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Ukrainian refugee students adapt to new lives at EU universities

Marko Mazepa, 19, left; Maria Chernova, 17, centre; Vlada Yurevych, 19, right.
Marko Mazepa, 19, left; Maria Chernova, 17, centre; Vlada Yurevych, 19, right. Copyright From left: Yenlik O'Neill - Eнлик O'Нилл, Chernova, Yurevych.
Copyright From left: Yenlik O'Neill - Eнлик O'Нилл, Chernova, Yurevych.
By Laura Oliver
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Thousands of university students have left Ukraine since February and are now navigating different education systems, applying for temporary protection and preparing for the academic year -- all while dealing with the disruption and distress of war at home.


When Vlada Yurevych arrived at her new university after a 29-hour journey by bus, plane and train that started in Rivne, Ukraine, a volunteer holding a Ukrainian flag was there to meet her.

“I was so emotional that someone in Finland wanted to bring me home,” says Yurevych, a 19-year-old psychology student, who will complete her bachelor’s degree from her Ukrainian university remotely at the University of East Finland (UEF).

She adds there's a different style of teaching at the Finnish university: "The teachers make jokes and are very easy-going.”

Yurevych is one of the thousands of university students who have left Ukraine since February and are now navigating different education systems, applying for temporary protection or the right to remain and preparing for the academic year -- all while dealing with the disruption and distress of war at home.

Across Europe, universities and governments have offered varying levels of support, from lower or waived tuition fees to language classes and welcome packages.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that some 7.5% of refugees from Ukraine fall into the age bracket of 17-24 years which is "based on 4,800 intention surveys conducted with refugees from Ukraine across Europe from August to September 2022."

From the difficulties faced by male and international students leaving Ukraine to applicants hesitant about leaving home, offering a place to study is just the first step, says Outi Väyrynen, coordinator of international mobility services at UEF, whose Joensuu campus is around 70 kilometres from Russia.

The university has welcomed 18 students from Ukraine, including many from the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions, offering flexible start dates and developing more courses in English.

“It has become more of a solidarity effort to allow them a safe place to study,” says Väyrynen.

In the Netherlands, first-year undergraduate Maria Chernova, 17, had planned to study architecture in her home city, Odesa, but is now at the Breda University of Applied Sciences.

From her host family, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour train journey, but Chernova says she will use the time to read for her degree in built environment.

Finding closer accommodation has been difficult as has dealing with the bureaucracy of life in a new country: “I had help from my host family and charities but what if I hadn’t had support?”

Since arriving at the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG) in April, second-year student Marko Mazepa, 19, has helped the university with events for Ukrainian students and refugees.

Having started his degree remotely owing to COVID-19 and visa issues, the university was understanding when war disrupted his studies from Lviv and was on-call during a challenging border crossing.

“We have received support from so many places. I can’t wait to pay it back,” he says.

Many universities have adopted an increasingly flexible approach to assisting students from Ukraine to deal with the complexities of assimilating home courses with new degrees, visa and asylum applications and securing accommodation.

The typical procedures for transferring students, such as ensuring an overlap in course material from one university to another, have had to be reconsidered to meet the humanitarian need, says Dr Alán Alpár, vice-rector for international studies at Semmelweis University in Hungary.

Neighbouring Ukraine, a government-backed programme will pay for 1,000 students to study in Hungary, including both Ukrainian students and international students from Ukrainian courses.


A medical school in Budapest, Semmelweis, will welcome 150 students from Ukraine through the programme, mostly non-domestic students from south Asia and Africa.

“We are unsure what will happen with these students but are taking that risk,” says Alpár. “They are in a very difficult position so we try to help.”

Bálint Barta/Semmelweis University
Picture shows some of the students who have taken up places at the university.Bálint Barta/Semmelweis University

According to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, 76,548 international students from 155 nations are enrolled at Ukrainian universities.

Shahzeen Yusuf, 23, an Indian medical student who was in her fourth year of medical school in Kyiv when war broke out, says she’s grateful for a second opportunity to complete her studies in Budapest – the city she and friends escaped to after the war broke out.

“Going to Hungary alone is like living a different life and leaving another one behind in Ukraine,” says Yusuf, who had initially hoped it would be possible to return to Kyiv to continue her degree.


“But I’ve found an apartment here and the university is within walking distance. Even the weather is good – it doesn’t snow as much.”

With a protracted conflict in Ukraine, universities and governments across Europe are looking at longer-term plans for refugee students, from how to handle graduations to the costs of ongoing accommodation and tuition.

UAF, a Dutch organisation that supports refugee students and professionals with studies and employment, hopes lessons from this crisis could help refugee students from Ukraine and beyond.

“A long-term vision for education and learning languages will be good for rebuilding Ukraine when people can return,” says Pepijn Tielens, policy advisor at UAF.

“From a broader Dutch perspective, it would be good if this welcoming environment and possibilities are available for all refugees.”

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