Foreigners Who Made Ukraine Home Stay Put, Despite War

By John Mercury January 1, 2024

It was just three months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, but Marwa Yehea wanted to return to her home in Kyiv.

Ms. Yehea, 31, who is originally from Syria, had fled the Ukrainian capital with her two daughters that February when the war began. In those early days of uncertainty, she was pregnant with her third child, and they spent weeks in Germany.

But she was determined to be back home by the time her son was born. By May 2022, they had returned to Kyiv in time for his birth.

“The war hasn’t ended, and the psychological toll that takes is tiring,” Ms. Yehea said during an interview in Kyiv this summer. “But you get used to it. And us especially, as Syrians who emerged from war — well, here we’re secure.”

In the decades before the Russian invasion, Kyiv had become an increasingly cosmopolitan city, a destination for international students and professionals looking to make their lives in Europe. Before the war, some 293,600 foreign nationals were residing permanently in Ukraine, according to government figures from 2020.

Some have made the unlikely decision to continue living here, even as war grips the country and millions have fled. In some instances, returning to their country of origin is impossible, and they have stayed in Ukraine rather than becoming refugees for a second time. Others are simply unwilling to walk away from the lives they have built in the country.

“We were happy here — our lives here were good, praise God,” said Ms. Yehea, who had been living in Ukraine since 2012. “We’ve lived comfortable lives here.”

International college students have also returned, weighing the value of an affordable education against the risks of war.

Wang Zheng, 23, who is originally from China, had been studying in Ukraine since 2017 and was just starting working toward his master’s degree when the war began. He went back to China and continued his studies online, but returned to Kyiv last spring. His education “is the most important thing,” he said, adding, “I can’t give up.”

Kyiv is where he first met his girlfriend, Wang Danyang, 26, a trained opera singer who is also from China. She returned to Kyiv in July and they moved in together. They want to build their life here, Mr. Wang said.

“I feel like this is my second motherland,” he said.

Some 76,500 foreign students were enrolled in Ukrainian universities in 2020, with the largest percent coming from India.

Two students from that country, Jaanvi, 20, who has a legal single name, and her roommate, Mary Fiona, 22, were studying medicine in Kyiv when the war broke out. Jaanvi had arrived in December 2021, just months before the Russian invasion began, and fled four days into the fighting.

She and other Indian students were told that Ukrainians were being given priority to board trains leaving the city, and she waited for hours. She finally made it to the Polish border, but foreign students again faced delay, an issue that many of those from Asia and Africa recounted at the time.

Ms. Fiona, who had lived in Ukraine for four years, said that she experienced some discrimination in Ukraine before the war, which she described as “painful,” but that overall she had a positive experience living here.

“I love this country, that is why I came back,” Ms. Fiona said.

In January 2023, both women returned to Ukraine, undeterred by the airstrikes.

“If you are going to die, you can die in your house, too,” Jaanvi said. “It is all up to fate. There are bunkers, and Ukrainian people are living here too.”

Ali Saleh, 25, a citizen of Chad who grew up in Saudi Arabia after his family fled civil war, was studying biomedical engineering at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute when Russian forces moved in. He fled to Paris for a few months but returned to Kyiv in early 2023.

For now, Mr. Saleh is focused on studying and working. In his spare time, he loves to cook, but it can be a solitary life — many of his friends decided against returning.

“I came back, and the country wasn’t at its best,” Mr. Saleh said, describing the rolling power cuts last winter and the threat of airstrikes. But he said he hoped that one day he will be able to tell his children and grandchildren about it all.

Zyad Hakim, 24, had spent five years studying mechanical engineering at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute when the war started and was unwilling to simply walk away from the work he had completed.

Mr. Hakim, who is originally from Morocco, returned there at the start of the war but then came back to Kyiv in January 2023 to finish his final semester. He completed his degree this summer and then moved back to Morocco.

“I needed to come here and complete it,” he said in Kyiv, just days before he left. “Otherwise, all of my work would go into the gutter — into the abyss.”

Other immigrants say they are committed to staying for the long run, even as war disrupts their lives.

Abdaljalil Rejee, a Palestinian doctor, has lived in Ukraine for 20 years. He left for Britain with his wife and two children when the war began, but returned to Kyiv in the summer of 2022, eager to get back to work and for his children to return to their routines. In Kyiv, despite the war, their lives have resumed a rhythm of normalcy. They picnic in the park on weekends, spend time with friends at Kyiv’s Islamic Center, and their children are back in school.

“We have choices, but we prefer to be in Ukraine,” said Dr. Rejee, 39. “We know that our future is here, and we will stay.”

Dr. Rejee’s extended family lives in the West Bank, and with war now taking place in Gaza, too, he has worrying about their safety — even as they worry about his. “It is very difficult to see children, women and people in general being killed every day,” he said.

Even some whose life here has not been ideal still say Ukraine is their home.

Abdullah Hossein al-Rabii, 40, who owns a popular restaurant in Kyiv near the Islamic Center, moved there in 2013 after fleeing Syria’s civil war. He serves falafel, hummus, shawarma and other Middle Eastern dishes, and can usually be found at the grill out front, greeting his mostly Ukrainian patrons with a warm smile as the smoke swirls around them.

“I’m not stuck in Ukraine,” he said. “I don’t want to leave.”

But Mr. al-Rabii lives in limbo, as do thousands of other Syrians who came here. They were never given full refugee status by Ukraine, but instead have been afforded “complementary protection,” which is temporary and provides no path to permanent residency.

Mr. Rabii’s Syrian passport has expired, and he hasn’t seen his family in Syria — or left Ukraine — in a decade.

Many Syrians in Ukraine fled elsewhere in Europe when the war began, looking for safety and a more stable future. But Mr. al-Rabii, who is married to a Ukrainian woman, is committed to staying.

“The worst thing is that you were a refugee before, then you fled, and then you could become a refugee again,” he said. “This would hurt the most.”

Daria Mitiuk and Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.


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