On March 2, the Indian Embassy in Ukraine put out an all-caps advisory urging citizens to leave the eastern city of Kharkiv amid the Russian offensive. By that time, however, the nearest railway stations were already clogged with thousands of people, including Indian medical students, attempting to flee.
With little clarity forthcoming on evacuation, a number of people who are often the first point of contact for Indian students abroad rose to the occasion — helping arrange food, accommodation and transport.
“That day, the embassy did not say where students would spend the night. It was below zero degrees. I used my local contacts and got them accommodated in rooms in a sanitorium in Pisochyn, a suburb of Kharkiv,” said Hardeep Singh, who owns the Bobtrade Education Group.
He is among the agents, or coordinators, who facilitate the admissions of Indians in countries such as Ukraine, provide logistical support, and assist in dealings with the respective university.
“The day they reached Pisochyn, the students slept hungry. The next day, I was able to provide them with soup and bread. I helped the embassy arrange buses. The embassy as well as students paid for it. By March 6, some 300 students were left and they had no money. I paid the money and the embassy assured me they would reimburse that,” Singh added.
Around this time in India, Shubham Gautam’s worries were deepening as Indian students struggled to cross over to Poland in below-zero temperatures. Gautam runs the DSA Global agency.
“I must tell you. He (Gupta) did not refuse one call we made, even after midnight when in India it must have been around 3 am. He patiently arranged transportation and lodging for us,” said Abhishek Singh, a fourth year MBBS student at the Danylo Halytsky Lviv National Medical University.
Gautam said his agency, which has around six staffers in Ukraine, arranged buses in coordination with the Indian Embassy to transport at least 700 students to the border crossings, particularly with Poland.
“The embassy lacks ground staff. Frankly, no embassy will have enough ground staff to tackle an extraordinary situation like this. So we stepped in and helped using our local sources and contacts in arranging buses, temporary accommodation, food and water,” Gautam said.
During the crisis, Delhi-based consultant and educationist Seema Gandhi had also become a crucial link of communication between the Indian embassy, students stuck in Kharkiv and their anxious parents back in India.
Gandhi, who runs the E2P consultancy, guided the students to safety using her local sources.
“On March 2, after the embassy asked students to leave Kharkiv in three hours, many parents started making frantic calls to me. My work was to keep students and their parents constantly updated about the advisories from the embassy and on their behalf contacting the embassy and seeking their help for evacuation,” she said.
Another student coordinator, Renish Joseph, played a similar role for nearly 600 Indian students stuck in Sumy who were evacuated on March 8. Dr Priyanka Aher, whose sister Mayuri was one of the students stuck in Sumy, told: “No one was helping apart from Renish. He did everything possible to help with food, water and coordinating with the university and Indian embassy and motivating the students who were losing hope.”
Shehbaz Khan, from Rajasthan, a 22-year-old student in Kyiv Medical University said he received a lot of help from his consultants, Dr Anil Dhayal and Dr. Navdeep Singh, who run a Delhi-based company called Bright Future Abroad studies. Khan returned from Ukraine in one of the flights arranged by the Indian government.
Like Khan, there were over 1,700 medical students placed through this company in medical colleges at Kyiv, Odessa and Vinnytsia. Incidentally, both Dhayal and Singh, back in 2009, were medical students in Luhansk, Ukraine.
Dhayal told the Indian Express that during their stay in Ukraine in 2009 they faced several problems and decided to venture into this business so they could help future students with all types of facilities for a comfortable stay in Ukraine.