I am going back to Ukraine to study
Meandering through the bustling traffic in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, Oyewumi Azeez Olawale makes his way to a visa appointment.
Just a year ago, the Nigerian medical student was scrambling to find safe passage out of Ukraine after the Russian bombardment began on 24 February.
But with other studying options effectively closed off, he returned to Ukraine later in the year for another term. Now, he wants to travel there again.
“I am going back to Ukraine because I need to finish my final year, sit my exams and collect my certificate,” said the 28-year-old.
“There are no options for me in Nigeria,” he added.
Ukraine was home to more than 80,000 foreign students in 2020, nearly a quarter were from Africa.
Some are considering returning to Ukraine as they struggle to find somewhere to finish their studies.
For Mr Olawale, the choice was easy.
In July 2022, the Nigerian Medical and Dental Council (MCDN) said it would no longer accept degrees from Ukrainian universities awarded online. It was a move that Ghana’s medical council copied two months later.
“I needed to finish my degree in person,” Mr Olawale said.
He was fortunate that the place where he was studying was a long way from the frontline.
Mr Olawale is in his final year at the National University in Uzhgorod, which has been largely shielded from the destruction of the war as it is in western Ukraine near the border with Slovakia.
“My city is safe and it’s the best option for me,” Mr Olawale told the BBC.
Others have not been as lucky.
Jessica Orakpo was initially stuck in Ukraine when the invasion started
Ukraine was a hotspot for those seeking affordable education in Europe, known for its straight-forward visa processes, low tuition fees and high standard of schooling.
After spending years saving up for their degrees, returning home empty-handed was simply not an option for many students.
But finding a new country to finish their studies has not been easy.
Jessica Orakpo, the Nigerian medical student whose experience of racism while trying to flee Ukraine last year gained widespread coverage, is among those considering returning.
She initially fled to Hungary and then moved to the Netherlands where she now lives with a host family.
Her temporary visa expires in a month unless she gets a skilled job.
Having graduated in 2022, she is now a qualified doctor, but says job hunting without Dutch language skills has been a challenge.
“My only options are to stay here or go back to Ukraine.
“Some people say: ‘Why don’t you just go back to Nigeria?’ But they don’t understand, that’s easier said than done,” Dr Orakpo said, citing the country’s worsening economic and healthcare systems.
“I have a goal in life, I want to practise medicine,” she said, adding that the security situation in Nigeria makes that a challenge.
Getting a visa to return to Europe would be near impossible if she returned to Nigeria as having lived outside the country since 2016 she has no permanent address or bank account, she said.
Like many Nigerian medical students, Fehintola “Moses” Damilola, who had been studying in Sumy near the Russian border, struggled to continue his classes online, especially after the authorities said an online degree would not be recognised.
“We’ve all been scrambling since then,” Mr Damilola said.
“I don’t want to go back to Ukraine right now,” he explained. “The experience of being stuck in Sumy as the bombardment began and the difficulty in getting out was very traumatic,” he added.
Nevertheless, Mr Damilola knows of Indian students who have returned as final exams are approaching.
Last year’s exams were waived because of the war. But this year, the Ukrainian exam authority has said that the exam will be held in person in Kyiv on 14 March.
Attending means signing a wavier to “accept all safety risks”, read the email to students.
An alternative option is available for those “who do not want to return to Ukraine” in the form of “140 computer testing centres all around the world”, although timelines for that are still unclear.
“Realistically, we don’t have many options,” Mr Damilola said.
“The test centres in other countries do not seem feasible right now, so a lot of us are thinking about going back.”
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says almost eight million people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring European countries.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported 625,000 non-Ukrainian nationals were among them, but warned that some people may have been counted twice.
Waves of students have spent months migrating around the continent looking for a safe country to complete their degrees.
Many have become entangled in complex bureaucracy.
Enrolling into another university often means a tough visa process, language requirements and high tuition fees as many scholarships are reserved for Ukrainian nationals.
“European governments have welcomed Ukrainians with open arms,” said Nine Fumi Yamamoto of BIPoC Ukraine, a Berlin-based organization helping people of colour fleeing the war.
“But third-country nationals fleeing the same war haven’t been so lucky,” she said.
The European Union offered unprecedented rights and freedoms to Ukrainians when it activated its Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time in history.
The law offers those eligible a residence permit and access to education and the labour market.
‘Nowhere to go’
The EU says this includes third-country nationals who “are unable to return in safe and durable conditions to their country”.
It says TPD visas have been issued to four million people fleeing the war, 200,000 of which are for non-Ukrainian nationals.
But many charities and grassroots organisations say the situation on the ground is different.
“We’ve seen people who have been living in Ukraine for 10 years be rejected. Some can’t return to their home countries and have nowhere to go. They left their papers behind during the war,” Ms Yamamoto said.
“The students have fallen through the cracks of the TPD, many can’t return home and just want a safe place to finish school.”
Andrew Awuah, a final-year Ghanaian medical student, has been working round the clock to finish his degree in Germany.
“I do my classes online, clinical rotations on my days off and German language classes in the evenings,” he said.
The straight-A student, who was on track to finish top of his class, has even published a research paper on the war’s impact on the health of international students.
“I only have five months left to go and I just don’t want my degree to go to waste,” he said, when asked about returning to Ghana.
Falling outside the scope of the TPD as the authorities say he could return to Ghana, Mr Awuah missed out on a six-week scholarship programme to Harvard. He has to stay in Germany as part of his temporary visa terms.
“I consider myself lucky” he said, as he has found a clinical rotation at a German university.
As some students contemplate returning to Ukraine, others, like Victoria Osseme, never left.
The Nigerian national calls herself “the only black female in Kharkiv, Ukraine”.
After undertaking two degrees, and spending nine years in the country, she said she “became Ukrainian”.
“I could not leave them in such a hard time,” she added.
“I had to support them and the best way to do that was to stay, to share in their pain.”
She has been posting her experience on social media since April 2022 and says she has had a positive response from Ukrainians for her solidarity.
“My family and friends are also proud of me for staying behind and representing Nigeria.”
She has battled through cold, bomb threats and wounds from broken windows during her time.
But while many students may not be so loyal to Ukraine some, who have not been able to get visas to stay elsewhere, are starting to find that returning, despite the war, is the only viable option left.