Ukraine war leaves Indian students stranded and desperate to finish degrees

Shishupal Rozen’s dream of becoming a doctor was blown apart on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine.

The fourth-year medical student was training at Kharkiv’s largest university when Russia unleashed some of the war’s fiercest bombardment on Ukraine’s second city.

Rozen took shelter from the barrage in the Studentska metro station, which reminded him of photos he had seen of London during the second world war.

Under Operation Ganga (Ganges), New Delhi organised the mass evacuation of Indian students, who numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 before the war, into Romania, Hungary and Poland. Rozen managed to cross into Poland in March, and from Warsaw flew home on a government-organised evacuation flight.

“When we arrived in Delhi, there were lots of ministers greeting us,” said Rozen, 23. They did everything so that we would reach safety after we crossed the Ukrainian border.”

But more than five months later, Rozen is living at home with his family in a village near Patna, in India’s north-eastern Bihar state. He recently finished his semester online. But local authorities do not recognise online training for aspiring doctors so he is trying, fruitlessly, to secure a spot at a medical college in India.

“We came from a war zone to fight another war,” Rozen said. “This time, our future is at stake, and the Indian government is in mute mode.” 

Rozen is just one of thousands of Indian students whose education has been suspended and are demanding that the Indian government and medical authorities help them.

Since fleeing Ukraine, students have staged protests, including a recent hunger strike in New Delhi. They have petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials to support and have asked authorities to accommodate them at domestic medical colleges so they can complete their degrees.

The students’ complaints are unusual in that they come from a young, largely middle-class and upwardly mobile demographic, where support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party is widespread.

India needs medical personnel but criticism of the government has been subdued in a country facing myriad economic and social challenges.

“The students are from different parts of India and concerted action among them is difficult in terms of waging a long and effective protest that might make a difference,” added Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden and frequent critic of the Modi government.

The plight of the students was raised recently in India’s parliament.

“We have been in touch with educational authorities in Ukraine in this context,” Meenakshi Lekhi, culture minister, said in response. “The Ukrainian side has essentially reiterated its willingness to continue online courses.” She did not address the issue of accommodating students at Indian institutions.

Before the war, Indians were the largest group of foreigners studying in Ukraine, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total.

Ukrainian medical schools offer courses in English, which were a popular alternative for Indians unable to secure spots in their country’s ferociously competitive state colleges or pay for a private institution.

Akash Raj, 19, a second-year student at Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University in western Ukraine, was woken by a phone call on the morning of the invasion. “My friend called and said there was a bomb blast in a nearby airport and when we woke up we saw a black cloud over it.” 

The Indian embassy told students to leave, he said, and he took a bus towards Romania. After an eight-hour trek on foot and an overnight wait in sub-zero temperatures, he managed to cross the border, and then fly to Delhi.

Back in India, Raj returned to his family home in Gurgaon near Delhi, where he follows online classes from Ukraine. “I am not happy because I very much like offline classes,” he said.

His father, RV Gupta, a medical engineer, belongs to an association of parents of evacuated students, which has petitioned the government and courts for redress for their children and staged several protests.

“What we were expecting was that the government would think positively and would accommodate all the students in India,” Gupta said, “But they didn’t.”

Medical students returned from Ukraine protest in New Delhi in July to demand the government allow them to complete their studies at state universities
Students are demanding that the government allow them to complete their studies at state universities © Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times Images/Getty Images

A senior Indian official told the Financial Times that the matter was being dealt with by respective state governments. “As far as the central government is concerned, extant rules on medical studies — admissions, qualifications, eligibility criteria, etc — have to be followed and adhered to,” he said.

Authorities have pointed out that admission requirements and medical practitioner standards were always tough for foreign-trained doctors, whether from Ukraine or elsewhere.

Thousands of Indian students studying in China have also returned home since 2020 because of Beijing’s draconian Zero Covid policies.

Last month, India’s National Medical Commission said it would allow medical students who had completed their degrees before being forced to leave Ukraine, China or elsewhere to sit screening tests that would allow them to practise medicine.

However, the measure did not cover students whose courses were interrupted midway, as with the majority of students who had to evacuate, including Rozen.

Despite the obstacles, he hopes to return to Ukraine after the war to complete his course. “I think one day it will happen,” he said. “I can move hell or heaven to become a doctor.” 

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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