‘Hiding in basements’: Thousands of Lebanese trapped in Ukraine

Ali Chreim’s phone has been ringing non-stop.

“Good morning, what’s the situation where you’re at? We slept underground and we heard sounds,” a Lebanese student in Ukraine tells him in a voice message, trying to hold back her tears. “We’re so exhausted. My body is shaking.”

A Lebanese university professor who has lived in Kyiv for 33 years, Chreim said thousands of his compatriots trapped in Ukraine are trying to leave, as Russian forces continue to bombard the country.

“We have Lebanese families with two or three-month-old babies who recently emigrated because of the economic crisis,” he said, referring to his country’s financial woes. “We’re trying to send them food.”

Chreim heads the Lebanese Community in Ukraine, a diaspora group in the country. He said there are some 4,500 Lebanese living in Ukraine, of whom about 1,300 are students.

Some are barely 20 years old.

“They didn’t live through [Lebanon’s 1975-1990] civil war or through the wars with Israel,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like and they’re horrified.”

Some students have posted videos on social media, appealing to the Lebanese government to help them evacuate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address on Friday morning that 137 people, both civilians and military personnel, have been killed and hundreds more wounded since Russia launched its multi-pronged attack in the early hours of Thursday.

Lebanon’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it would form a crisis team composed of ministerial officials and the Lebanese ambassadors of Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Romania to “exchange information and propose next steps that need to be taken”.

The ministry also set up a signup form and hotline for Lebanese in Ukraine.

“Two weeks ago, the embassy told us word for word, ‘Your government is very poor now and can barely feed themselves, how do you expect anything from this government’,” said a medical student in Kyiv, who did not want to share her name, fearing reprisals.

The student lives with five other Lebanese students in the capital, all between the ages of 23 and 25.

After an “overwhelming” night where they heard the sound of explosions, they decided to pack up and drive westward towards Poland. They left their home early in the morning, but have been stuck in traffic for hours.

“We’re not angry [at the Lebanese government],” she said. “We’re disappointed, but not surprised by our government.”

Lebanon’s government is nearly bankrupt amid a deepening economic crisis that has decimated the Lebanese pound by about 90 percent and has pushed three-quarters of the population into poverty.

 

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