As It Happens

Afghan refugees, international students stranded in Ukraine as Russia attacks

Afghan refugee Jawed Ahmad Haqmal and his family fled one war zone only to find themselves stranded in another. Arpit Katiyar, a second-year medical student from India, has been hunkered in an underground metro station since Friday with no way of getting home.

'I'm in a hell,' says Jawed Ahmad Haqmal, who is waiting to come to Canada. 'It is worse than Afghanistan'

Jawed Ahmad Haqmal, an Afghan refugee who has worked as a translator for Canadian military and the Globe and Mail, is trapped in Kyiv. (Submitted by Jawed Ahmad Haqmal)

Story Transcript

Jawed Ahmad Haqmal and his family fled one war zone only to find themselves stranded in another.

Haqmal is an Afghan refugee who worked as a translator for the Canadian military and the Globe and Mail. During the fall of Kabul in August 2021, he was evacuated to Ukraine, where he's spent the last six months living in a Kyiv hotel with his extended family. He is currently waiting for the Canadian government to respond to his asylum application.

Now once again, he is stuck, powerless and surrounded by the trappings of war.

"Just seeing outside like a war zone, the same situation I've seen in Afghanistan when Kabul was falling —  just explosions, bullets, people are running, roads are blocked, there are armies on the roads," Haqmal told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I can't go forward. I can't go backward. I'm even not able to go back to Afghanistan. There is no way left for me, so I have to accept everything. If all my family dies in front of me, I cannot do anything."

Haqmal is one of several Afghan refugees waiting in limbo in Ukraine because of bureaucratic red tape in the Canadian immigration system, according to the Globe and Mail, which helped facilitate his evacuation to Ukraine.

Canada vowed to take in an additional 40,000 Afghan refugees after its early evacuation efforts during the fall of Kabul — but said last month it could take up to two years to process them.

The federal government has also promised to speed up the immigration process for Ukrainians now fleeing their home country after Russia invaded on Thursday. 

As It Happens has reached out to Canada's immigration minister for comment.

Thousands of international students caught in the violence

Ukraine is also host to thousands of international post-secondary students who are now desperately trying to get home.

Russia has promised that civilians will not be harmed by its offensive. But that's not much reassurance for Arpit Katiyar, a second-year medical student from India who has been hunkered in an underground metro station in Kharkiv since Friday morning with hundreds of other people seeking shelter from the shelling above. 

"We are running short of [on] food and water," he told Off. "I am scared because I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Arpit Katiyar, left, a medical student from India, is hunkered down in a metro station in Kharkiv. (Submitted by Arpit Katiyar)

India's Foreign Ministry estimates there are nearly 16,000 Indians in Ukraine, most of them students.

The ministry says Indian officials are traveling to border areas of Ukraine touching Poland, Romania Slovakia and Hungary to get its citizens out. 

"But that's in the western part of the country and we are in the easternmost part, so we don't know how to get there," Katiyar said, noting that the streets aren't safe and commercial flights are halted.

Listen: Arpit Katiyar talks to As It Happens from a metro station in Kharkiv: 

When Russian bombs began to fall near Kyiv on Thursday morning, Ghanaian engineering student Percy Ohene-Yeboah peered down from his high-rise apartment in Kharkiv, about 400 km away, to see the street below clogged with traffic.     

With nowhere to turn, Yeboah packed a bag and ran to the nearest underground train station for shelter.

"The reality is really hitting me. Because honestly, I thought it was just one of those things. I didn't really take it seriously, and it's happening now. I think for me a bit too late for evacuation," he said.

A pregnant wife and crying children

Haqmal, meanwhile, says the situation for his family now is worse than it was when the Taliban seized control of his home country.

At least back home he had people he could talk to in his own language, and he knew where to turn for food and shelter.

Now he's stuck in a hotel with 11 of his family members, including five children, his elderly mother and his wife who is six months pregnant.

Jawed Ahmad Haqmal, pictured with his children, left one war zone only to end up stranded in another. (Submitted by Jawed Ahmad Haqmal)

He says Ukrainian soldiers are restricting movement on the streets and asking to see people's documentation, of which his family has none. He's worried the stress will impact his wife's pregnancy and she won't be able to seek medical attention.

"I'm in a hell. It is worse than Afghanistan," he said. "Every kid is crying. I'm unable to calm them, when there's a big explosion, everyone is running to the bathroom just hiding [in] their mom's arms. And it is really frustrating."

He says he feels abandoned by Canada, a country he worked for in good faith. 

"What I was expecting for my family [was] to give them a safe life, a good life, to be educated, to go to school, to have a nice life, to have a nice home," he said.

"But unfortunately, we are stuck here [for] the last six months without any reasons, and this is just happening to me because of the bureaucracy of the Canadian government."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Jawed Ahmad Haqmal produced by Sarah Jackson. Interview with Arpit Katiyar produced by Kate McGillivray.

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