They wanted to become doctors, surgeons and super-specialists. They had dreamt of saving lives, of sitting in air-conditioned cabins with their degrees hanging on the wall. There’s very little left of these dreams and hopes now.
The war in Ukraine, now in its eighth month, not only forced Indian students studying medicine there to return home but also gutted their careers, leaving some of the students struggling with a pile of debt and the frustration of settling for less prestigious courses such as nursing.
The Sunday Express spoke to four second-year students of Bukovinian State Medical University in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, who said they felt helpless after their return from Ukraine and have had to shift streams and enrol in courses such as BSc, BBA and nursing.
Anand A, who is from Kollam in Kerala, was in his second year at Bukovinian State Medical University when the war erupted, forcing him to flee the country with other Indian students. Anand had taken a student loan of Rs 15 lakh, which was meant to cover the six-year course fee in Ukraine.
“When I joined the university, I was asked to enroll for the semester starting in December 2020, but my flight got cancelled and I reached three days late. They refused to admit me and told me to join the next semester. It was not possible to return home, so I paid Rs 1.5 lakh extra for a foundation course. By the time I returned to India, I had spent Rs 3 lakh of my bank loan and Rs 5-6 lakh of my parents’ savings on flights, food, stay, etc.,” Anand said.
In the last week of February, as war broke out between Ukraine and Russia, thousands of Indian students enrolled in medical colleges there were evacuated to India. While first- and second-year students were advised to re-appear for NEET — the pre-medical test for students who aspired for a career in medicine — and take fresh admissions, while the senior-year students were allowed to continue online classes. However, these students were later told that they would be allowed to continue online classes only for theoretical courses, not practical work, which meant that they had to return to Ukraine or take a transfer to another country for continuing medical studies.
“I was caught in a dilemma because my family did not have the money to send me to another country,” Anand said.
Anand’s father is retired and the family’s only earning member is his mother, a cancer survivor, who is working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia to fund her son’s education.
“I had to mortgage my mother’s gold to close the bank loan. I enquired about another loan for studying abroad, but the bank seemed reluctant because the loan amount was much higher than what I had borrowed for studying in Ukraine,” he said.
Anand has now enrolled in a nursing college in Bengaluru and hopes to find work abroad.
“It was not easy for me. I am 21. I would have had to repeat the second year and medical education takes a long time to complete. We also need to clear extra exams to be eligible to practise in India. I don’t want my mother to work for that long. She is dependent on medicines for survival. Though she wanted to see me as a doctor and not a nurse, I didn’t have a choice,” he said.
Like Anand, his classmate Melvin Shaji Jose, who is from the municipal town of Changanassery in Kerala’s Kottayam district, has also decided to enrol for a graduate degree in nursing despite clearing NEET and qualifying for a seat in dentistry.
“I wanted to become a doctor and treat sick people. I don’t see myself cleaning teeth and doing root canals,” he said.
Before he chose to go to Ukraine, Melvin had cleared the NEET twice, but with a score of 450, he was eligible for admission to only the deemed private medical colleges where the cost of education far exceeds the fees charged by universities in Ukraine.
Saying that he did a lot of research before deciding to take up medical studies in Ukraine, Melvin added, “I was eligible for a deemed college in India but the fee was Rs 14 lakh a year. My entire cost of education, along with tickets, food and stay, would have worked out to Rs 30 lakh in Ukraine.”
“Their standard of teaching is also good. But by the time I returned, my family had spent around Rs 9 lakh, including visa and ticket charges, education fee, etc. Though students from my batch have gone to other countries, I didn’t opt for it because the standard of education there is very low. When I checked the National Medical Council (of India) website, there was not a single student from these countries who had cleared the FMGE entrance in the last six years, which is mandatory for foreign medical graduates before they start practising here,” Melvin said.
Santosh Yadav, who hails from Himmat Nagar in Nanded, held on to hope until last month when he finally gave up and enrolled in a BSc course.
Santosh, whose parents are farmers, was stuck in Ukraine hoping for evacuation after the war broke out. He is now struggling to repay the loan he had taken for his studies in Ukraine.
“It is not just tuition fees. We paid for flights, visas, local stay, food, personal expenses, including extra expenses due to the war. The banks are not ready to waive it off,” he said. Santosh has chosen not to return to Ukraine even if the war comes to an end and the situation improves.
“Today even if I decide to return to Ukraine, what is the guarantee that the situation will not worsen? The Indian government might say then that we had warned the students. I cannot take this risk. My family does not have the money to spare. Also, I don’t have a family business to fall back on if my degree doesn’t work out. I need a job to survive so I decided to let go of my dream to become a doctor and took admission in the BSc course. It’s okay, not all dreams come true,” he said.
For Satnam Singh, 20, the choice of either returning to Ukraine or enrolling for a course in India was fraught with risks and challenges.
A resident of Patiala’s Marori village and the only child in his family, Satnam recalls the trauma his mother went through when he was stuck in the war zone.
“At 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 they said they hadn’t eaten for two days. The restaurant owner, who was a Punjabi, told me that we must 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 for me that she hadn’t eaten for days. That’s when I decided to go back and became one of the last 50 students to be evacuated from my college. My mother is so scared of losing me that she will not allow me to return to Ukraine,” he said.
Satnam said his father, a farmer, had taken a loan against his crop from private money lenders to fund his education.
“My family has supported me a lot. I studied in a government school in my village till Class 10 where English was not taught. At the college in Patiala, where my parents sent me to study science, I used to feel embarrassed in front of students who spoke fluent English. So, my father engaged an English tutor. Later, I took the NEET exam twice but scored less. My parents risked everything and chose to send me abroad to study medicine since they knew it was my dream. Now, for their sake, I need to take strong decisions. I have decided to take up a course on ‘recreational counselling’ in Canada. I have relatives in Canada who will help me. Becoming a doctor is my dream, but I need to be pragmatic too. Between MBBS and life, I chose life,” Satnam said.