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Russia Ukraine conflict

‘I feel empty, scared’: Dubai-based Ukrainian expats share their ordeal amid invasion

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Ukrainian expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates shared their fears and concerns about their family and friends who are still stuck in Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Dubai-based Ukrainian expat Olga told Al Arabiya English that her life has not been the same since the start of the invasion.

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“I’m totally destroyed and frustrated,” the 33-year-old said. “This has been the worst week of my life. Me and my friends here in Dubai are trying to help in every possible way.”

Olga’s family members are from Kyiv and have decided to stay in the capital throughout the invasion to help with the situation however they can.

“My mom is volunteering and helping to weave the camouflage nets for our army and sorting the donated clothes that will be sent to the most affected regions,” she said, adding that her pregnant sister, however, fled Kyiv out of fear for her life.

“My family is in Western Ukraine. There have been some airstrikes there, but it is still a little bit safe than other regions. My sister is pregnant, so she made a decision to leave Kyiv after the first missile strikes hit the city,” Olga explained. “She said she had never been more scared in her life.”

Many residential buildings were destroyed in Kyiv, Olga said. Despite this, many of her friends refused to leave the city despite the critical situation.

A view shows an apartment building damaged by recent shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine February 26, 2022. (Reuters)
A view shows an apartment building damaged by recent shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine February 26, 2022. (Reuters)

“The last time the city looked like this was probably after World War Two.”

‘I feel empty and scared’

Ukrainian expat and operations manager at a media firm in Dubai, Anna, 31, told Al Arabiya English that it has not been easy for her friends and family to reach the European border.

“We [Ukrainians] all know what is going on. This is not a ‘special operation,’ this is a real war,” said Anna. “The invasion has united all Ukrainians. We want to say to Putin that we don’t want his help on the territory of our independent country.”

Rescuers remove debris in the regional administration building, which city officials said was hit by a missile attack, in central Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (File Photo: Reuters)
Rescuers remove debris in the regional administration building, which city officials said was hit by a missile attack, in central Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (File Photo: Reuters)

“I am from the east [of Ukraine] and for my family and friends, it has not been easy to reach the border with Europe. We are 1,300 kilometers away from the border with Europe. My father and brother can’t leave the country now, under the new update from the government,” she explained.

“I feel empty inside… and scared. I can’t help them,” she said. “Everything I wanted 10 days ago, I don’t want it anymore. All I want is for the Ukrainian people stuck in Ukraine to be safe.”

She continued, “One thing I can say for sure is that our people are very strong, and they hope that this will end tomorrow.”

There have been conflicting accounts about the number of civilian deaths in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. The country’s State Emergency service said on Wednesday that over 2,000 civilians have died because of the invasion, but the United Nations has cautioned that this number might be much higher.

“Ukraine is fully destroyed. I really don’t know what the future holds for my country, but I am sure we will win,” Anna said.

Dubai-based communications professional and Ukranian expat Maria S., 31, used to live in the Solimyanskii District, had lived abroad ever since she was 22.

A residential building right next to the school she used to go to has been bombed, she said, which is about a five minute walk from her home.

“My friends are there and my uncle, who is my closest relative.”

“I woke up on February 24 with a message from my friend at around 7 in the morning. She texted one word: it [the invasion] started," she explained. “Since then, I’ve gone through lots of phases, I guess. I couldn’t sleep for three days…I was crying.”

“I have some of my childhood friends who are volunteers in the [Ukrainian] army right now,” Maria S. said in an interview with Al Arabiya English. “Most of my friends have left the country, the majority of them are in Europe. In Poland and Germany.”

‘Crime against humanity’

Maria P., 32-year-old Dubai-based Ukrainian expat, told Al Arabiya English that her family has been hiding in shelters.

“It’s a war. My city Kharkiv is under attack. My family and friends are hiding in shelters,” she said, deeming the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “crime against humanity.”

A satellite image shows a damaged bridgeroad and nearby homes, in Chernihiv, Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (Reuters)
A satellite image shows a damaged bridgeroad and nearby homes, in Chernihiv, Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (Reuters)

The northeastern city of Kharkiv, is the second-largest city and municipality in Ukraine and has long-been renowned for being a major cultural and educational hub in the country.

Russian paratroopers landed in the city to fight and take control of it early Thursday, with intense shelling.

Three men stand in the rubble in Zhytomyr on March 02, 2022, following a Russian bombing the day before. (AFP)
Three men stand in the rubble in Zhytomyr on March 02, 2022, following a Russian bombing the day before. (AFP)

More than one million people have fled Ukraine to seek refuge in neighboring countries since last week, the United Nations reported on Thursday, adding that the number could increase to four million.

“I am against war. I am against Putin,” said Maria P.

“One of my old classmates went by bicycle from Kyiv to Lviv, which is around 10 hours by car, so I don’t even know how much time it took for her to go there by bicycle but she got there and she managed to cross the border to go to Poland and eventually, Germany. I’ve been watching her stories [on Instagram] from the shelter and in the conditions they are in right now and bombed cities,” said Maria S. “I feel like the people abroad are panicking more than them. I never thought that people could be that brave. They [Ukrainian people] never stop trying. They never stop believing.”

“Everyone has been extremely brave.”

Tensions rise between Russians and Ukrainians

Many Ukrainians took to social media over the past week to express their fear and disappointment over the Russian invasion and the state of their country, but this has since caused tensions to rise between Russians and Ukrainians.

“For us, Ukrainians, our normal life stopped last Thursday at 5 in the morning with the first Russian airstrike,” Olga said, adding that she was disappointed by many of her Russian friends who were posting videos of themselves having fun and partying on social media while all the Ukrainians they knew were grappling with fear and guilt, trying to help their families back home in any way possible.

“Some of my Russian friends are sincerely sorry about what’s been happening in Ukraine. Some others I used to regularly chat with before suddenly started to avoid me, or if they can’t [avoid me], they pretend like nothing is happening,” she said, adding that some of her Russian friends and relatives living in Russia had not texted her since the beginning of the invasion.

“They didn’t check if I’m OK or if [my family] are safe. This silence for me is also an answer.”

Maria P., 32, told Al Arabiya English that she felt a little tension with her Russian expat friends.

“The Russian invasion has caused some tension between me and some of my Russian expat friends. But the majority of my Russian friends are against the Russian regime and the war,” said Maria P.

Anna said that Russia has been waging an “informational” war by managing to “isolate a lot of people from reality and pin them against us [Ukrainians].”

“Russians who live abroad, they understand what happened and that people should not suffer. Even some Russians living in Russia can’t seem to understand why their government took this step and they feel sorry as we are connected by families and realities. But I can’t understand why some Russians wish us dead and are in favor of the war,” she said.

“Propaganda and Russian TV works well. On the third day of the Russian invasion, Russian TV showed that there were no victims from their army. Can you imagine? And who did they send to fight us? Young men, military students,” added Anna.

“I want Russian people to understand that a game of politics can never make up for the cost of the lives that are lost.”

“I am incredibly proud of our president. If it was not for him, we would lose on the first day,” said Maria S.

“I am not against Russia. I am against the people who support the conflict, regardless of their nationalities,” she added. “They [Russian army] are physically bringing their military technique and military planes, they are shooting our civilians, [destroying] our houses, ruining our childhood memories.”

“Thankfully, all my friends are against what is happening and they are doing their best to help and spread the news,” Maria S. explained. “Right now, we have a strong army and united people despite being under attack, me and my friends from all parts of the world are trying to sort out logistics for those who are in need. No one is asking for money, people giving accommodation, transfer and food for free.”

Throughout 2021 and the beginning of 2022, Russia’s military buildup on its shared border with Ukraine had escalated tensions between the two countries and tremendously affected their bilateral relations.

Ukrainian law enforcement officers take part in special tactical training exercises held by police, the National Guard and security services at the Kalanchak training ground in the Kherson region, Ukraine, on February 12, 2022. (Reuters)
Ukrainian law enforcement officers take part in special tactical training exercises held by police, the National Guard and security services at the Kalanchak training ground in the Kherson region, Ukraine, on February 12, 2022. (Reuters)

Many countries have acted in solidarity, imposing tough sanctions on Russia and denouncing it over its invasion of Ukraine.

The UN General Assembly on Wednesday overwhelmingly voted to reprimand Russia over the invasion and demanded that it stop fighting and withdraw its military forces, aiming to diplomatically isolate Russia at the world body, Reuters reported.

Moscow has dealt with unprecedented international backlash over the past few days, especially from the West, whose sanctions have crippled Russia’s economy, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest assault on a European state since the Second World War.

Read more:

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Moscow warns West against further escalations: Report

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