the language barrier. Millions of rupees are going out of the country. Can’t our private sector enter this field in a big way? Can’t our state governments make policies so that India can produce a maximum number of doctors?" Modi said.
Students Reminisce About Better Days, Worry About Future
While their first priority is getting out of the country safely, many worry about their future. There is a lack of clarity among students about whether their classes will be conducted online or will be halted indefinitely.
Shahnawaz Ansari, a 23-year-old student from Odessa, who reached his home in Raebareli on 23 February, said they got a notification that all their classes have been suspended for two weeks. He said, "We have been told that we will continue online classes once the situation gets better."
If things stabilise in Ukraine soon, and universities call them back, Shahnawaz said he would like to return.
"It has always been very peaceful, and Odessa is a beautiful city. We used to study hard till Friday and then go to the beaches, have bonfires, and travel on the weekend. And on Monday, we would get back to our studies."Shahnawaz Ansari, an Indian student in Ukraine
Shivam recounted that it took him some time to get used to the country. He said, "Initially, I was missing my family and at the same time it was very cold so I was getting used to that. I only got accustomed to it and then this happened."
Avishek Suman, a third-year student of Vinnitsya National Medical University, said that he used to enjoy interacting with students from different countries. In his university, Indian, Nigerian, and Egyptian students were in one batch as they were taught in English, while locals were taught in Ukrainian. He has returned to his hometown in Bihar.
"It had always been very peaceful and we had never imagined this. Why should students have to suffer because of politics and war?”Avishek Suman, an Indian student in Ukraine
Sanam Arora, who is working with voluntary group Rescuing Every Distressed Indian Overseas – or Redio, and helping with rescue missions, said that their helpline with calls from Ukraine, has not stopped buzzing. "Right now, our priority is to get them out of the country safely. With regards to their courses, there is little clarity so far," she said.
Why Ukraine is a Popular Student Destination Among Indians
Most Indian students in Ukraine study medicine or allied healthcare courses such as dentistry. MBBS is the most popular course.
Deepak Kumar, who runs MBBS Direct, an Indian agency that prepares students to pursue medical courses abroad, explains the reason Ukraine is a top choice for students studying medicine. He said, "Students are admitted on the basis of their NEET scores – and they are cheaper than private universities in India."
"There are only a limited number of seats in Indian public universities and the private colleges are much more expensive. Ukraine is among the top destinations for students because it is cheaper than most other countries."Rahul from Edu Pedia Overseas, an education consulting service
When students have not qualified for Indian government colleges because of the limited number of seats, they consider either dropping a year, going to a private college, or studying abroad. Medical colleges in Ukraine are cheaper than courses in private universities in India and similar courses in other countries.
Rahul from Edu Pedia Overseas, an education consulting service, said that the six-year course in Ukraine would cost anywhere between Rs 24 lakh and Rs 26 lakh. In an Indian private university, that would cost students around Rs 75 lakh.
In addition, the courses are recognised by international organisations like Medical Council of India and World Health Organisation, and hence, students can come back and practise in India. Rahul added that a majority of them return to the country to practise after their courses, and only a few move to practise in countries such as Canada.
The courses are conducted in English, and the MBBS course takes five years and eight months to complete.
Students Spread Across Different Parts of the Country
Pleas for help have been pouring in from different parts of Ukraine. This is because the medical colleges are spread all over the country.
Some of the Ukrainian colleges with a significant Indian population are:
Bukovinian State Medical University
Vinnitsya National Medical University
Kharkiv National Medical University
Odessa National Medical University
Bogomolets National Medical University
Black Sea National University
Zaporizhia State Medical University
On 26 February, a woman tweeted that her niece and 400 other Indian students are in Odessa, which is home to Odessa National Medical University. She said that Chernivtsi International Airport is the closest airport, but it is 20-30 hours away.
Shahnawaz said, "Some of us decided to leave early while many of our friends did not. When we found out that the situation was escalating, we booked tickets despite the soaring prices, but not everybody could at the time."
He kept receiving news from his friends about the firing and the shelling. He said, "Some of my friends made it to Poland but there are no proper arrangements. They should have been brought back earlier."
When Shivam spoke to The Quint on 25 February, he was getting ready with his classmates to board a Volvo that would take them to Romania, so that they could fly back to India.
Several airports in Ukraine such as Kyiv Boryspil, Nikolaev, Kramatorsk, and Kherson have been bombed, leaving students either stuck in shelters across the country, or trying to travel to the nearest functional airport. On 26 February, India began the evacuation of its stranded citizens, with hundreds returning on Air India flights.