“My legs were hurt, even my socks got torn up, they fell apart. I couldn’t feel my socks on the bottom of my leg… there was a big hole. My legs were aching me, my body was hurting. [I only had] my backpack. I’ve got just two casual suits, two sweaters, two pants, and that’s it… I’ve got my electronics chargers, my phone, and God help me.” This is how Mohammed Talat Al-Bukari describes his arduous journey out of Ukraine and into Poland after the start of the war.
Al-Bukari was a Yemeni student in Poltava. He had decided to pursue his studies abroad, after the war in Yemen made it impossible to continue his education there. “I just left Yemen to have better chances for education. Since, you know, Yemen… the circumstances there… The education level in Yemen is getting lower and lower day by day. So I thought it might be a good idea to go abroad,” Al-Bukari told TRNN.
“At least 400 Yemenis [were living] in Ukraine and are trying to reach safety in Poland and other European countries” after Russian troops invaded the country on Feb. 24, according to Reem Jarhum, who works with the group Yemenis in Ukraine. “The [Yemenis] that we located and accommodated… is a little over 170,” she said. “I don’t still really know how many are still in Ukraine.”
After eight years of horrific war in Yemen, approximately four million Yemenis have been forced to abandon their country due to the unsafe conditions there. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 66% of the people who remain in Yemen are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with some of the worst malnutrition rates in the world. Over 50% of the population lacks access to clean water.
Ahmed, a Yemeni who was studying in Kharkiv, and who requested that his full name be omitted out of fear of jeopardizing his asylee status, left Yemen for Ukraine because of the war back home. “Yemen has become a very dangerous area [and] I do not have full rights to study,” he said. “The long war in Yemen has no principle or reason… We Yemenis, our requirements are very simple: We want a safe and stable life, we want education. We started with stability in Ukraine, now we [have] zero.”
Al-Bukari, who had been living with nine other family members in a three-room apartment in Yemen, also wanted to leave to pursue his education in a safer environment. “I want to study, I want to live my life, I want to get my education,” he said. “I don’t want to think more than that.”
Both Ahmed and Al-Bukari chose Ukraine as a place to continue their studies because COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to gain entry into other countries they were considering. “I chose Ukraine [because] it was the only place that somehow accepted us under the circumstances of COVID at that time,” said Al-Bukari.
When the war started in Ukraine, Al-Bukari had already been pursuing his studies there for almost a year to the day. “Since the first day when I heard the news and I heard the bombs… the war started all of the sudden, at like 4:35-4:40 AM… I just started to think about what we should do,” he said, “What was going to be the situation in Ukraine? What’s my situation? What’s my future? I just ran away from a war, I just came here to a war.”
The journey out of Ukraine for both Ahmed and Al-Bukari was incredibly difficult. They faced racist discrimination at many points during the journey, something that Jarhum says is a common thread running through most of the stories from Yemenis she worked with. “The discrimination on the border was… crazy,” she said. “They prioritized women and children and Ukrainians over all other nationalities.”
After a 26-hour bus ride from Kharkiv to Lviv, followed by a six-hour bus ride to the border, Ahmed was shocked when he was told that he would not be allowed to cross. “They asked us if there were Ukrainians in the bus and there were no Ukrainians, [so] they forced us back seven kilometers to a gas station where non-Ukrainians congregate,” he said, describing the Kafka-esque series of steps he went through before finally being permitted to cross the Polish border. “We waited in line for 18 hours, pressing myself, no sleep and no bathroom.”
Al-Bukari described a similarly arduous journey. When he first tried to arrange travel for himself to Lviv, he was told that, because he is not Ukrainian, he could not leave the country. “We are in a war. So, at that time, I just want to keep my body for myself—I don’t want to go and die,” he said. “Just take me and put me in a jail in Poland, in Germany, in the Czech Republic, in the Netherlands, wherever you want. I just want to be safe, I want to run. But they decided to be racist.”
Al-Bukari was eventually able to secure passage on a train from Poltava to Lviv, a journey that took more than 24 hours. He then took a taxi from Lviv to a place where he would supposedly be allowed to cross the border into Poland. However, when he arrived there, he realized that he would have to walk for the final part of his journey. “We were walking 17 hours… [and] they are gathering foreigners [to one side] and Ukrainians [to another side],” he said. “Ukrainians were having buses to [sit on to] exit from Ukraine, but as foreigners we were walking. From all the countries—Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, even Somalia, there were Africans, there were Asians, there were Arabs—there were a lot of people, a lot of foreign community… We were just walking, and the Ukrainians had buses to the other gathering point.”
Both Ahmed and Al-Bukari were both eventually able to cross the border into Poland. However, their status in the European Union and their next steps are very unclear. Jarhum explains that all evacuees from Ukraine who are not Ukrainian by nationality typically have to return to their home country. However, because of the war in Yemen, this is not a safe option for most of the Yemeni evacuees. This leaves their legal status in limbo as they enter EU countries.
“First they were allowed 15 days in Poland, then they have to get out, and this was very difficult,” explained Jarhum. “Then they switched the law, saying that you have the temporary protection of 90 days. And it was for non-Ukrainians too, but not for students, so they still need to seek asylum.”
“It’s very complicated, and they were told different things at the reception centers. Some centers were like, ‘No, you have this, you can move anywhere you like, go to another country.’ Another reception center was like, ‘No, you are not allowed to go freely, you have to seek asylum at this point,’ and they did not allow them to go further,” said Jarhum. “So, it was a mess, and everyone told us their own story.”
Jarhum says they got some clarification this week about next steps through a Zoom call with UNHCR; officers there explained that students would qualify for asylum and should be able to register without jeopardizing their residency in the EU. In addition to assisting the Yemenis who have already arrived in the EU, Jarhum’s organization is still working to ensure safe passage to the border for Yemenis still trapped in Ukraine, including organizing a complicated medical transport via ambulance to get one family to the Polish border.
Al-Bukari hopes that the world’s focus and compassion on the struggles of Ukrainians can be extended to others stuck in conflicts around the world, including his home country. “Look how, when the war started in Ukraine, the whole world stood next to Ukraine, how the whole world got to the point [of saying] ‘Ukrainian Lives Matter,’” he said. “What about Afghanis? What about Yemenis? What about Syrians? What about Lebanese and Iraqis and Nigerians? What about Palestinians?”
After crossing the border, Al-Bukari was given refuge in the home of a Polish couple who arranged his transport to a safe location in Europe—a move that he is very grateful for. “They had the best hospitality since we started our journey, they took us home, they fed us, they even gave me a towel to wash myself,” he said. “They even gave me new socks, and [those are] going to be memories for me, because I got it from them. As I told you [in] the beginning, my socks got torn up.”