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International students went to Ukraine to study. Now many worry they can't escape

Updated March 7, 2022 at 5:10 PM ET

For several days, Shivangi Jaiswal and her classmates had to collect snow in bottles to drink.

Now the running water is back on at their university in northeastern Ukraine. But like much of the local population, these international students feel terrified and trapped by the war around them.

A medical student from India, Jaiswal and her classmates attend Sumy State University, in the Ukrainian city of Sumy.

She says they have had to ration food. Grocery store shelves have run empty. The power has gone out a few times. And until running water recently came back, they were relying on the snow for cooking and bathing.

"We are running out of options. We are just trying to survive every day," she says.

There are difficulties in leaving Sumy

There are about 1,700 international students attending Sumy State — many from India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Morocco, according to Jaiswal.

Some international students have been evacuated through Ukraine's western borders, crossing into Poland and Hungary.

But students in Sumy say they have few options to make the journey west, worried for their safety in the middle of shelling and attacks. And Jaiswal says tensions are getting worse on campus, especially after reports that an Indian student was killed by shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, last week. He was one of hundreds of civilian casualties recorded since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

The journey to the Polish border from Sumy is over 500 miles by car. The closest border is with Russia, which is about 40 miles away.

"It would be difficult for us to get to western Ukraine," says Zakaria Hussain, another student also from India.

Hussain is pursuing a degree in medicine, but his plans for the future have come to a pause. He and other students are using the hashtag #savesumystudents on Twitter to document their struggles.

Sumy State is organizing food and water supplies for students, and all classes have been canceled, Hussain said. He and his friends woke up to explosions last week in the early hours of the morning. They were also told to keep their lights off at night to avoid being targeted by Russian forces.

Other students also say it's been a harrowing experience.

"We've spent the last few days hiding in bomb shelters," says Jana Kalaaji, a Syrian citizen who studies general medicine.

She has spent the week at a friend's apartment. They've struggled to get basic supplies as attacks continue around the city.

"We've been drinking unfiltered tap water," Kalaaji says. "A lot of places are only taking cash right now, and many ATMs aren't working."

Students are waiting for their embassies to help

The Indian Embassy has evacuated over 10,000 students out of Ukraine. In a statement, the embassy said it would "leave no stone unturned in our efforts to ensure safe evacuation of Indian students" from Sumy.

It said it is working to help evacuate students stranded in Sumy to western Ukraine's border, advising Indian students in a tweet Sunday "to be ready to leave on short notice."

Nigeria's Embassy also announced plans to evacuate Nigerian students from Sumy through "a negotiated safe corridor."

As international students desperately seek an escape, many Ukrainians are trying to flee their homeland. The United Nations says more than 1.7 million Ukrainians have left Ukraine in the 12 days since Russia launched its war in the country. Many of Ukraine's residents, however, may have no way out and few places to go for safety, as Russian shelling and bombing in civilian areas continue; many are determined to stay and have picked up arms to defend the country.

For now, Jaiswal is thankful she's still able to get Wi-Fi. It means she can call her family daily and comfort them. They do the same.

"We tell each other, it's just a matter of a few days," she says. "And then we'll be home."

NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi edited this story for broadcast. contributed to this story

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.