Nepalis flee Ukraine as Russians advance


When Govinda finished his shift in a courier company and returned to his room in Kyiv on 24 February, he found many missed calls on his phone from family in Nepal.

Russia had occupied parts of Ukraine, but he was too busy to notice that a full-scale war had broken out  “My family back home knew what was going on in Ukraine even before I had,” Govinda said.

Initially, like many of the 4,000 Nepalis in Ukraine, Govinda and his friends decided to wait it out. But as the air raid sirens started going off near their hostel close to Kyiv’s Sikorsky airport, they knew it was time to get out.

“We heard the borders were open, so we ran for our lives,” Govinda recalls, but little did they know what awaited them there.

They left Kyiv in a crowded train at 7PM, got to Lviv, took a bus and then a taxi that dropped them 25km from the border because of a traffic jam. They trekked for seven hours in the freezing cold, abandoned their heavy bags, and reached the border only at 6PM.

In an ordeal repeated many thousands of times in this crisis, Govinda and other Nepalis had to wait another 24 hours in the unbearable cold for their turn to cross the border. Women, children and elderly were processed first. Then it was the turn of EU and other foreigners, and only then African and Asian students and workers.

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“We experienced quite a lot of racism,” Govinda says. “Everyone was tired, hungry and irritable, desperate to get out. But we were relatively lucky, it has been much worse for others.”

The Polish border checkpoint of Przemyśl on the other side at first did not allow people without visas, but they started letting them through with a 1-month entry stamp.


At the time Govinda and other Nepalis were stuck at the border, Ishwor Devkota of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) got a call from stranded Nepalis and drove seven hours to the border. It was utter chaos, and all attempts to convince the Polish guards to allow the Nepalis through were in vain.

“There was nothing we could do at that time, so we drove back empty handed,” says Devkota, who runs a restaurant in Wrocław.

In the week since the invasion began, more than 200 Nepalis have arrived in Warsaw where the NRNA is looking after them. There are another 100 who have crossed into Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. 

In Bratislava, Jaya Prasad Siwakoti of the Europe-wide NRNA Rescue Committee, closed his restaurant to feed and house Nepalis who fled Ukraine.

“We rented a hostel, and used donations to take care of our people, but this war could drag on and we need a longer term strategy,” Devkota said, urging the government in Kathmandu to step in. Nepal’s ambassador at the Berlin embassy Ram Kaji Khadka is said to be on his way to the Ukraine’s border with Poland to use his diplomatic status to get out Nepalis stuck at the checkpoint.

Responding to criticism in social media about mistreatment of Africans and Asians trying to flee his country, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba posted a video on Twitter assuring all foreigners quick processing at the western border on a ‘first come first serve’ basis. He urged all stranded foreigners to call the +380934185684 hotline.

On Thursday, Nepal requested India to include Nepali students in its safe passage deal with Russia for students stranded in Kharkiv and other battle-torn cities. Nepal was among 141 countries that supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion. Bhutan and the Maldives also voted for, while other SAARC members abstained.

Within Ukraine itself, remaining Nepalis speak of the fear of a full-scale Russian assault on the cities. One Nepali posted in social media saying he was joining the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

“I managed to get out to safety, but the future is very uncertain for me,” Govinda told Nepali Times over the phone from Warsaw on Wednesday. “I don’t see returning to Nepal as an immediate option. Besides, the embassy said we had to buy our own tickets back. We will see if we can work while we wait it out here.”

Govinda paid Rs800,000 to an agent to get him to Europe, but found himself in Ukraine. “I had never heard of Ukraine before, and it did not look too bad when I googled it. Europe was Europe and that is what mattered to me,” he recalls.

He entered Ukraine on a student visa for language classes, but that was just an excuse to get into the country. He quit school, and started working at a shawarma restaurant, later switching to a courier company that paid him $500 a month. 

Prakash also made it out to Warsaw, and says that for the moment he is just happy to have escaped the war zone. “Right now we are just taking it one day at a time, and trying to gauge the situation, and work if they allow us,” he said.

Prakash paid Rs1.4 million to a recruiter to get him to Europe, thinking he was going to Portugal. In Ukraine he was earning $800 a month, and still paying back his loans.

He adds, “Now, even if I go back to Nepal, I will need to migrate again to earn money to pay back.”

Names have been changed.