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Afghan Students, Refugees Scramble For Safety Amid Intensifying Ukraine War

Afghan refugees and Ukrainian citizens evacuated from Kabul arrive in Kyiv in August 2021. 
Afghan refugees and Ukrainian citizens evacuated from Kabul arrive in Kyiv in August 2021. 

Ripples of Afghan immigrants, refugees, and students have for decades sought shelter in Ukraine to flee various cycles of war in their country.

But now many of them are trying to escape Ukraine to avoid getting caught in the Russian invasion that has targeted cities across the country.

With the Taliban not being internationally recognized and having no diplomatic presence in Ukraine, most Afghans have to leave on their own or with the help of countrymen.

Abdul Rab Bayani arrived in Kyiv on a Ukrainian military plane with hundreds of other Afghans during the chaotic evacuation from Kabul after the Taliban seized the city in mid-August.

He had been living in an apartment in Kyiv since then.

But last week, some Russian rockets landed in his neighborhood.

"The situation here is horrible," he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. "We are afraid that if the fighting intensifies we will not be able to contact anyone."

An apartment building damaged by shelling in Kyiv on February 26.
An apartment building damaged by shelling in Kyiv on February 26.

Bayani is now on the move again. He says he began heading toward the Romanian border some 600 kilometers south of Kyiv.

"We have left Kyiv because my children were terrified by the explosions," he said. "But the border is so far. Most of the Afghan refugees I know have already left or are getting ready to leave soon."

Kabir Nazari, another Afghan refugee, was happy to be evacuated from Afghanistan to Kyiv six months ago. He was the head of Interpol at Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport and feared Taliban reprisals for his work. Nazari thought his family would be safe in the Eastern European city of some 2.8 million.

But he left Kyiv last week for the Polish border after rockets hit a nearby building. After a two-day journey that involved hitchhiking, a train, and bus journeys, he reached Berlin on March 1.

"We were all miserable, whether Afghan refugees or Ukrainians," he told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on February 27.

But others have not yet reached safety.

Hina, a pseudonym for an Afghan university student, says she arrived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv a decade ago. Since then, Ukraine’s second city had become a home for her immigrant family, including her sister, two brothers, and parents.

She told Radio Azadi that after a 32-hour train journey, she and her sister made it to Poland. "We had to beg the train and security staff in Kharkiv to let our father accompany us," she said. They now want to join their mother and two brothers in Germany.

Unlikely Destination

Ukraine first attracted a sizeable number of Afghans educated in the former Soviet Union after its pro-Moscow socialist government collapsed in 1992.

In the subsequent decades, Afghans continued to find refuge in the country.

Afghan evacuee Jawed Ahmad Haqmal (right) and his family relax in their Kyiv hotel room.
Afghan evacuee Jawed Ahmad Haqmal (right) and his family relax in their Kyiv hotel room.

Ukrainian forces evacuated several hundred vulnerable Afghans after the collapse of the government six months ago. More than 300 were still waiting to be granted asylum by various Western countries before the onset of war last week.

For some Afghans, even leaving Ukraine does not guarantee the end of their misery.

Naveen, an Afghan immigrant who didn't want to give his last name, has been living in the southern seaport city of Odesa for six years.

As the Russian invasion gripped the city on February 26, he decided to escape to Romania, some 500 kilometers away. The journey was arduous and took more than 26 hours. "Thousands of cars were stuck on the road," he recalls.

Once in Romania, Naveen headed further West, but the police in Hungary forced him to return to Romania. "I don’t know where to go from here," he told Radio Azadi.

Mohammad Osman leads an association of several hundred Afghans living in Odesa, where he has lived for decades. Osman says the group is trying to evacuate Afghans by first helping women and children make it to the country’s borders with neighboring European countries.

"The bombings have scared our women and children. We have been receiving phone calls from relatives back home in Afghanistan," he told Radio Azadi.

Osman is staying in Odesa to help those trying to escape into neighboring Moldova, Romania, and Poland. "We are trying to help those stuck on the borders or are on the way to get there," he said.

In a statement on February 26, the Taliban's Foreign Ministry said it was "utilizing all available facilities and communication channels to safeguard its citizens and evacuate them to safety."

But the group's hard-line government is not recognized by any country and does not control the Afghan embassies in Europe.

Shahzad Aryubi, the Afghan ambassador to the Czech Republic, is still running his country's mission six months after the government that appointed him collapsed. He told Radio Azadi the Afghan diplomatic missions across Europe are doing their best to help their compatriots.

He said they are making a list of the most vulnerable Afghans and are trying to contact everyone on that list.

“We don’t have any money or other resources to evacuate them,” he said. “But some countries and nongovernmental organizations have expressed their willingness to help.”

Written by Abubakar Siddique in Prague based on reporting by Freshta Shekhni, Ahmad Takal, and Asmatullah Sarwan of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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