Kharkov, Truck, Invasion
Countless refugees are fleeing Ukraine as the war intensifies. Photo credit: Fotoreserg / Depositphotos

The distant thunder seemed at first like only a bad dream. But then Zakaria woke him with the terrible news.

“Russia has invaded Ukraine,” he said.

In the darkness of the early morning hours, the roar of war rumbled. It was the start of the most brutal conflict Europe has seen since the end of World War II.

As tens of thousands of Russian troops began their incursion into Ukrainian territory, Mohammad Alzorqa lay in bed shaking. The 26-year-old had experienced war before — in Yemen. He thought he had escaped it when he came to Ukraine to pursue his graduate studies in graphic design.

But Russia had done what he and many others thought President Vladimir Putin never would. 

Escaping West

In just one week of fighting, over 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. Most have gone to Poland. The number of refugees is only expected to increase as fighting continues.

Most of those fleeing Ukraine are women and children. Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 have been barred from leaving the country. But a sizable number of refugees include foreign students and other non-Ukrainian residents from countries like Nigeria, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Yemen.

At once, Alzorqa began to call his friends. He told them to collect their important documents and devices, and gather at his home in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. 

While the earth groaned under the bombardment of Russian missiles, the group of five friends — one Yemeni and four Moroccans — discussed what to do. Once they decided to stay in Kharkiv, Alzorqa, who had faced the same dilemma with his family several years earlier in Yemen, knew they needed to stock up on food and water.

The grocery store nearby was full of people desperately trying to accomplish the same task. Alzorqa told his friends to purchase noodles, cheese, chips, and other similar foods that could be easily consumed with minimal preparation. 

Mohammad Alzorqa and friends, Poland

Abdulkrim, front left, Zakaria, front right, Mohammad, back left, Hamza, back middle, and Yussef pose for a photo together after finally reaching Poland. Soon after, they would part ways. Photo credit: Courtesy of Mohammad Alzorqa

Back home, they rationed their supplies while the bombing grew fiercer. Then, a friend called. 

“I’m traveling to Lviv,” he told them. “I will not stay in Kharkiv because it’s close to Russia. It’s dangerous. If you want, follow me to Lviv. It’s the safest city in Ukraine.”

With the fighting drawing closer, the group had to make yet another decision that could spell the difference between life or death. Alzorqa opted to leave. His friends, though some were reluctant, decided to join him. 

Leaving behind all the food they had just bought, they took only the clothes on their backs, a few documents, and a handful of other items before climbing into a taxi that brought them to the train station. 

Once there, they found that all of the trains were already full. So they took a bus instead.

That night, they arrived in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city under even heavier bombardment than Kharkiv. Filled with fear, the friends rushed to the underground metro where many local residents had taken shelter from the incessant Russian shelling. Exhausted, they slept on the floor.

The next morning, they attempted to board a train heading west, but all were full. Alzorqa’s family called him on his cellphone and urged him to leave the capital. 

“Don’t stay in Kyiv,” his family said. “The Russians are planning for Kyiv, they are not planning for another city. They want Kyiv and if they take Kyiv, they will take all of Ukraine.”

“You are not children and women,” the drivers told them. “These buses are just for women and children.”

But there was no transportation. Emerging back above ground, the friends began looking for a taxi that would take them to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine near the Polish border. 

The first taxi driver they found demanded $250 (228 euros) per passenger. Not wanting to spend all of their money, they went searching for another driver, but the next one asked for $2,185 (2,000 euros). By then, the first taxi, who suddenly turned into their most viable option, had already found customers willing to pay $300 (274 euros) each. 

Defeated, the friends returned silently to the metro. 

Above ground, Russian bombs and missiles repeatedly slammed into the capital. Alzorqa looked at his friends and everyone began to cry.

“Now we will die,” they thought.

Just then, a loudspeaker voice echoed through the metro. A railway train would soon head from Kyiv to Lviv. People rushed to the station.

“It was the last train of our life,” Alzorqa recalled. “If we didn’t get it, we would die.” 

With everyone pushing and shoving to get aboard the train, Alzorqa felt a selfish survival instinct overtake him. It was so crowded Alzorqa found it hard to breathe. “No place to even put your finger,” he described.

A family with kids stood next to him. Throughout the eight-hour train ride, he took turns with them sitting on the one free seat.

“We don’t feel tired,” the family told him, “because now we will continue to live.”

Troubles at the Border

It was night by the time the train arrived in Lviv. Alzorqa and his friends immediately began searching for transportation to the Polish border. They managed to find buses taking people to Poland, but when they mentioned their nationalities, the drivers refused to let them enter.

“You are not children and women,” the drivers told them. “These buses are just for women and children.”

But Alzorqa said he saw non-Ukrainian citizens, like Israelis, being allowed on those buses.

His group pleaded with the drivers, but they refused to let them on board.

In the past week, a number of foreign students and residents have said they were discriminated against by border officials and others as they attempted to flee Ukraine. Many have noted priority being given to Ukrainian women and children. Others have reported being threatened by border guards.

Unable to find transportation, Alzorqa and his friends switched their efforts to locating a place to stay the night. But every hostel and hotel they checked was full. 

As they sat tired and hungry, one of the buses they had seen earlier returned. This time, the driver allowed them on, but only after allegedly charging them more than double the price paid by Ukranians. At that point, however, the friends didn’t care.

With most seats still empty, the driver informed them that he would not be leaving until morning, but that he would let them sleep on the bus. 

When Alzorqa and his friends woke, they went to buy food and drinks. Upon returning, they found a crowd of Ukrainian women and children attempting to board their bus. Some of the women began to scream at the group of foreigners. One woman kicked Alzorqa.

“Don’t touch me!” he shouted back.

The bus driver watched silently as the young men pushed their way back aboard the vehicle and took their seats.

As the bus made its way to the border, some of the passengers gave Alzorqa and his friends dirty looks and disparaged them in Russian and Ukrainian. When Alzorqa and his friends attempted to charge their phones at charging stations on the bus, other passengers disconnected their devices. 

Once the bus arrived at the border, Alzorqa and his friends waited some 10 hours before entering the processing phase. There, they waited another four hours before finally entering Poland. Still, they were luckier than others who have reportedly waited 24 hours or longer to enter neighboring countries.

During the processing phase, Alzorqa said non-Ukrainian citizens were pulled aside and subjected to a series of questions. Alzorqa’s friends, Zakaria, Yussef, Hamza, and Abdulkrim, all Moroccans, underwent several minutes of questioning while his lasted roughly 15. He described seeing Syrians who were set aside for even longer. Nonetheless, all eventually were allowed to enter Poland.

As he spoke with me on the phone Thursday night, Alzorqa said he did not hold any resentment against Ukrainians for the way he and his friends were treated. He described seeing aggression from both Ukranians and foreigners, including one instance where a Ukrainian woman carrying a child was knocked down.

“It’s a normal thing that they did,” he said, referring to the treatment from Ukrainians. “Even like me, when I wanted to try to enter the train, I pushed and I didn’t care about anyone. We are human and we act this way when we feel in danger.”

With fighting-age Ukrainian men banned from exiting the country, some male foreigners have described facing additional backlash from Ukranians. But Alzorqa said he could understand why some Ukrainians, whose male relatives remained to face the Russian onslaught, would feel resentment. 

“I understand those people on the bus,” he said. “They are not bad people, but they are feeling scared and insecure without their husbands, without their fathers or brothers.” 

Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe, border crossing

People fleeing Ukraine at the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing point, between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, on March 1, 2022. Photo credit: UN Women Europe and Central Asia / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Amid reports of threats and discrimination, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was working with other governments to ensure a safe return of foreign citizens to their respective countries.

“The Ukrainian border guards in cooperation with colleagues from neighboring EU [European Union] countries and Moldova are doing everything possible to speed up the passage of all citizens from Ukraine, and have never created obstacles that would hinder this,” the ministry said in a statement. “In Ukraine, there is no discrimination based on race, skin color or nationality, including when it comes to the crossing of the state border by foreign citizens. The first come first served approach applies to all nationalities.”

“In accordance with international humanitarian law, priority is given to women and children,” the statement continued. “All men, both Ukrainian nationals and foreign citizens, pass checks and check-in operations after women, children and elderly people.”

Poland

Once in Poland, Alzorqa and his friends found a hostel. They had been wearing the same clothes for days with no access to showers. Alzorqa wanted to purchase new clothes, but he didn’t have enough money and didn’t want to ask his family or friends abroad for money either. So he decided instead to shower and then sleep in his underwear.

The next morning, it came time for the friends to part. Two decided to go to Morocco, another two to Italy. Alzorqa would continue by himself to the Netherlands where he would stay with a Yemeni friend.

It was a painful goodbye. They had known each other for years. Over the previous few days, they had relied on one another to escape death. With tears, they said farewell, knowing it might be the last time they would all be together.

“Till now I’m feeling so broken, because they were more than friends,” Alzorqa said. “They were like brothers for four years. They were like my family in another country.”

“It was a bad experience because they were dealing with us like criminals,” he recalled. “They were angry.”

Before reaching the Netherlands, Alzorqa encountered yet another obstacle on his journey. While traveling through Germany aboard a train on March 2, he was approached by police who asked to see his passport. When they discovered that he was Yemeni, he was ordered off the train and directed to a police station along with some 40 other non-Ukrainian refugees.

Alzorqa said that police took photos and collected fingerprints from the refugees and that they were made to sleep on the floor.

“It was a bad experience because they were dealing with us like criminals,” he recalled. “They were angry.”

While most of those inside the station remained quiet, Alzorqa confided in one Libyan man about his frustration with the way they were treated.

“It’s OK,” the man told him. “They have the right to do this and to do that because they don’t know us and we don’t have Schengen visas [to freely travel through the EU].”

Alzorqa found the reasoning weak, noting that Polish authorities had treated him and others better.

When Alzorqa awoke the next morning, he collected his bags and returned to the train station to continue his journey.

By Thursday evening, after several days of travel, he at last made it to his friend’s home. To celebrate, his friend bought him clothes, made him food, and allowed him to sleep on his bed while he stayed on the sofa.

He was safe at last.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, 2017

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv during better times. Photo credit: Francisco Anzola / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Next Step

When Alzorqa first arrived in Ukraine just over two years ago, he couldn’t believe the luxuries that were available to him.

“It was a big shock for me,” he said. 

Alzorqa grew up in Yemen and pursued his undergraduate degree at a private university in the northern city, Sanaa. For several years, he had experienced one of the most devastating conflicts in the world, one that has left hundreds of thousands dead, many due to indirect causes like starvation. He had gone to great lengths to secure passage out of Yemen and study in Ukraine. On his first night in Ukraine, he cried in his hotel room. 

“I remember that I cried because I called my mother and I saw her face and I know that she lives in a bad country with a bad situation and I saw that now I’m in a safe country,” he recalled. “I have electricity, I have water, I have the internet — everything. But my family, they don’t have anything. They just have death. After the call, I thought that I don’t deserve this because I’m Yemeni, I have to live like my family. Why? Why was it just me that had everything? My family has nothing. For one month, for a whole month, I felt like I didn’t deserve that. It’s not my life. It’s for Europeans and other people, but not for Yemenis.”

As we spoke on March 3, he reflected on the heartache that he felt seeing Ukraine attacked by Russian forces.

“My mother told me that she saw on the TV how Ukraine is now, and she cried,” he said. “And I’m the same. I feel like Ukraine is my country, not like Yemen, because Ukraine gave me safety, gave me education. Everything that I want to continue life in a good way, Ukraine gave me that.”

When Alzorqa looks now at the images and videos coming out of the country, he is aghast. He sees the streets that he once walked along, familiar places filled with happy memories, now destroyed. His refuge from the hardships of war has become the latest victim of brutal aggression.

“There is nothing to do because of something stupid that Putin did to Ukraine,” he said. “Everything is damaged. There are people dying, suffering. I think this will continue for more and more years … Ukraine is such a beautiful country with buildings, with trees, parks. And now when you see the photos on TV it’s like Syria, like Yemen. That beautiful city — in just seven days it became like this. After one month or one year, what will happen?”

The Yemen foreign ministry estimates that up to 600 of its citizens and their families resided in Ukraine before the Russian invasion. During Alzorqa’s journey, he encountered a number of other Yemenis fleeing to European countries.

Unlike many foreigners, returning home is virtually impossible for Yemenis due to the country’s ongoing civil war.

Destroyed house, Sanaa, Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian–led war in Yemen began on March 26, 2015. Photo credit: Unkown / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Alzorqa recently graduated from the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Fine Arts and was working as a model, photographer, and freelance graphic designer before the Russian invasion. As he made his way into Western Europe, he told officials that he was still a student and would return to Yemen to wait for the chance to go back to Ukraine.

But he now sees the opportunity for a better life in Western Europe. He plans to apply for asylum soon, though a proposal by the European Union Commission to grant temporary protection status to refugees — both Ukrainian citizens and noncitizens alike — could afford him and other Yemenis the rights to housing, education, medical care, and the labor market without needing asylum status.

What could prove more troubling for Alzorqa is that the original copies of his school documents, from Yemen and Ukraine, remain at his university in Kharkiv, a fact that he has hidden from his father in order not to worry him. 

Despite such challenges, Alzorqa remains optimistic. Since arriving in Europe, he has provided information and assistance to at least 20 other Yemenis stuck inside Ukraine. Most have made it out of the country, he said, though he fears some remain.

Over the past week, volunteers from around the world have rallied to assist foreign students and others trapped in Ukraine with campaigns like #AfricansinUkraine. Group chats on Telegram, the primary messaging app in Ukraine, have sprung up to provide news, assistance, and information.

One group of volunteers banded under #YemenisinUkraine has located and assisted more than 80 Yemeni students fleeing to Western Europe by facilitating transportation and housing. Recently, they began raising funds to provide even more support and thereby fill in government shortcomings.

“I think it’s really embarrassing the efforts of the embassies, but in Yemen’s case, I mean, they tried their best,” said Reem Jarhum, one of the volunteers and the social media lead at Yemen Discussion Board, a non-profit organization. “We know for the Yemeni embassy, they don’t have the funds to actually help.”

On Monday, Yemeni officials helped 22 of their citizens enter Poland and Romania, but the lack of funds available to assist Yemenis highlights their particularly dire situation. 

While Ukrainian nationals are entitled to 90 days of visa-free access in the EU, Yemenis entering Poland are only allowed 15 days in the country. They now face the difficult challenge of determining where to go next. The civil war in Yemen makes returning home a terrifying option.

As such, they are left with only a few options: applying for asylum or obtaining visas to places like Egypt, a country where many Yemenis live.

“I know all the students,” said Azal Al-Salafi, a lead organizer of the #YemenisinUkraine campaign and research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center, an independent think tank.

“They don’t want to go back to Egypt, they don’t want to go back to Yemen, and they certainly as well do not want to apply for asylum, but if this was their last option, I think they would take it,”  added Al-Salafi, who is also a migration expert and protection and advocacy officer.

“I know all the students, they don’t want to go back to Egypt, they don’t want to go back to Yemen, and they certainly as well do not want to apply for asylum, but if this was their last option, I think they would take it,” said Azal Al-Salafi, one of the volunteers and a research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center, an independent think tank.

As Yemenis continue to flee Ukraine, Jarhum and fellow volunteers plan to continue providing support and raising funds. Late Wednesday, she said they were providing accommodations for 51 students in Poland. 

“Like everyone else in Ukraine, these are people who have had their lives completely upset,” said Adam Baron, another volunteer. “In other cases, people can repatriate. Yemenis, where are they going to go? Where are they going to repatriate to?”

Amid the chaos and desperate attempts to flee the war, Baron noted, many, like Alzorqa and his friends, took very few belongings with them and lack sufficient funds to buy replacements.

So far, Yemenis have received help from Poles and the Yemeni diaspora across Europe, Baron added. But the question of what comes next is worrisome for all, especially students who had been studying in Ukraine on scholarships.

From Russia With Hate

“Even those who have reached safety still lack anything resembling a permanent solution,” Baron said. “It’s hard to imagine this conflict coming to a tidy conclusion any time soon.”

Once more, many Yemenis have found their lives uprooted by war. Once more, they must figure out a new course, a new future.

“War is following you,” Alzorqa’s father joked with him while speaking by phone recently. “Maybe now war will also come to the Netherlands because of you.”

Putting aside the morbid humor, Alzorqa said he was ready for a future without war. 

“That’s enough for me,” he said. “Really, it’s enough for me to feel this again and again.”


Author

  • Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist writing about Asia and the Middle East. He has covered US politics, military affairs in the Indo-Pacific, and economic and political crises in Lebanon