Lebanese students in limbo after fleeing war in Ukraine

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Beirut (AFP) – Lebanese university students who fled Ukraine are now struggling to complete their studies in their home country, facing a precarious future as an unprecedented economic crisis crushes their country and their career prospects.

“Even war is better than being here,” said Yasser Harb, 25, who left Kyiv just two days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

The final-year medical student is now back in a country where electricity is scarce, utilities are dysfunctional at best, the local currency has crashed and the cost of living has skyrocketed.

He and his fellow students are now battling to continue their education remotely, while others face disruptions due to barriers transferring their enrollment.

Beirut said in late March that around 1,000 students had managed to leave Ukraine, long a destination for Lebanese seeking more affordable universities.

At least 340 of them have registered with the Lebanese Ministry of Education to continue their studies.

But Education Minister Abbas Halabi said none of the enrollees joined a private university in Lebanon, noting that most arrived mid-semester.

He acknowledged that students “whose Ukrainian universities were bombed could not even retrieve their transcripts” to re-enroll in their home countries.

Bassam Badran, president of the country’s only public university, the Lebanese University, said returning students should wait until the next academic year to enroll.

“They will have to pass the entrance examination at the start of the next school year,” he said.

– ‘No Sens’ –

Since returning, Harb has struggled to complete his studies online from his family home in southern Lebanon as power outages of up to 23 hours a day wreak havoc with his internet connection and studies.

Even electricity from expensive private generators can be unstable and rarely cover gaps.

“The slow internet makes it difficult to understand what our teachers are saying and affects our grades,” he told AFP, adding that he plans to return to Ukraine once flights resume.

The capital Kyiv has managed to maintain electricity supplies despite the ongoing conflict, and public transport has remained functional, with life gradually returning to some semblance of normalcy.

“In Kyiv I had at least all the basic services,” Harb said.

Samer Dakdouk, a fifth-year medical student at Kharkiv University, is also struggling to adjust to distance learning in Lebanon.

“Nothing is easy for us here,” said the 23-year-old, who is an occasional intern at a hospital in Beirut.

“Hospital posts are rare in Lebanon but practice is crucial,” he said.

“Having an online medical degree doesn’t make sense.”

– ‘Burden’ –

Lebanon’s economic crisis has spurred an exodus, with many of the country’s educated young people, as well as medical professionals, among those who have flocked.

Its higher education system, once a source of national pride, has also been battered.

According to the Arab Barometer survey published in April, nearly half of the Lebanese population plans to leave.

Nathalie Deeb, 24, managed to flee Ukraine to Germany and continue her medical studies there.

“I didn’t go back to Lebanon because Germany offers more opportunities and I don’t want to burden my parents,” she said.

Since 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, and the monthly minimum wage – once equivalent to $450 – is now worth around $25.

Deeb said annual tuition at his university in Kyiv was about $4,400 a year, five times less than re-enrolling at an average private Lebanese university.

The Faculty of Medicine of the public Lebanese University is saturated with applicants and accepts only a few.

Deeb’s father has already had to sell their family home in Beirut and return to his native village in southern Lebanon to be able to pay for his studies in Ukraine.

She said she was “lucky” to have been able to stay in Europe instead of returning to Lebanon.

“Those who went back regret it,” she said.

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