"The Ukrainians don't have a second home. We have South Africa to return to... They don't have that security or guarantee."
On February 26th, we released a story detailing the experiences of four African students as they attempted to flee Ukraine as Russia invaded their territory. The piece, What Africans Students Are Experiencing, recounted the strenuous journeys that the students endured fleeing the Eastern European nation.
Mohammed is a South African first-year medical student who was pursuing his degree when the Russian attack took place. He had only just begun his degree in Ukraine, and now is attempting to complete it back in South Africa.
We caught up with Mohammed a couple of months after the initial strike to gain a fuller picture of his trek out of war-torn Ukraine and hear about how he settled in the aftermath. Click here to read other stories in this series.
Responses edited for length and clarity.
"I'm well now because I'm home and I got to see my family. My education is fine for now, too. But we’re waiting to hear about when we can return to Ukraine because online teaching is good, but in-person teaching is so much better. Now I'm just worried about Ukraine – will they be fine? We just want the war to end as soon as possible. I do want to return as soon as this war ends and everything is safe again. Ukraine is like my second home.
The day we had to flee, I phoned my parents. My landlady told us not to worry, and that Dnipro is safe. So just relax. And if they do say you must leave and evacuate, then get on the next bus. But, Dnipro, was still very safe. I really didn't panic at all. I withdrew money and bought at least a week or two worth of groceries. But, by that Friday, it got really bad because they started bombing Kyiv.
At that point, I had to start packing up and one of my friends said that we were leaving the next morning – me and three other people. Saturday morning, we arrived at the train station early in the morning but were told to come back later in the day – around 4:00 pm. We returned by 2:00 pm and the train only pitched up at 10:00 pm. So we sat at the train station for eight hours because they told us last minute that it was going to be later. Eventually, it came. And then when the train came and we boarded, that's when it got really hard.
There were hundreds running to get onto the train. It was mental. I almost got pulled out, but luckily we got on. We were on the train for maybe 22 hours or more – we left Saturday night and arrived in the next city [Uzhhorod] on Sunday evening. It was a very long journey, and it was totally crowded. That was a terrible time.
From there we went to the Indian hostels because they said they were giving free food at the time. So we went there to get something to eat. After we ate, we went to this gym where they told us we can sleep for the night there. They gave us sleeping bags. That next morning, we left for the Slovakian border at about 8:00 am. It’s just two kilometers from Uzhhorod.
We took a taxi to the border and then we waited. We waited from about 10:00 am till maybe about 4:00 pm. We waited there all day, but they were great. They gave us coffee, tea, water, everything. And then we finally crossed. It wasn’t too crowded when we went, but now I’ve heard that it’s way worse.
I was able to contact someone in Slovakia to get us accommodation and that. This guy named Peter came and picked us up and he took us to Košica, the Slovakian city. I stayed there for three or four nights. I left because I wanted to go to Budapest because that's where all the planes and working airports were.
This time the train took about six hours. Aspen paid for our flights and the next day we had to board. We went from Budapest to Paris to Johannesburg.
I've wrapped my mind around it all. And I've dealt with it. think I’m OK. Or I don't really feel it's affected me mentally or anything. I want to return very soon, hopefully. I hope this war ends. For the Ukrainians, they don't have a second home. So for them, it's worse. We had it easy. We have South Africa. We obviously have a home to return to, they don't have that security or that guarantee of a home."