As the battle cries escalate, Moroccan students in Ukraine fear the worst

Ukrainian servicemen wait in a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near town of Krasnogorivka, Donetsk region, on April 23, 2021.
4 min read
07 February, 2022
The build-up of tanks, armoured vehicles and the looming threat on the Ukrainian border has triggered immense anxiety amongst the 8000 Moroccan students currently stranded in Ukraine, fearful of what may come next.

“I live in Kharkiv and in the last few days I have seen tanks and soldiers walking in the city. I am growing increasing worried that the conflict will escalate and we will be trapped here," Sarah, a Moroccan student stranded in Ukraine, told The New Arab

Situated on the Ukrainian-Russian border, the city of Kharkiv is at the heart of the rising tensions between Moscow and NATO-backed Kyiv. 

Having to juggle university, COVID and now the possibility of an all out war, Sarah told us that the imminent threat of action has meant that many students are going through a period of crippling anxiety.

"In a fateful entanglement with Morocco's zero tolerance policy towards COVID-19 and the looming threat of invasion, Moroccan students fail to understand its countries myopic border policies"

Sarah, a freshwoman at the National University of Kharkiv, still needs to attend her in-person lectures and seminars in order to finish her foundation courses. She is unable to attend lectures online due to her progress. 

Due to the expensive tuition fees of most European universities, attending university in Ukraine has long been a last resort for the more than 8000 Moroccan students that have chosen the country to complete their studies and kickstart their careers back home. 

Yet, some have taken the news more lightly than others. "We are used to this cycle of tensions at this point, for now everything is okay here. I don't feel that we're in any explicit danger, for now." Abdel Majid, a 24 year old Moroccan student in Odesa told The New Arab

Regardless, the security crisis in Kyiv has still brought the possibility of war into the forefront of Moroccan students minds. The question remains, what happens if the war does start?

What's happening in Ukraine?

Russia has sent troops more than 4,000 miles to Ukraine’s borders and announced sweeping naval drills as Moscow expands its preparations for a potential attack on Ukraine. Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow's negotiations appear at a deadlock.

Following the east camp’s fall in 1991, Ukrainian people aspired to shed the former USSR nation’s Russian imperial legacy and forge to knit stronger ties with the West.

Mass protests overthrew the Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 when he chose Russia over the people's much-wanted wish to join the European Union. 

Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist rebellion that has since devastated Ukraine’s eastern region. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (5th L) inspects at the southern frontline positions near the border of Crimea which was illegally annexed by Russia
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky inspects at the southern frontline positions near the border of Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 [Getty Images]

In the spring of 2021, Russia began building up tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine in response to what it described as threats from NATO, a move that was widely condemned internationally. 

The Pentagon has put 8,500 US troops on standby for an Eastern European deployment and NATO said it was sending ships and jets to bolster the region’s defences. Analysts say Moscow’s last military moves aim to pile pressure on Kyiv to block its entrance into NATO, to stifle any potential cooperation and reverse Ukraine’s trajectory away from Moscow.

Morocco’s travel policy is adding insult to injury

Moscow’s “we don’t want a war" statement has done little to extinguish Fatima’s fear about her daughter, whose currently in Ukraine to study medicine.

Fatima and many worried Moroccan parents have since started watching daily briefs about the crisis in Ukraine, attempting to understand, like many political analysts, the outcome of the escalating stalemate between the two camps. The US, UK, and Australia have told the families of its diplomats in Kyiv to leave Ukraine amid concerns about a potential Russian invasion. Germany said it would also help its citizens leave if they wish.

"Morocco’s opening and closing of the borders are always at such short notice. I'm still anxious that I will be stranded in Morocco, missing my exams in Ukraine, or stranded in Ukraine experiencing the horror of war, it’s a Cornelian dilemma"

On the other hand, Morocco, which hasn't yet voiced a position regarding the conflict, continues to follow a strict border policy since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. During the most recent variant outbreak, Moroccan Health authorities have opted to suspend all international flights, rather than implementing a "traffic light system" which most countries followed to avoid a surge in cases. Such inconsistencies in policy has left thousands of Moroccans stranded abroad. 

It was only after a massive public campaign headed by doctors, operators in tourism, and citizens piled enough pressure on the government, who bowed to public pressure and agreed to open the borders on February 7, 2022.

Still, the long-awaited decision hasn't satisfied those still in Ukraine, Sarah told The New Arab

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“Morocco’s opening and closing of the borders are always at such short notice. I'm still anxious that I will be stranded in Morocco, missing my exams in Ukraine, or stranded in Ukraine experiencing the horror of war, it’s a Cornelian dilemma,” said Sarah in her statement.

In a fateful entanglement with Morocco's zero tolerance policy towards COVID-19 and a looming invasion, Moroccan students fail to understand its countries myopic border policies. To what extent this will jeopardise its citizens remains to be seen.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent from Morocco  

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma