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Tunisian students who fled Ukraine face the unknown

Tunisian students who attended universities in Ukraine before fleeing the Russian war are currently in limbo as state universities refuse to enroll them while authorities are scrambling to resolve their situation.
Tunisian students evacuated from Ukraine pose with the Ukrainian flag upon their arrival at the Tunis-Carthage airport on March 1, 2022.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisian students at Ukrainian universities who fled Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February now face difficult conditions, as public Tunisian universities refuse to enroll them and authorities continue to ignore their plight. 

The failure to integrate these students into Tunisian universities has sparked widespread controversy in Tunisia. 

Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education announced at the beginning of the academic year in late September that Tunisian medical students who attend online courses with their Ukrainian universities would be allowed to attend internships in state hospitals and medical centers inside Tunisia instead of enrolling in local universities, which, according to the ministry, do not have the capacities to integrate a high number of students. 

The decision was widely rejected by doctors, medical students and hospitals, claiming that the move would lead to the privatization of public education in Tunisia since medical internships at public hospitals are handed out to students from public universities. 

Cyrine Abdallah, a medical student who attended university in Ukraine before fleeing to Tunisia, told Al-Monitor, “Not all of us asked to be integrated in Tunisian universities. We demand that the authorities provide an explanation regarding our future in Tunisia. Although they refused to let us study online, they allowed us to do internships with them. How can this be done? There is a contradiction here.”

She added, “The authorities told us to join other universities abroad. The university I am enrolled in in Ukraine cooperates with a private university in Georgia. When I contacted Tunisian authorities about that, they said that the degree from this university [in Georgia] is not accredited by the state. So we asked them to provide us with a list of universities that the Tunisian state officially recognizes. But we have yet to receive this list.”

Abdallah continued, “Our future remains unknown. The education minister said that coordination is underway with other countries where we can pursue our studies, but he did not name any of these countries.”

In light of the authorities’ ambiguity in dealing with this situation, many Tunisian students returned to Ukraine despite the ongoing fierce battles between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Omar Obeidi, a public health care student who recently returned to Ukraine, told Al-Monitor, “I chose to return to Dnipro city in Ukraine rather than staying in Tunisia. The state is absent. It is now preoccupied with providing Tunisians with the basic needs and does not care about the elite, which is very unfortunate.”

Obeidi added, “The problem we faced is that local students and their representatives in Tunisian universities oppose our integration into these universities amid a complete absence of the state. They even refused that we attend internships in Tunisia, [which is necessary] in order for us to complete our studies. I personally decided to return to Ukraine despite the dangers and the war rather than staying in Tunisia.”

Meanwhile, students are concerned that the online learning provided by Ukrainian universities will stop due to the increasing Russian shelling following the recent setbacks Russian forces suffered.

Al-Monitor contacted the spokesperson from the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education, who said, “The ministry does not want to comment. We content ourselves with the press releases that we issued lately.”

Tunisian authorities acknowledge that it is impossible to integrate these students. Yet not all of them seek to be integrated into the public education system in Tunisia, as many just want to obtain a list of accredited universities in Tunisia so that they can pursue their studies there.

According to Education Minister Moncef Boukather, the number of Tunisian medical students from Ukrainian universities is estimated at 1,400 currently in limbo in Tunisia.

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