The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They left one war and wound up in another: Yemenis, Afghans and Syrians flee Ukraine

An Afghan man carries his one month old baby as he arrives in Poland after crossing a border check point on Feb. 27, 2022 in Kroscienko, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, Ahmed had found stability since leaving the conflict in Yemen. But the 20-year-old was forced to flee his new home last week as Russian forces closed in.

He made it out just before a barrage pounded neighborhoods in the eastern Ukrainian city.

“It was a nice place to live, to settle. It was great,” the engineering student said of Kharkiv, where he moved more than a year ago. But, he added: “I left everything behind.” He asked for his full name not to be published as he worried it may affect his asylum prospects in Europe.

Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine has brought stark choices for some people who had already left one war — only to wind up in another, and have to flee again.

They have joined more than 2 million people driven from Ukraine since the invasion, Europe’s fastest exodus since World War II.

One of them is an Afghan data analyst who fled to Kyiv from Kabul after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and found herself on the run for the second time in six months. Masouma Tajik escaped the Ukrainian capital with a backpack she had carried from Kabul, some clothes and her laptop.

And the family of an 11-year-old Ukrainian boy who reached Slovakia alone, with a phone number scrawled on his hand, had already fled years ago from Syria — where Russia intervened in a brutal war with airstrikes to back President Bashar al-Assad.

The 11-year-old boy who fled Ukraine alone was displaced by war before — he fled Syria as a baby

On Facebook groups for Syrians in Ukraine, messages from refugees asked for help leaving the country, temporary accommodation or advice on where to go to after escaping.

“When I first arrived in Kyiv … I felt I can breathe comfortably,” said Tajik, the 23-year-old from Afghanistan. “Now I feel that nothing is guaranteed in life, so I live the day as it is.”

She said lifting “barriers and bureaucratic processes” would help people like her still searching for refuge start over. “Nobody deserves that,” she said. “The way I left my friends in Kabul, I left my Ukrainian friends now, and I am worried about their safety because they welcomed me into their homes when I lost my home.”

For Ahmed, it took three days to cross the Polish border. When he managed to speak to his parents in Yemen, he did not want them to worry. “I made them think I was in a five-star hotel,” he said with a laugh.

In historic crisis, 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of Russian invasion, U.N. says

The idea of getting trapped in Ukraine had felt miserable in a different way than it seemed when he faced violence in his country, he said. “In Yemen, we were among our families, and you reach a level where it no longer matters if you live or die: It’s okay because we’re all together,” he explained. “But here it was very difficult. We didn’t know as many people. We couldn’t quickly find a way out.”

Hundreds of Yemenis were in Ukraine when the conflict erupted last month, according to Yemeni and other volunteers crowdfunding online to help them.

While Ahmed says he fared better than others, the escape shook him. “I fear that I could settle again, and things could devolve once more. There would be nowhere for us to go,” the young Yemeni told The Washington Post from a train to Germany, where he hoped to meet a relative and keep studying.

Like him, many other international students have scrambled to leave Ukraine. Some, including Arab, African and South Asian students, said they saw different treatment of those who are not White and not Ukrainian trying to flee. Some said private buses did not let them board, or soldiers at the border pushed them back to let Ukrainians through.

Before Vice President Harris landed in Poland on March 9, Russian forces struck a maternity hospital in Mariupol, causing massive damage. (Video: Hadley Green, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Mohamed, who asked that his last name not be published as he applied for asylum in Europe, once left his home on Yemen’s western coastline. He made it out of Ukraine after waking up to the sounds of sirens in the central city of Poltava. So began a journey through train and bus stations filled with crowds, involving a 15-hour trek to the border on foot and the help of strangers.

“I could no longer feel my legs from walking … aside from the fear,” he recounted.

With the exodus of Ukrainians reaching in less than two weeks the historic flow of mainly Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015 and 2016, the European Union has enacted unprecedented measures for the new refugees, breaking with past resistance to others. Ukrainians can now get temporary protection within the 27-country bloc for up to three years — bypassing an asylum system that had left many from Africa and the Middle East in limbo for years after arrival.

Miles-long lines, the kindness of strangers, an uncertain future: Scenes from the Ukraine-Poland border

Mohamed first crossed into Poland and eventually met a Polish family with signs offering help. He was grateful they drove him, with an Iraqi friend he made along the way, to Warsaw before he moved on to another location. “Honestly, they did not spare any effort … They fed us. They gave me new socks,” he said.

He looked back on his memories in Poltava fondly. “I never imagined there could be this level of destruction,” he said. “I made Ukrainian friends, and we celebrated together. I still talk to their parents. … I was happy.”

Loading...