Thousands of foreigners were studying in Ukraine when Russia invaded. Now, 170 medical students from 10 countries are continuing their studies in Nis in southern Serbia.
At the end of February 2022, Shinga Chikura was close to despair. “I thought that was it; it’s over; that’s my life trying to become a doctor,” the 26-year-old Briton told DW.
When he finished school, Chikura wanted to study medicine and spent a long time trying to get a place at university in the UK. When that didn’t work out, he began investigating the possibility of studying elsewhere in Europe.
Six years ago, he finally began studying medicine — in English — in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Studying came easily to him and he quickly felt at home in the country and with the people. He had no plans to leave Ukraine before completing his degree. Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Because all flights out of the country were canceled when war broke out, Chikura, who was in the middle of his sixth year at university, fled Ukraine and traveled back to England over land. After spending days waiting at numerous borders, he finally made it home.
He immediately began looking for a college place in another European country. “I tried to apply in many countries — even in England, France, Germany — and they all said that they could only allow me to start in first year,” he said. “I began to think that all my time in Ukraine had been wasted.”
University credits from Ukraine recognized in Nis
Then he heard that it would be possible to continue his degree in the southern Serbian city of Nis. “When I thought about Serbia, I said, ‘It’s in Eastern Europe — it’s pretty close to Ukraine; there could be a war,'” he said. “But then I looked at some details and spoke to a few people that were already here, and they said everything’s fine.”
A few days later, Chikura had registered at the University of Nis. He’s been living in Serbia for just under 10 months now.
He is most pleased about the fact that the university recognized most of his credits from his time in Ukraine and that he was able to join year five of the degree course. “I’ve lost just under one year,” he said happily.
The University of Nis has been offering a degree in medicine in English for four years now. Since war broke out in Ukraine, however, the number of applications has skyrocketed. The new students come from a wide range of countries.
Frightening experience for foreign students
Shireen Rahmani from Saudi Arabia told DW that she wanted to leave Ukraine and come to Serbia before the war. “I really liked the website of the University of Nis, especially all the relevant publications by the professors,” said the 22-year-old, who is also in the fifth year of her degree course. “What’s more, I found the long, cold Ukrainian winters really difficult.”
But it was the horror unleashed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that sealed her decision to actually switch to Nis. “It was honestly a very frightening, scary period of my life,” she told DW, “because even after the whole situation when I came home, for days I had PTSD. Even now when I hear fireworks, the first thing on my mind is, ‘I hope it’s just fireworks, I hope it’s not bombardment.'”
Support for arrivals from Ukraine
She is also concerned about the tension between Serbia and neighboring Kosovo: “Sometimes there’s still this fear in the back of my mind that something might happen,” she said.
In view of all this, the support she received as a new arrival from Ukraine from staff at the University of Nis was even more important. “They really helped me,” she said, “and not just with university matters, but also finding accommodation and adjusting to life in Serbia. That did me a lot of good.”
Cost of living a key factor
Among the foreign students in Nis are some who came directly to Serbia to study, like Anika Jobair from Germany. “I was very lucky to get the position, because they take just 25 candidates and I got it,” she said, recalling how afraid she was that she would not pass the entrance exam in English.
Anika is 37 years old and in the third year of her course. “I always wanted to go to university,” she told DW, “but although university fees in Germany are low, the cost of living is very high.”
This is why Anika spent years working as a medical laboratory assistant in oral surgery, facial surgery, oncology and pediatrics.
Mutual recognition of degrees
So, what made her choose Nis? “I researched a bit and found out that they also work on the Bologna principle, which is equivalent to a German education system.” She also explained that in accordance with the West Balkan Agreement, each country recognizes degrees from the other.
Above all, she likes the fact that the groups at the University of Nis are small. “The connection between the professor and student is very close, so they have enough time for us; they can explain things if something is unclear, so this is still a very big benefit for all of us.” She also points out that many doctors from Serbia work in Germany and are very highly thought of there.
The annual fees for foreign students studying medicine at the University of Nis are €5,500 ($5,953). At present, 268 students from the UK, Germany, France, Portugal, Norway, Finland, Ireland, India, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria are registered at the university. Of this number, 170 previously studied in Ukraine.
Doctor Milan Trenkic, professor of gynecology and obstetrics, is particularly impressed with the students.
“I don’t know whether it is something they brought with them from Ukraine, but they really expect a lot of themselves — and of us, too. Above all, they want our full attention,” he said. “If they don’t understand something linguistically, they immediately check on their tablets. Luckily, medical terms the world over are in Latin.”