The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
Our subject on Abroad Life today is a 22-year old who made it out of Ukraine before his city was attacked. He talks about why he moved to Ukraine, how he knew trouble was coming, and his future plans now that he’s not going back.
When did you first decide to leave Nigeria?
Early in life, I had the opportunity to travel and see many places. Because of my exposure, I knew other places were better than Nigeria, and that after secondary school, I would further my studies elsewhere. It even made extra sense because I wanted to study medicine, and I’d heard stories of medical students in Nigeria having it difficult.
I finished secondary school in 2017, did A-Levels in 2018, had a gap year where I researched on schools in different countries I could go to in 2019 and finally moved to Ukraine in 2020.
My first option was Norway. I’d heard it was a peaceful, beautiful place with a high quality of life, but the school I applied to didn’t get back to me. My next option was Germany, but I heard I had to know German, and after trying German classes for three months, I chalked Germany off the list.
Ukraine eventually happened because I wanted to study medicine. Ukraine is one of the top destinations in the world to study medicine, and because of this, foreigners who study medicine in Ukraine have an advantage when it comes to securing employment in other European countries. That’s why many people go to Ukraine to study medicine — so they can practice all over Europe. To add to all of this, the fees are cheaper than in many other countries.
I used an agency, and the application and visa process took me about three months from when I decided to leave. I didn’t need any language tests because courses are taught in English.
Expectations vs reality: Ukraine edition.
Because I’d travelled a lot growing up, I didn’t have any expectations other than that it was going to be a cold place with a sprinkle of Eastern European racism. I was right about the cold, but I never experienced racism — though that’s probably because I never learnt the language so I didn’t know what anyone was saying to me. What I didn’t expect was the number of Africans I saw there. I lived in Sumy, a city in north-eastern Ukraine, and omo, Africans were everywhere.
So settling was easy?
Yep. I had people who I could relate to, who told me where to get Nigerian food and helped me feel at home. I didn’t stay in the school hostel for long because it wasn’t in great conditions — they used pit latrines, for example — but that didn’t mean I struggled to settle in school. One thing that helped with school was getting assigned to a study group immediately I resumed, and that’s the group I was meant to study with till I graduated. That was really important for me because it meant I could share whatever educational struggles I had with them.
Sounds like you were having a great time.
Okay time, yes. Great time, not so really. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. Ukraine has better electricity, roads and social amenities than Nigeria, but that’s it. It’s not like it’s a fun or extremely advanced place. I was just going through school and waiting to finish in three years until I had to leave in a hurry last month.
Yes. Before Russia attacked Ukraine, when it was all still media speculations, newer students like me who had never experienced the geopolitical conflict between Russia and Ukraine were terrified. We didn’t know whether to run or whether to stay, but the older students reassured us that everything was going to be okay. Apparently, tiny conflicts happen from time to time between Russia and Ukraine, but these conflicts never result in anything, so everybody was calm. But not me.
Since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading about history and politics. So I went online to read about Russia’s war history and saw that they invaded Georgia in 2008. Now, that wasn’t important to me until February 15, 2022, when it was speculated that there were cyber-attacks on Ukrainian banks and ministries by Russia. That night, I tried to transfer money to someone and it didn’t work, tried to withdraw and couldn’t, tried an ATM and it wasn’t dispensing. Russia denied it, but I was concerned.
I remembered what I read about the Georgia invasion — it started with cyber-attacks. Omo, immediately I did the maths in my head. I called my study group and told them everyone needed to find a way to leave. They didn’t take me seriously because the people that had been in Ukraine longer said nothing was going to happen.
Once I delivered my message, I went online and booked a flight to London for the next day. I have relatives there.
Another reason people didn’t consider leaving was my school. They don’t like it when people leave. When conversations about the war started in the media, they sent emails to the students that pretty much said if we left, there’d be terrible repercussions for missed classes. I still get emails from school telling us to do some school work.
The day I was travelling presented another warning sign — for some reason, the airport in my city wasn’t working. I had to take a five-hour bus to another city to use their airport. I expected to see the airport crowded with people trying to leave, but it was just like a normal day.
Four days after I got to London, the attacks started.
I didn’t even have the time to feel good for myself. Sumy is one of the cities that was attacked, so my friends were displaced immediately. None of them has been injured, but they’re afraid. They can’t even try to escape because there’s shooting on the streets, threats of airstrikes and the weather is cold. Where would they go? Thankfully, there are some bomb shelters. Every time I have the opportunity to speak with them, I hear fear and anger in their voices, and it breaks my heart.
On the first day of the attacks, my phone was blowing up because of the number of people reaching me to find out if I was okay. I was, but I couldn’t stop thinking about families with kids still stuck in Ukraine, and who can’t say, “Yes, my child is safe.”
Do you think you’ll go back?
I’m surely not returning to Ukraine. I can’t bring myself to return to a place where something like that has happened. It’ll be too traumatic. I packed everything important to me before I left, except my original WAEC result, but I’m sure when I get back to Nigeria, I’ll get an affidavit.
My plan right now is to transfer to a school in the Caribbean. Studying medicine is cheap there too, and it’ll be easy to transition into America or Canada once I’m done.
Hey there! My name is Sheriff and I’m the writer of Abroad Life. If you’re a Nigerian and you live or have lived abroad, I would love to talk to you about what that experience feels like and feature you on Abroad Life. All you need to do is fill out this short form, and I’ll be in contact.