Desmond Chinaza Muokwudo, a 30-year-old Nigerian student who recently fled Ukraine, spent 11 years saving up to study in Europe.
Once a pipeline welder in Anambra state, he dreamed of studying international relations – but found himself unemployed amid the recession in 2016. It wasn’t until his parents decided to sell their small plot of land that he was able to raise enough funds to pursue his dream.
He finally enrolled in college last year and spent just three months in Ukraine when Russia launched its invasion.
“My parents don’t have anything anymore, they can’t support me,” he explains over the phone, looking defeated, from his temporary accommodation in Berlin, Germany.
“My government is just telling me to go home, but there’s nothing waiting for me in Nigeria.”
Mr. Muokwudo is one of approximately 16,000 African students who used to live in Ukraine and are now struggling to continue their education.
Many of them experienced traumatic moments of flight amid reports of racial abuse at the border.
Hundreds of them returned home on repatriation flights, although the exact number is unclear, but thousands of them, like Muokwudo, are likely still in Europe.
“I made a lot of sacrifices to get here. I have to stay in Europe and I have to study,” said Muokwudo.
Universities around the world have reached out to students fleeing Ukraine in the form of guaranteed places, reduced tuition fees and relaxed visa requirements.
African officials have also stepped up diplomatic efforts to secure guarantees for their students, with foreign ministers meeting European counterparts to negotiate deals.
Medical students from Ghana have received around 250 places at the Hungarian University of Medicine and 200 at St George’s Medical University in Grenada.
Hungary’s Semmelweis University, which allows medical students to continue their studies for free until the end of the war, says it received more than 2,000 applications in just a few weeks, mostly from Africans.
However, many students say these offers are given on a case-by-case basis and are surrounded by paperwork. They largely depend on the degree students are pursuing, how many years they have completed and how much they can still afford.
Mr. Muokwudo complained that some universities do not accept non-Ukrainians.
“We only accept Ukrainian citizens, that’s what I’m told,” he says, referring to the policy of the University of Tallinn in Estonia.
The university confirmed that only Ukrainians can apply outside the regular admissions process, but clarified that international students can still apply in the usual way.
The war presented many of these students with difficult choices – and left some with the prospect of not being selected.
According to a government count, Nigeria has welcomed over 1,000 people, mostly students, from Ukraine.
Among them, Fehintola Moses Damilola, 22, a medical student, has been detained in the besieged town of Sumy for weeks.
“I’m happy to be safe and with my parents,” he told the BBC from his home in Oyo state.
It’s the first time he’s been home in over five years, and he’s just a semester away from becoming a qualified doctor.
It is fortunate to be able to rely on online courses, which some Ukrainian universities offer despite the ongoing conflict, using the digital infrastructure developed during the pandemic lockdown periods.
In Nigeria’s Kaduna state, Firdausi Mohammed Usman has also taken online courses. The 22-year-old medical student is in her fifth year at the National Medical University of Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine that has suffered nighttime bombings.
She said professors are holding hands-on seminars online and some are appearing on screen.
For security reasons, their teachers don’t say exactly where they are. Some have fled the country, but others are still in Ukraine, moving from bomb shelters to classrooms upstairs.
“They don’t want us all to give up or transfer elsewhere, otherwise the university could be forced to close for good. We don’t have access to our academic records, so this is the best option at the moment.”
“I do not want to go back.”
Damilola, who was the president of the Nigeria Students Union in Sumy, also stressed the importance of online courses for senior medical students like himself.
“It might be difficult with this internet, but I only have a semester left and I can’t afford to start at a new university,” he says, struggling to be heard as the WhatsApp line keeps cutting.
He also felt that completing his degree in Nigeria would mean stepping back academically.
Marcel Chidera, originally from Nigeria’s Enugu state, continues his studies in Poland after refusing a repatriation flight organized by his government.
He is not the only one. Angola organized a flight for its citizens to return from Warsaw. He was supposed to bring back 277 people, but only 30 people boarded.
“Going home without a degree was not an option,” says Chidera from her temporary accommodation in the Polish capital.
The 25-year-old considers himself lucky because he only took one course in Ukrainian and can therefore start a new course.
Most courses in Poland are offered in English and are open to international students, although costs and admission requirements are generally higher than in Ukraine.
He got a discounted business administration degree from a Polish university – and considers himself better than other members of his family in Nigeria, where university professors have been on a national strike since Feb.
“My brothers are studying in Nigeria now. They’re not even in class because of the strikes,” he said.
An opportunity for Africa
According to local NGOs and UN agencies, higher education in Africa has long suffered from insufficient funding, a lack of qualified staff and low investment in research and development.
According to the World University Rankings, only 60 African universities are among the top 1,500 in the world.
South Africa, home to the continent’s best universities, has stepped up efforts to help returning students.
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town, Africa’s top-ranked institution, said it was an “opportunity to rethink the way we help young people”.
This sentiment has attracted students, like Zoe Inutu in Zambia, who are looking for solutions in their country. She had started two years of public relations studies in Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine, when the war broke out.
“My transcripts are stuck in Ukraine, so I’ll probably have to start a new course,” she says.
“I’ll go wherever they take me, including Africa, as long as I’m safe.”