NUREMBERG – When Russia launched its war on Ukraine, a Syrian student in the city of Kharkiv joined the exodus of people fleeing the onslaught. It was the third time that 24-year-old Orwa Staif, who grew up in the suburbs of Damascus, was being displaced by war and crises.
For Staif, it was a jarring déjà vu: columns of people, many on foot, carrying what few belongings they could, desperate to escape bombs and missiles. He had seen it all before, in his native Syria.
“The same sounds of bombs that I heard in 2013, I heard now in Kharkiv. I told my friends ‘I can’t believe I’m reliving the same experience'," Staif told The Associated Press in Germany, where he has since reunited with his family.
According to the United Nations, more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, the swiftest refugee exodus this century. They fled to neighboring countries, with Poland taking in the highest number.
In 2013, rebels fighting to topple Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad were in Staif's hometown of Douma, at the doorstep of the capital, Damascus. Airstrikes, shelling and street fighting were common.
His father defected from the army and the family was forced to leave Syria. Like so many other families, they scattered — some went to the United Arab Emirates, some to Germany. Staif went to neighboring Lebanon, where he graduated from high school.
In 2019, the situation in Lebanon deteriorated dramatically, with the economy crashing and people taking to the streets in mass protests. Poverty and inflation soared in an unprecedented economic collapse.
Staif's father advised him to go study in Ukraine, where getting a visa — at least in theory — was easier than in other places. Staif succeeded and moved to Ukraine the following year, in February 2020.
When Russia invaded last week, pummeling Ukrainian cities with airstrikes and shelling — including Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city — many piled into trains and cars to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, before heading to the Polish border. Staif managed to get on a train for a 16-hour journey to Lviv, and from there continued on foot toward Poland.
Over the weekend, the line of traffic stretched for 30 kilometers (19 miles), backed up with cars and people. The unlucky ones without transportation had to make the trip on foot. Women, the elderly and children were among the masses — along with some foreigners, mostly students from other countries.
“This journey is so tough. I can say ten years of displacement. Whenever I get used to a place, I get new acquaintance with my friends and then I leave everything and go," Staif said.
"It’s so hard and so disappointing for me and I hate it... It’s the war wherever I am. Crises all over the world and those places that I’ve been.
A Yemeni student of mechanical engineering, a young woman evacuated from Kabul when the Taliban seized Afghanistan and others share much of Staif's story.
Mohammad Shamiri, 23, from Yemen's capital of Sanaa, arrived in Ukraine four years ago to study mechanical engineering at the Kharkiv National Automobile and Highway University.
“I never imagined this could happen here," in Europe, Shamiri said.
While escaping Ukraine, the sound of war and bombing was much more intense, he added. In Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting since 2015 against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overran Sanaa, the bombardment was more intermittent.
Shamiri said he walked for 20 hours with a friend, a fellow Yemeni, carrying bags in subfreezing cold. Temperatures dropped to 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 8 degrees Celsius). Like Staif, he described spending a night outside, in the open.
At the border, guards gave Ukrainians priority in leaving the country, pushing back and beating non-Ukrainians, he said. Shamiri was hit with a baton and saw people tasered, he said. When he tried to film this with his smart phone, a border guard grabbed the phone and made him delete all photos and videos.
After finally crossing over, he arrived at a hospital in Krakow, Poland, where he and his friend are now being treated.
For Masouma Tajik, a 23-year-old from Afghanistan, solidarity amongst neighboring states has been unique in this war. She had been in Ukraine for about six months since being evacuated from Kabul, escaping the Taliban, before she had to flee again.
After spending a night sleeping on the floor of a cold church in Lviv, she was connected to Polish volunteers via a WhatsApp solidarity group, and one crossed the border to pick her up and bring her over.
“Many things happened that reminded me of Kabul. But the kindness that I was seeing on this journey was remarkable,” she said. “In Afghanistan, you saw neighboring countries like Iran, Uzbekistan and Pakistan close their borders to Afghans.”
Tajik said she had no trouble at the border, and despite having an expired 15-day visa, the guards gave her a warm smile and let her through.
“When I left Afghanistan and went to Ukraine, they welcomed me warmly and I felt the home that I had lost,” she said. “I hate war. I am tired of it. It has taken people from me who are dear to me. I cannot afford to lose more.”
Fellow Afghan refugee, Jawad Akmal, remembers speeding to the Kabul airport one night in August, escorted by Ukrainian Special Forces. He said his relief was enormous when he boarded the plane to Kyiv along with his family. His wife, he later found out, was pregnant with their sixth child.
They were waiting to be resettled in Canada, their final destination, but after six months living in a Kyiv hotel room, he found himself in the middle of another war, unable to find food for his children and afraid he would be arrested with expired documents before he could make the police understand he was a refugee.
It was easier in Afghanistan, he said.
“At least that was my country, a place where I could talk to people in my own language, to ask for help to find shelter for me and my family,” he said over the phone from Kyiv, just hours before they left for Poland, traveling for more than a day on a bus crowded with fleeing Ukrainians.
Staif recalled walking all evening and night from Lviv, reaching the Polish border before dawn. People slept in the street. They ran out of food and water. The images are forever in his mind, he said, “people, in the thousands, all headed to the border, Ukrainian women and children."
From Poland, Staif flew to Prague, the Czech Republic, where his family picked him up in a car and brought him to Nuremberg, Germany.
“I loved Ukraine, I loved the country. Everything was perfect for me until the Russians came,” Staif said. “For me, this isn’t a happy ending,” he added, even though he was grateful to be reunited with his family.
The software engineering student said he was supposed to finish his last year of studies in Ukraine. “Now I don’t know."
“I might have to start all over again,” he said.
Naddaff reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed.