Inside the Traumatic Experience of Student Who Fled War in Ukraine: Psychologist Shares Insights

Ethiopia Ukraine Africa International Studies Higher Education News by Erudera News Sep 09, 2022

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Studying abroad turns out to be a life-changing experience for many, but things don’t always go as planned. Hirut Berhan from Ethiopia chose Ukraine as her study destination back in 2019, but little did she know her studies would be interrupted due to a war.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, she had to live between uncertainty, fear and anxiety for many days. Ever since, her journey has not been easy at all.

As if the horror of the war, the fear for her life, and the treatment she received at the border while trying to leave Ukraine were not enough, she is now facing mental health problems. Sadly, she doesn’t even remember many things after the traumatic experience she had to go through.

Speaking to Erudera earlier this year, she said that she had managed to leave Ukraine to find a safe shelter in Berlin, Germany, where she is still staying with a relative and continuing studies at her Ukrainian university remotely.

“It has been about five months since I came here, but since then, I am mentally and physically exhausted and hurt,” she says.

After settling in Berlin, although lost and confused, she intended to join another university, but she was asked to apply just like all other international students, submitting every document required. Hirut was unable to do it because she had left all her belongings in Ukraine, including school documents.

“Unfortunately, when I left Ukraine, I just wanted to save my life because I never thought I would make it alive. The other option I had was to go back to Ethiopia, which is really difficult because I don’t have any school documents, so what would I do there? Especially when I am not done with school, I have no option there. So I just stayed here hoping things in Ukraine get better,” Hirut told Erudera.

After leaving Ukraine, she was affected by depression, and her condition is worsening by living in a country where she does not feel welcome at all.

“The other hurtful thing is to be treated like a thief in different public areas just because I am black,” says Hirut as she recalls how a woman insulted her while she was using public transport, forcing her to call the police.

Despite the woman leaving before the police came, Hirut reported the incident, hoping that the same thing would not happen to other international students.

“I have no family or friends here, and I am not talking to anyone. In fact, I don’t like to talk on the phone like I used to. I have stress which is really affecting my life. I can even see the changes in my body. It is always disappointing and hurtful to find myself in this position.”

She is now experiencing financial hardship too, because she has to eat outside which is very expensive for a student. Hirut says she has to do it because she feels like she’s making her host uncomfortable, so in the absence of a place to live which she can pay for herself, the only thing she does at the house where she is staying is sleep and take a bath once a day.

>> Escaping War in Ukraine: Ethiopian Student Says She Is Experiencing Depression & Trauma

How Does War Affect Mental Health?

When struggling with mental health, people may find it hard to get on with their lives, and when a person is exposed to traumatic events, such as a war, the mental health consequences are long-term.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in situations of armed conflict, about 10 percent of the people who are exposed to traumatic events will be dealing with serious mental health issues, while another 10 percent will develop “behavior that will hinder their ability to function effectively.”

In an interview with Erudera, psychologist and psychotherapist, Irina Ciureanu, who specializes in transactional analysis, clinical hypnosis, trauma, and AEDP, described the war trauma as about not feeling safe.

“There is only one message the body and mind are preoccupied with: “you are in danger!” Of course, if this is true and you are in danger, this activation coming from the limbic system, an older part of our brain, is useful. As we just acquired immense energy we can use it to basically leave the situation or fight with the enemy,” Ciureanu says.

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However, she adds that when stimulation doesn’t come from the present but is triggered by what is seen and heard or relates to past fear or constant messages such as “I am not safe” or “something bad is going to happen to me” it is not helpful and first is needed to regain safety and peace.

“Avoid Too Much Media & Connect With Your Body to Overcome Hurdles”

Ciureanu explains that pain that doesn’t receive treatment transforms into traumatic pain. She says that if innate body responses facing trauma are interrupted, the energy remains stuck, and muscular pain and other issues appear, meaning that if trauma isn’t resolved, it becomes chronic.

She noted that the most common mental health struggles are emotion regulation issues, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, sleeping disorders, addiction, somatization disorders, and pain.

“In these kinds of sufferings, we usually see too much activation (hyperarousal) or too little activation (hypoarousal).”

To overcome problems such as anxiety, depression or even war-related trauma, Ciureanu says it is first necessary to distinguish the real present danger and any other threat that might belong to the past.

“When we actually are safe and feel that we aren’t, I would say that something from our past is “relieved” in the present, and we find ourselves not being able to sleep anymore, hyperventilating, anxious, or even having physical pains and suffering.”

Depending on the suffering, she advises students and all others who experience mental health problems, to stay away from things that are not helping, whether they are TV news, emotional videos on social media, or too much caffeine, as all these are filled with intense emotions and can trigger unwanted reactions.

“Friends and family can bring relief, safeness, and understanding, as this is actually the first thing we as humans do, in times of need. And this is actually great news as many students are surrounded by other students, or other people, as well.”

Some of the things that people can do to help themselves and overcome mental health hurdles, according to the psychologist, include:

  • Stay in the present and say: “I am safe now”
  • ground yourself: “feel the floor under your feet”
  • use imagination; imagine a nice place where you feel safe
  • think of any person, dead or alive, that cared about you and feel them being with you
  • concentrate on the body sensations
  • whenever experiencing pleasure and enjoyment, stay with the sensations and the feelings
  • notice the thoughts; they are only thoughts
  • if there are places in the body that feel good, concentrate on them for a while
  • if it's overwhelming, distract yourself with something else at least until things are tolerable again
  • imagine a box – put there for a while all your worries, all your negative feelings, all your thoughts
76,548 International Students Were Studying in Ukraine During 2020

About 76,548 international students from 155 countries were enrolled at universities in Ukraine in 2020, data by the Ukrainian State Center for International Education, part of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, indicate.

The same source revealed that back then, the top countries sending most international students to Ukraine were:

  • India – 18,095 students
  • Morocco – 8,832
  • Turkmenistan – 5,322
  • Azerbaijan – 4,628
  • Nigeria – 4,227
  • China – 4,055
  • Turkey – 3,999
  • Egypt – 3,048
  • Israel – 2,107
  • Uzbekistan – 1,585

Top five most popular universities in Ukraine for international students are: V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University which in 2020 was the home to 4,277 international students, followed by Kharkiv National Medical University, Bogomolets National Medical University, Odesa National Medical University, and Zaporizhzhia State Medical University.

The number of international students in Ukraine was even higher in 2019, based on data provided by Erudera. That year, a total of 80,470 students were enrolled in Ukrainian universities, the majority pursuing studies in medicine, medical practice, dentistry, management, and pharmacy.

>> Mental Health Awareness Month: Students Reveal How War in Ukraine Has Affected Their Mental Health

Note: The name of the student in this article has been replaced with Hirut Berhan, on her request.