Karachi: Twenty-year-old Fatima tuz Zahra went to Ukraine last year with high hopes for her gynecology studies. Little did she know that her education plans would be hampered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"My mother sold her car to finance my studies," she told DW, adding that her family has already spent over $10,000 (€9,515) on her studies and accommodation in Ukraine.
After the war broke out in January, she returned to Pakistan through a government-sponsored repatriation drive. Now she doesn't know when she can return to the Eastern European country.
"The war dashed our hopes to finish studies peacefully," said Zahra, a student at Kharkiv National Medical University.
"I had just finished my first semester when the war broke out," she said, adding that even if the situation improved in Ukraine, her family might not let her go back.
"There will be more inflation, which means a spike in tuition fee and other expenses," she said. "Many other students face a similar ordeal."
Zahra isn't the only Pakistani student whose education has been affected by the war in Ukraine; government statistics show that around 1,000 students face a similar situation.
Ukraine has been a preferred destination for many Pakistani students because of its quality education and relatively cheaper school fees, compared with institutions in Western Europe.
But Abdul Rashid, a former president of the Pakistan Medical Association in Islamabad, believes the problem can be solved.
"The government needs to allocate five seats in every medical college of the country for these students," he told DW.
Rashid said there have been precedents when the Pakistani government made allowances for Pakistani students in war-torn countries. "During the 1971 war, the students in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, were enrolled in West Pakistan. In recent years, Pakistani students in Afghanistan were admitted to Pakistani medical colleges."
Transfer to local and regional schools?
Ali Raza, the vice president of the Pakistan Medical Commission, told DW that the affected students could take entrance tests in Pakistan schools. "They could also apply for a transfer to other countries in the region with similar programs."
But Irshad called the government proposals unfeasible.
"These 'equivalence tests' are for students who have returned to the country voluntarily. For instance, somebody studied three years in Hungary, came back to Pakistan to study here — these exams are for these kinds of students," he said.
"But our situation is different. We did not come back voluntarily; we were forced by a war to return to Pakistan. Students who are in first or second semester cannot take the National Equivalence Board test," he pointed out.
Muhammad Azeem Irshad, another medical student, said his father spent all his savings to send him to Ukraine for higher studies. He said the Pakistani authorities must pay heed to their plight.
Jalal Uddin, a government official, said they cannot do much in the current situation.
"We cannot send the students back to Ukraine. They need to be patient," he said, adding that a six-month to one-year delay won't be a big issue. "Nothing is more precious than their lives."
Medical student Irshad said if the government didn't take prompt action, their future would be bleak.
"It seems that the Ukraine conflict will not end any time soon, therefore the government should enroll us in Pakistani medical schools," he told DW.
"Another problem is that this test requires six to seven months of preparation. We arrived in March, traumatized and shattered. How could we possibly have prepared for this test which is in June?"
Irshad added that the government proposals are also costly. "Even if we pass the test, the government will offer us an admission to private colleges that usually charge more than $11,000 a year. In Ukraine, it is just $4,500 a year," he said.
Repatriated students have urged the government to exempt them from the entrance test, and allow them to pay similar fee that they were paying in Ukraine