They came for education and had to run for their lives

Samuel, Eronmonse and Eseohe are typical and modern young people who left their native Nigeria to study at the University of Kharkiv in Ukraine. Their hard-earned academic prospects and very lives were endangered when the Russian Federation launched a war against Ukraine.

Here, Samuel, Eronmonse, and Eseohe share their stories of survival, their feelings and experiences, and their plans undeterred.

Samuel, 23 years old

“On February 24 at 5 a.m., a friend called me,” begins Samuel, 23. “He said there had been explosions. I looked outside, I saw smoke rising. I saw rockets land on nearby buildings. I could see it clearly from my dorm on the eighth floor. I panicked. I called my friend back and told him to go get some food.

Samuel and his friend went down the street looking for an open supermarket. They saw long lines of people waiting for supplies. “Most of the stores were practically empty,” says Samuel. “We managed to buy a few things, get some water from a pharmacy and get back to the dorm. We were charging our phones when they told us to go downstairs. We stayed there until March 02 with chairs to sit on the first day. Later they provided beds, but space in the basement was limited until people left.

It was during this time that Samuel, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student, met siblings Eronmonse and Eseohe. Samuel was the last foreign student in his dorm and communicated with the siblings by phone.

Eronmonse, 20, and Eseohe, 18

Eronmonse, 20, and Eseohe, 18, both came to Kharkiv in May 2021. Eronmonse is a first-year aerospace engineering student and Eseohe a first-year medical student. They chose Kharkiv University because of the quality of studies.

“When I read that Viktor Tolmachev, the chief engineer of the largest aircraft in the world (Antonov An-225 Mriya, destroyed at Antonov airport during the war, author’s note) graduated from the ‘Kharkiv Aviation Institute, I knew I had to go.’ Eronmonse explains with passion.

His sister Eseohe initially sought medical studies in China and Taiwan, but also chose Kharkiv after finding Chinese and Taiwanese universities were not admitting foreign students due to the pandemic.

Eronmonse and Eseohe say they did not expect this Thursday, February 24, to be different from the day before when they went to class. “I stayed up very late on Wednesday,” says Eronmonse. “I had a lot to study and fell asleep in the middle of the night.” The first explosions woke him up, but he didn’t give it much thought.

A friend of Eronmonse ran into his dorm telling him to pack what he can. “My friend said classes were canceled and we all had to go to the basement,” he explains.

Early days

The three, like many college students, occasionally went up to their rooms to cook, charge their phones or call their parents because there was no electricity or cell phone reception in the basements.

“My parents didn’t sleep until I arrived in Romania,” says Samuel. “It affected their health.” Eronmonse adds: “When our father was able to talk to us, he was fine. Our mother… well, let’s say she was under the weather.

Eronmonse remembers a time when he went up to his dorm to cook rice. “My room was on the second floor, so I hadn’t seen the planes overhead. I turned around briefly to grab the salt, and when I looked out the window I saw a fighter jet literally firing. I grabbed my half-cooked rice and ran to the basement. I ate it like that, half-cooked.

“We saw heavy equipment, tanks in the streets. It was very risky to go out, yet we had to. At one time, only the school building had electricity, so we would go there to charge our phones. Once, a friend wanted to charge his phone to 100%. We all wanted to leave and he insisted he stay to fully recharge. When he returned, two missiles passed over his head. It made him change his mind about staying behind to get a full battery,” Samuel laughs, then takes a somber tone: “Two Indian students were killed. One trying to find food and the other in Liberty Square.

“You get used to the sounds,” he adds. “The sound tells you whether the explosion will be near or far. They were always shooting around 5-6 am, just after curfew. So many people have died…”

It is time to leave

“Ruins everywhere. We saw ruins all around us. You feel every explosion. It’s like I still feel it now,” says Eseohe.

Despite the escalating fighting, Eseohe had high hopes that things would improve. “Only they weren’t getting better, they kept getting worse,” she says. “We lacked food, the electricity was cut. An explosion literally cut off our street. This delayed our departure by a full day.

On March 4, Samuel, Eronmonse, Eseohe and eight other foreign students decided to leave together. “I charged my phone to 30% on my laptop. I called my parents, told them we were leaving. Eronmonse and Eseohe had called Samuel earlier and planned to leave for the station by taxi.

“I remember that I had called a taxi on the morning of March 1st,” says Samuel. “But the price was ten times higher than usual. When I called back a few hours later, the price had gone up again. I understand why it was like that because the taxi drivers were really brave and risked their lives to transport people.

When they realized that a roadblock was preventing the taxi from coming, the dormitory arranged for the students to be transported to the station for the next day. “We waited for hours,” says Samuel. “The first train arrived and we couldn’t get on it. Women and children only, they said. Second train – the same, third train – the same. We waited maybe eight hours before finally boarding the fourth train.

Families reunited to flee Ukraine

Eseohe was allowed to board the third train and was separated from the group. The train to Lviv took about 20 hours to arrive. “It was very uncomfortable. We were up all the time because it was so crowded that you couldn’t sit on the floor even if you wanted to,” she said.

Separated as they fled

Eseohe remembers the Kharkiv train station from where they left. “It was packed. Everyone was panicked. And people kept coming. The lines were huge. People run, hold children, stumble. It was very intense. At the entrance, guards shouted “women and children only”. That’s how I got on a train before my brother and Samuel. I wasn’t afraid to do it, but I felt very alone.

Eronmonse and Samuel called friends who had left earlier and arranged for them to help Eseohe in Lviv until they arrived. “I was worried about my sister, but knowing that she was on a train, and then getting on a train myself, I felt that safety was close. The train slowed down as it approached Kyiv. We We were afraid that the 40 mile long line of vehicles that made the headlines would stop us. When we passed kyiv, I sighed thinking that everything would be fine. The train journey took about 30 hours.

Shelter with SOS Romania

The group had agreed to go to Romania, but along the way the other eight students decided to go to other countries. Samuel, Eronmonse and Eseohe continued to Romania entering the country near Baia Mare on 04 March. They stayed there for a week with local volunteers until a car from the SOS Children’s Village Cisnădie came to pick them up.

Brothers and sisters in front of the building of SOS Romania

“Our father works for SOS Children’s Villages as a regional youth empowerment program development advisor for the Eastern and Southern Africa region,” says Eronmonse. “So we knew what to expect, but we got so much more. We haven’t had to cook since we came here until recently,” he says with a smile.

“I had my first real sleep here,” adds Samuel. “Everyone is nice and friendly. It really relaxes us. »

Mental health support

Eronmonse says the traumatic experience doesn’t just go away once you reach safety. “You develop the habit of being unconsciously awake. Noises of people, even natural noises sound like explosions. At first everything around you is foggy and you don’t know where it’s coming from or what it’s all about. works exactly.

Both Eronmonse and Eseohe’s parents advised the three to get professional psychological help. “It really helped me,” Eronmonse says. “I left each session smiling. Now I feel good.

Eseohe says she still has a long way to go: “I’m better now, but I’m not quite well.”

Determination and online studies

Despite their traumatic experience, the three brave young people are determined to continue their education. They have not given up on returning to Kharkiv when the safety and security situation permits. For now, they are continuing their studies online. “I need three to four months before I graduate,” says Samuel. “Then I want to enroll in masters programs somewhere in Europe or North America.”

Siblings discuss the future

Eronmonse and Eseohe say the COVID-19 pandemic has accustomed them to teaching online. “We had a shutdown in college classes for about three weeks, but mostly everything started up online again,” they say. “Most of my teachers are women. They are abroad and have restarted online classes,” says Eseohe, recalling that Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country due to the general mobilization.

“Our schools provided all the material online. I left some notes behind, but I’m not worried because I can find everything online,” says the future doctor.

Uplifted spirits

“The most important thing is that we are safe and healthy,” says Eronmonse. “Our parents are comfortable now and we feel good. The solidarity and generosity of the Romanian people and everyone here at the SOS Children’s Village really helps us – they lifted our spirits.

_____________

Background:

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, more than 200,000 foreign nationals have fled the country, among them young people who have come to Ukraine in the hope of studying.

SOS Children’s Villages Romania welcomes Ukrainian children, young people and families in Bucharest, Cisnădie and Hemeiuş, and is currently strengthening its support and services in all three locations. More specifically, it is planned to:

  • Increase the capacity to accommodate a greater number of displaced persons.
  • Continue to enroll children in preschool and extracurricular education programs, while developing additional educational projects.
  • Establish a community center offering mental health and psychosocial support to refugees who are part of SOS and those who are not part of the organization.

_____________

Canadians who wish to support SOS Children’s Villages emergency response programs are encouraged to Donate to SOS MAYDAY.

Helen D. Jessen