They wanted to be doctors, surgeons and super specialists. They had dreamed of saving lives, of sitting in air-conditioned cabins with titles hanging on the wall. Now there is very little left of those dreams and hopes.
The war in Ukraine, now in its eighth month, not only forced Indian students studying medicine there to return home, but also shattered their careers, leaving some of the students struggling with debt and frustration of settling for less prestigious courses such as nursing.
The Sunday Express spoke to four second-year students at Bukovina State Medical University in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, who said they felt helpless after their return from Ukraine and had had to change course and enroll in courses like BSc, BBA and Nursing.
Anand A, who is from Kollam in Kerala, was in his second year at the Bukovinian State Medical University when the war broke out, forcing him to flee the country with other Indian students. Anand had taken out a student loan of Rs 15 lakh, which was to cover the fee for the six-year course in Ukraine.
“When I joined the university, they asked me to enroll for the semester starting December 2020, but my flight was canceled and I arrived three days late. They refused to admit me and they told me to join the next semester. It was not possible to go back home so I paid an extra Rs 1.5 lakh for a core course. By the time I came back to India I had spent Rs 3 lakh from my bank loan and Rs 5-6 lakh from my parents savings on flights, food, stay etc,” said Anand.
In the last week of February, when war broke out between Ukraine and Russia, thousands of Indian students enrolled in medical colleges there were evacuated to India. While first-year and second-year students were advised to retake NEET, the pre-medical test for students aspiring for a career in medicine, and take fresh admissions, while second-year students they were allowed to continue classes online. However, these students were later told that they would only be allowed to continue online classes for theory courses, not for practical work, meaning they had to return to Ukraine or transfer to another country to continue medical studies.
“I was in a dilemma because my family didn’t have the money to send me to another country,” said Anand.
Anand’s father is retired and the only earning member of the family is his mother, a cancer survivor, who works as a nurse in Saudi Arabia to finance her son’s education.
“I had to mortgage my mother’s gold to close the bank loan. I asked about another loan to study abroad, but the bank seemed reluctant because the loan amount was much higher than what I had applied for to study in Ukraine,” he said.
Anand has now enrolled in a nursing college in Bangalore and hopes to find work abroad.
“It was not easy for me. I am 21 years old. I would have had to repeat the second year and medical training takes a long time to complete. We also have to clear additional exams to practice in India. I don’t want my mother to work so long. She depends on medication to survive. Although I wanted to see myself as a doctor and not a nurse, I had no choice,” she said.
Like Anand, his classmate Melvin Shaji Jose, who hails from Changanassery township in Kerala’s Kottayam district, has also decided to enroll for a postgraduate degree in nursing despite clearing NEET and qualifying for to a position in dentistry.
“I wanted to be a doctor and treat the sick. I don’t see myself cleaning my teeth and doing root canals,” he said.
Before choosing to go to Ukraine, Melvin had cleared the NEET twice, but with a score of 450, he was only eligible for admission to private medical colleges considered where the cost of education far outweighs the fees that Ukrainian universities charge.
Saying that he did a lot of research before deciding to study medicine in Ukraine, Melvin added, “I was eligible for a reputed university in India, but the fee was Rs 14 lakh a year. All the my cost of education along with tickets, food and stay would have come to 30 lakh rupees in Ukraine.”
“Their level of teaching is also good. But by the time I came back, my family had spent around 9 lakh rupees including visa and ticket charges, education fee etc. Although the students in my group have gone to other countries, I did not opt for it because the level of education. there is very low When I checked the National Medical Council (of India) website, there were no students from these countries who had cleared entry to FMGE in the last six years, which is mandatory for foreign medical graduates before to start practicing here,” said Melvin. .
Santosh Yadav, who hails from Himmat Nagar in Nanded, held out hope until last month when he finally gave up and enrolled in an undergraduate course.
Santosh, whose parents are farmers, was stuck in Ukraine hoping to be evacuated after the war broke out. He is now struggling to pay off the loan he took out for his studies in Ukraine.
“It’s not just the tuition fees. We paid for the flights, visas, local stay, food, personal expenses, including extra expenses due to the war. The banks are not willing to give it up,” he said. Santosh has chosen not to return to Ukraine even if the war ends and the situation improves.
“Today even if he decides to return to Ukraine, what is the guarantee that the situation will not get worse? The Indian government could then say that we had warned the students. I can’t take that risk. My family has no money to spare. Also, I don’t have a family business to fall back on if I don’t get my degree. I need a job to survive, so I decided to let go of my dream of becoming a doctor and took admission in the undergraduate course. It’s okay, not all dreams come true,” he said.
For 20-year-old Satnam Singh, the choice between returning to Ukraine or enrolling in a course in India was fraught with risks and challenges.
Satnam, a resident of the Marori village of Patiala and the only child in his family, remembers the trauma his mother suffered when he was trapped in the war zone.
“In Chernivtsi in Ukraine, to support myself, I used to work in a restaurant after attending classes. When the war broke out, buses full of medical students arrived from Ternopil and said they had not eaten for two days. The owner of the restaurant, who was a Punjabi, told me that we have to do ‘seva’. I used to cook 10 kg of rice and dal every day for the students. A couple of days later, someone called from my village saying that my mother was so worried about me that she hadn’t eaten in days. That’s when I decided to go back and became one of the last 50 students to be evacuated from my university. My mother is so afraid of losing me that she won’t let me go back to Ukraine,” he said.
Satnam said his father, a farmer, had taken a loan against his crop from private lenders to fund his education.
“My family has supported me a lot. I studied in a public school in my village till class 10 where English was not taught. At Patiala University, where my parents sent me to study science, I used to feel embarrassed in front of students who spoke English fluently. So my father hired an English tutor. Later, I took the NEET exam twice but scored less. My parents risked everything and decided to send me abroad to study medicine because they knew it was my dream. Now, for his sake, I must make strong decisions. I have decided to take a course on “recreational counselling” in Canada. I have relatives in Canada who will help me. Being a doctor is my dream, but I also have to be pragmatic. Between MBBS and life, I chose life,” said Satnam.