Less than a month ago, Debbie Abonia was on a train to Lviv from Ternopil to enjoy a day trip in Ukraine.
The college student from Camden is studying at Ukraine’s Ternopil National Medical University with just a semester and a half remaining before graduation in hopes of becoming a doctor.
On the train, she met a man from Yemen, who had been living in Ukraine for 10 years since fleeing the ongoing Yemeni Civil War.
“He’s like, ‘I’m not going back to Yemen until things get better,’” Ms. Abonia said. “He said he was so happy to be in Ukraine, where he doesn’t have to deal with those issues.”
A few days later, the U.S. Embassy ordered Ms. Abonia to leave Ukraine due to rising tensions, so she booked herself a ticket to the Netherlands to stay with her uncle until the conflict with Russia ended.
But it hasn’t. And over the next several weeks, Ms. Abonia has waited for word from friends who were fleeing Ukraine or who are prohibited from doing so, in case they are drafted for the front lines.
Most of her companions told her she was overreacting when she flew out of Ukraine on Feb. 13. They never thought a war would start, let alone make it to their city on the western side of the country.
“It could have been denial, it could have been nationalism, or fear, or hope, but no one ever thought it would get to this point,” Ms. Abonia said.
She said that proud Ukrainians are comparable to proud Americans — they will do anything to protect their country and their freedom, even if it means dying for it. In Ukraine, this is especially true of the older generation who still remember a time when their country was under Soviet Union rule.
“So when you see some old Ukrainian farmer on the news, like, dragging a tank with his tractor, just know he’s got a reason,” she said.
‘Academic guinea pig’
Ms. Abonia was born in England, but she and her parents moved to Camden when she was just 1 year old. She is the oldest of four, the “academic guinea pig” as she says, and graduated from Caesar Rodney High School in 2016.
Medical school and the cost of living in some parts of Europe is significantly less than it is in America, she said, which led her to explore options abroad and settle on Ukraine.
Ms. Abonia was always a whiz at learning languages. She was fluent in Spanish after just four years of high school, she said, and now considers herself fluent in Ukrainian, aside from a few humorous phrases that don’t always translate.
According to TNMU’s enrollment data, there are approximately 6,350 students attending the university, out of which 1,977 are international students from 53 countries. Ms. Abonia said she is one of about five Americans at the university.
“I came to the Netherlands thinking I would just wait out the situation, see how peace talks go, then I’ll go back to Ukraine and everything will be fine,” she said. “Or worst-case scenario, if classes are going to be online, then I can do it from (the Netherlands) with a reasonable time difference. During COVID I went back (to America) and I did classes online overnight from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. for three semesters.”
When Ms. Abonia was packing her bags the day before her flight to the Netherlands, she wasn’t packing with the mindset that she might not return. She left her entire life in her apartment.
“I had a 44-pound suitcase and a carry-on,” she said. “I was taking the bare minimum … stuff that I know I’m going to use and finish. I took like three tubs of protein powder, but didn’t take many clothes. I left all of my cash too, thinking, ‘Why take all of my cash and risk losing it?’ Now I’m basically like $1,000 short.”
Optimistically, Ms. Abonia will come back to an unscathed city, but each day, she said, she becomes more realistic, accepting whatever losses as unavoidable.
Ms. Abonia said she was able to leave relatively easily because she has an American passport. Some of her friends from Africa or Asia, however, often have restrictions on their passports and instead would have to apply for a visa to visit a European country.
“For them it is harder, so when these countries said, ‘OK, fine, you can come into our country as a refugee,’ there were a lot of discrepancies and issues,” she said. “Maybe due to a lack of education from border control, which doesn’t make sense because if you’re the ones regulating entry and exit, you should be on top of knowing who can come in and who can’t. Especially in a war crisis. It’s not like people are doing a mass exodus as a vacation. They’re doing a mass exodus to stay alive.”
Ms. Abonia noted that some Ukrainians and international visitors of color who are attempting to leave are facing an additional challenge at certain borders.
Last week, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists there is not a single European country that is afraid of the current wave of refugees, because he considers them dissimilar to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, particularly Syrians who came in 2015, according to an Associated Press report.
“These people are intelligent, they are educated people,” he said. “This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”
Several journalists have been called out for insensitive and borderline racist comments comparing Ukrainian refugees to other groups of color that have sought asylum in the past. CBS news recently apologized after one of its correspondents said the conflict in Kyiv wasn’t “like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European” city.
“These people have walked miles with their suitcases and belongings, some of them eventually just dropping their stuff,” Ms. Abonia said. “I know one person that went to the Poland border and waited and waited and waited, but it was useless. They ended up going back into Ukraine to regroup and then I think they found their way to either Hungary or Romania.”
There is no telling when Ms. Abonia will be able to finish her education, let alone return to her university in person. In the first few days of Russia’s invasion, classes were online, but were soon suspended until March 13.
“So like the first day of the war, classes were online, and my group and I were just all looking at each other like, ‘We’re not doing this,’” she said. “Nobody has the mental or emotional strength to even be doing this. Your teachers are probably conducting a lesson from a bunker, and you should be packing your bags fleeing for the border.”
She said the scarce participation between her classmates caused somewhat of a division between people who are “cutthroat” about their education and still have the ability to tune in for lessons, and those who are on the run. Ms. Abonia said that even though she can, she won’t.
“Some people still wouldn’t stand in solidarity for their friends who are fleeing to the border,” she said. “But I don’t care what my school says — I won’t be taking part in classes until I know that everyone who has fled for the border is in a safe location.”
In the worst-case scenario, Ms. Abonia said she might have to find another school that will accept her as a transfer if she can’t eventually return to Ukraine.
“If your school gets destroyed and all your documents are gone, and you want to transfer to another university, my proof (of previous education) is going to be ‘take my word for it,’” she said. “I was a student and I don’t know how to prove it. You want a transcript? I can’t give that to you. You want a letter of recommendation? The person that would be writing it is fighting for their life right now. We’re all just kind of lost.”
“At the end of the day, I do have to get myself together and remember that all of this that I’m going through is still getting in the way of me becoming a doctor,” Ms. Abonia said.
“My world has changed so much in less than a month in a way that I could have never imagined. If you told me three weeks ago that I would be living in the Netherlands, I’d laugh in your face. Like, live in the Netherlands and miss my internal medicine class on Friday? No way.”