International Foreign Students’ lives should be a priority as Ukraine Refugees
Since 24th February 2022, and since the Russian military, under the orders of its President Vladimir Putin, initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there has been an outcry on the humanitarian crisis for refugees; homes and hospitals are being bombed, people are being mercilessly killed, and cities are being destroyed. News media platforms are shocked by the outpouring of Ukraine refugees who have not only lost their homes, education and their security, but also are desperate to stay alive.
However, to me what is shocking, is the lack of attention, that amongst the disaster of the war, there is on the racial segregation on International Foreign Students in Ukraine. These include UK citizens, who are fighting for their lives, have lost their hope to achieve their dreamed profession, and are desperate to return home.
I am a UK-born International Medical Graduate from the University of Debrecen, (the second-largest city in Hungary, after Budapest), an International Medical School. I now work under the Core Training Psychiatry programme at the Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust. I passionately advocate for human rights and mental health. I am part of the executive committee for the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Women’s Mental Health Special Interests Group. I am a leader of Geopsychiatry, an NGO (non-governmental organisation) which studies the impact of war conflict, climate change, public health issues, globalisation and foreign policy on mental health. I have written articles, such as the need for women leadership in the UN, and how COVID-19 unmasked the ongoing pandemic of gender-based violence. I have also written two blogs in InSPIre the Mind, on Mental Health of Women and Children in conflict zones: Their Bodies and Health are the Battlefields of War and on Gender-gap in training for Assertiveness: Does it have a place in Psychiatry and in Clinical Practice?
Since the Russian-Ukraine war erupted, causing a surge of Ukrainian refugees, thousands of International Students from Africa, Asia and Middle East are fleeing for their lives, whilst leaving their pursuit for a promising education and career behind.
Ukraine host over 76,000 foreign students; nearly a quarter of that figure are from Africa, with the largest numbers of foreign students originating from Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt. India accounts for over 20,000 students. These students arrived in Ukraine to achieve an education that they couldn’t get in their own home country — studying medicine, engineering and business. Even British-born ethnic minority students went to Ukraine to achieve the education that the United Kingdom couldn’t provide. They are left with uncertainty about their fate of not fulfilling their undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
However, what is surprising to many, but not surprising to me, is the persisted racial treatment at the border, with footage circulating online showing Ukrainian officials and refugees preventing international students from passing through the borders. One Indian student, who hadn’t been able to return home, was killed as he stepped outside to buy food. More reports came to light that international students fleeing Ukraine, are dying by the side of the road from hypothermia and heart attacks, after being blocked and stranded by the Ukrainian soldiers.
Nevertheless, I am irate that there isn’t enough coverage on our current news media on the abhorrent racial mistreatment of these international medical students. In fact, reporters were commenting on their disbelief that “refugees” can be white civilians of neighbouring countries, rather than how the UK-citizen International Medical Students are being attacked and prevented from returning home safely.
And what about the International Medical Students from Asia and Africa, whose only safe route is to pass the European borders, in order to fly back to their native countries? The students are being attacked by nationalists, and are fearing for their own lives. Yet, there is very little coverage on the rise of racial attacks on the ethnic minority groups of international students, who are continuously fearing for their lives as they cross the borders. Everyone is trying to escape a certain death (I describe the little news coverage below).
I was born and raised in the UK, but I ended up studying medicine in Hungary. I had the grades, but my parents encouraged me to study abroad, in hope that I would have the confidence to settle anywhere in the world. Whilst studying in an international medical school, I remember the surreal moments as I entered lecture halls and classrooms. There were students from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the USA, Canada, Australia, as well as those from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. All you could hear were the melodies of multi-languages erupting in the rooms; for me I was nervous that I might not fit in. I travelled alone and ended up living in Hungary for 7 years ( I had to postpone my education due to sickness).
It took me a long time to make friends, but I eventually did, and I wouldn’t change the experience that I had gained by being an international medical graduate. Not only did I encounter close international relationships and friendships, but I know I became stronger, more perspective and confident in my skills. I faced many barriers in my medical school journey, and I came out resilient and assertive in character.
Amongst those barriers was the racial abuse from Hungarian natives and Hungarian officials. You were constantly being reminded that unless you are white (I am actually UK-born Sri-Lankan Tamil), you are treated worse than a stray animal.
I also faced sexual harassment from my Hungarian professors. On one occasion, when I was waiting to scrub into a theatre for my Obstetrics & Gynaecology rotation, I was told by the Consultant how my “boobs look gorgeous” and I should “greet him “Good Morning” by sitting on his lap”. Not only was I humiliated on the ward amongst my classmates, but I was told to just smile and take it. After all, my male classmates, and later some Consultants who I complained to, had said that I am “a pretty exotic Indian” and should “get used to it” (as I have mentioned above, I am actually UK- born Sri-Lankan Tamil, and I SHOULDN’T HAVE to get used to it). These constant sexual harassments aren’t new, and racial segregation happens more often than you think.
Nevertheless, it seemed that raising complaints on racial and sexual harassment fell on deaf ears and so we focused on one main goal: receive our graduate certificates, and return to the safety and security of our home. None of us thought about potential war conflicts from neighbouring countries, or immigration influx through the borders. We must acquire it (education), whether it is at home or abroad.
Psychological Impacts on Trauma and Racial Segregation in War-Conflicts
Only a few times was there news coverage showing how the Ukraine officials are pointing guns at international medical students, being blocked to board at the Ukrainian train stations, being forced to turn around at Poland’s border and being told “ if you are Black, you should walk”. After enduring the bitter cold, no food and walking for three days, to be told that you cannot cross the borders for safety based on your skin colour, it seems the racial segregation mindsets are still prevalent here. However, this is not news to me, as I am all too familiar with this behaviour and language.
United Nations and international embassies are themselves appalled by the racial abuse at these borders; the International Medical Students are either being stranded or killed amidst the Russia-Ukraine war.
Even when these students do return to their home country, the trauma from witnessing the bombings, the racial abuse and the killings will have significant mental health impacts, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It will be imperative to provide these students trauma-care, whilst subsequently coping with the stress on completing their graduation. The loss of faith, the sense of worthlessness and the possibility of starting their education with a huge gap in the academic years. All these factors can contribute to poor mental wellbeing.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have graduated in 2016, and I have been welcomed into the training programme of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. However, I cannot help but wonder if many of our potential psychiatrists are trapped in this war conflict, and what could we do to ensure the safety of these students.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Inspire the Mind continues to be deeply saddened by and concerned about the terrible events in Ukraine and our thoughts and prayers are with the people affected. It is heartwarming to see the kindness and solidarity shown in these frightening times with campaigns such as the JustGiving page from Dennis Ougrin, a psychiatrist who has been delivering medical supplies to those in desperate need. He was interviewed by InSPIre the Mind here.