20 students back in Jamaica from war-ravaged Ukraine

It’s not unusual for passengers to applaud when the wheels of an aeroplane touch Jamaican soil, but the cheers that erupted Wednesday evening on-board the Eurowings flight from Frankfurt had added meaning. They signalled the safe arrival of 20 Jamaican students who days earlier had escaped war-ravaged Ukraine.

“I wasn’t able to see the students because they were not sitting in the same section that I sat in. But, overall, it was a cool flight, no complaints,” said Swedish national Gustav Dahlin, who shared the same flight. “There was actually applause when the plane landed.”

From early evening, anticipation ran high among staff at Sangster International Airport (SIA), many expressing well wishes for the students and praising the Jamaican Government for bringing them home.

Among those who warmly welcomed the return of the students was Paul Nelson, a red cap porter at the airport.

“I am extremely delighted to know that our students are coming home. As a red cap I should lift my hat to give thanks to the Father for his blessings to get these kids home. I know their parents must be as elated as I [am],” Nelson told the Jamaica Observer.

Ground transportation operator Steve Spence, who was equally in high spirits, heaped praises on the Government for making arrangements to get the Jamaican students out of the war zone.

“It was good for the Government to send for the kids, because if they remained there we don’t know what could have happened. We could lose them, or something bad could have happened to them. But for them to come here I think it is one of the best things for them,” Spence stated.

The transport operator said he dreaded what could have happened to the students if they had become trapped in the European country as the war progressed.

“The shelling could get them traumatised… and they could even be physically harmed. As a parent myself, if my child was among the students I would have loved for them to get back here that mi can see them. I would be eager to see them. You can’t be comfortable if you leave your child behind,” he said.

Gladstone Sinclair, a car rental representative, said he empathised “with the students who were looking for opportunities [and he could] understand why they left in the first place”.

The students’ arrival was tightly managed by the foreign affairs ministry, with only the Jamaica Information Service allowed inside SIA.

Nineteen from among the group of 20 students were whisked away in a waiting bus about 8:30 pm. Arrangements had been made to expedite their way through the usual immigration and Customs procedures.

One student who exited the airport through the arrivals door was greeted by her mother and a sibling who tenderly embraced her. She was then quickly whisked away by her family, a policeman, and the security manager of MBJ Airports Ltd, operators of SIA.

The students’ return was bittersweet for Nicole Senior, who expressed relief that her niece had returned home safely, but regretted that her studies had to be cut short.

“For me, it’s just relief to know that she is safe and… back on Jamaican soil. It was a traumatic experience, but right now my mind is being applied to what will the Government do for them to resume their education,” she said.

“To have your dreams of a better life snatched out of your hands is not easy. So I need to find out from the minister [of foreign affairs] what options are being explored. My issue is that all of these students went away with one objective, that was to get an education to get a better life and to come back to Jamaica to make their own contribution,” she added.

She is hoping the Government will arrange for students, especially those in their final year, to continue their studies as soon as possible.

“I hear the minister [of foreign affairs] saying that she will be looking at schools around the region and The University of West Indies (UWI) to see if they can be accommodated… I know that the [students] who were on their last year of study, yes they will prioritise those, and I understand that. But I think that UWI must can make some accommodation for those students right now,” Senior urged.

“They will not have their transcripts, they will not have anything, but because they are in their final year shows that they have reached a level of competence, so they can accept those students without question. It is their duty.”

She added: “For students in different years of study, especially for first year — my niece was in her first year — it was just beginning, some concession must can be made. UWI is our premier institution. Yes, the funds were not there for them, but these students have been traumatised, and the fact that they no longer are pursuing their dreams on their own terms, where they can afford it, means that something has to be done for them.”

The students, who had gone to Ukraine to study medicine, found themselves in the middle of a deadly war after Russia launched a full-scale military invasion on Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

After taking cover in a bunker in the capital city, Kyiv, the students recalled hearing multiple explosions. Hours later, they boarded a train that took them to Lviv in Western Ukraine. They were to be transported from Lviv to the Polish border by bus, but that plan was disrupted, forcing them to walk for hours to an agreed border crossing point.

Throughout the journey, the students experienced bitter cold, with temperatures as low as 3°C. Two students eventually became ill; one because of the cold. They finally crossed the border on February 28.

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