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‘More freedom’: Why a Cameroonian man returned to Ukraine | Russia-Ukraine war

Lviv, Ukraine – Nelly Nelson, a Cameroonian entrepreneur and English trainer, had not wished to depart his adopted hometown of Lviv in western Ukraine when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the nation in February final 12 months.

“I used to be not that scared,” the 29-year-old remembers. “The place I’m from, there’s an expression: don’t run from what you don’t know.”

Nelson, who was born and raised within the metropolis of Buea, in southwest Cameroon, first got here to Ukraine in late 2018 to go to his older sister who was finding out at a medical college in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest metropolis within the northeast of the nation. He initially discovered it “chilly and bleak”, however a second go to the next 12 months through the hotter months to Lviv, the place his sister had moved for additional research, drastically modified his view of the nation. It appeared a lot friendlier and hotter than on his first go to, and he determined to remain and search for work.

“Lviv is the perfect metropolis in Ukraine,” he says as he sips on a juice in one of many metropolis’s stylish cafés. His heat, welcoming nature is instantly obvious as he politely locations an order from the waitress in Ukrainian. “You can begin a dialog with anybody. In case you are misplaced, folks will stroll you to the place it’s essential to go.” He remembers as soon as asking a middle-aged man for instructions in Kharkiv. “He simply averted me, so I needed to name a taxi.”

In Lviv, Nelson started working as a web based English tutor, incomes roughly $700 a month, sufficient to steer a snug life. He additionally rented an house – close to to his sister, her husband, and his three-year-old niece – from a pleasant landlord, Roman, who would develop into a “father determine” to Nelson.

In January 2022, he met his present girlfriend, a Ukrainian who had grown up close to Lviv, on a courting app. Surrounded by folks he cared about and with a daily earnings, he felt settled. He had discovered his new residence.

Nelson outside his apartment in a residential area situated in the hilly outskirts of Lviv, and standing in front of the Ford Sedan he travelled in to leave Ukraine
Nelson exterior his house in a residential space located within the hilly outskirts of Lviv, and standing in entrance of the Ford Sedan he travelled in to depart Ukraine [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘Depart now!’

Then, on February 14, 2022, the US closed its embassy within the capital, Kyiv. Nelson, who had been following the information intently, says he knew “this meant one thing was going to occur”.

With greater than 100,000 Russian troops amassed round Ukraine’s border and discuss of a looming invasion, he paid Roman three months’ value of lease prematurely so he and his girlfriend have been assured a roof over their heads within the occasion of battle and stocked up on necessities like water and canned meals.

Ten days later, on February 24, the invasion started. All through the day his sister obtained a sequence of anxiety-inducing calls from her mates in Kharkiv. They spoke of terrifying explosions and a mass exodus from town as Russian troops laid siege to the encircling areas.

Nelson tried to persuade her to not panic. Lviv was solely 70km (43 miles) from the Polish border – if Russian troops got here to town, they’d merely leap of their vehicles and drive to the border, he defined.

However later that day, their father referred to as and scolded him for planning to stay within the nation. “Are you silly? Depart now!” he mentioned.

“In our tradition, you respect your elders, even when they’re a day older. I’ve three siblings and am the youngest. That was that,” he explains.

Nelson, his girlfriend, and two mates crammed into his pink Ford sedan and set off for the border. “I solely packed a number of issues, some garments, my laptop. I knew I might return,” he remembers.

A photo of a very long line of cars on the left side of the road with cars moving on the right.
On the left, a queue of vehicles resulting in the Polish border in March 2022 [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Fifteen kilometres (9 miles) from the border they arrived on the metropolis of Yavoriv, residence to a army base that might be destroyed by Russian missiles a number of weeks later.

There they met a site visitors jam that snaked all the way in which as much as the border and signalled what Nelson describes as “some of the tough conditions in my life”.

He remembers seeing dad and mom hunched beneath the burden of huge baggage, their sleep-deprived youngsters strolling behind them, whereas others have been carrying aged family members on their backs as they handed the seemingly unending line of vehicles. The queue would edge ahead a number of metres each couple of minutes. The fixed stop-start was exhausting for Nelson who was driving, they usually apprehensive they’d by no means attain the border. Some individuals who had given up hope of reaching the border left their autos deserted by the facet of the highway.

As he sat within the driver’s seat, Nelson noticed a closely pregnant lady strolling alongside her husband who was struggling to hold two heavy baggage and their younger son. He sprung out of the automotive, and informed them they’d area for the girl. The husband peered into the automotive. He was reluctant to belief 4 strangers however ultimately warmed to Nelson’s pleasant manner. The 2 males exchanged particulars as Nelson’s accomplice and the opposite passengers welcomed their visitor into the automotive.

Lastly, after three days within the car, they crossed the border. Their passenger was overjoyed to be reunited together with her husband and youngster who had made it over by foot 24 hours earlier and expressed heartfelt gratitude to Nelson and his mates.

A photo of the border crossing at Medyka in Poland with lots of people standing around with suitcases with a ship in the background and a couple of umbrellas.
The border crossing at Medyka in Poland in March 2022 the place Nelson and his accomplice got SIM playing cards with free web for every week [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘What makes your life good?’

Exhausted, the group set off for Krakow, Poland’s picturesque second-largest metropolis, the place Nelson’s pal, who was additionally an English tutor, had a scholar who had supplied them a spot to remain.

After staying in Poland for every week, the group determined to maneuver on, travelling by means of a number of international locations, together with Germany and Belgium, earlier than ultimately deciding to cease in Basel, Switzerland. Nelson had a pal within the metropolis who may assist them settle in. He additionally wished to be near his sister who had moved there from Ukraine as she felt it could be secure for her youngster.

They spent a couple of week in a centre for refugees. Nelson describes the place as a “jail”, shaking his head as he remembers the expertise. “You needed to present ID always, earlier than you went out, even once you would have breakfast, lunch or dinner.” He additionally says there have been tensions as Syrian refugees expressed frustration that the “course of for Ukrainian refugees was smoother than for different refugees escaping battle”.

After greater than every week of processing their paperwork, Nelson and his girlfriend have been housed in an house and offered roughly $400 {dollars} monthly for bills.

Though he’s grateful for this set-up, he says that it was not sufficient for all times in Switzerland which has some of the costly prices of dwelling in Europe. He realised he would want to search out one other job simply to cowl primary bills – his earlier earnings from on-line tutoring wouldn’t be sufficient in the event that they deliberate to remain for the long run. So, he utilized for jobs for nearly two months, utilizing very important financial savings on costly web knowledge, and struggling to adapt to a brand new, strict system with many roles requiring a particular allow and fluency in German. He barely obtained a response, leaving him feeling disheartened and dejected. Nelson, who’s fluent in French, utilized to the State Secretariat for Migration to be transferred to a French-speaking canton however his request was rejected.

Someday in late April, he lastly snapped.

“There comes some extent when it’s important to assume what makes your life good? Is it actually simply security? I do know people who find themselves in Germany now, they’re secure however they don’t seem to be completely satisfied,” he explains.

“In Ukraine, I felt there’s extra freedom,” he says. “You may work and reside extra comfortably along with your wage. In the remainder of Europe, folks at all times wrestle with infinite taxes, mortgages, web costs, and so on.”

A photo of Nelly Nelson from the side, driving a car.
For Nelson, heading again to Lviv, his adopted metropolis, was a matter of getting ‘extra freedom’ [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘Going residence’

He spoke to his accomplice, sister, brother-in-law and niece and defined how he felt and that he wished to return to Ukraine. Everybody felt the identical method. They missed residence and work had been tough to return by. With Lviv remaining comparatively secure, they determined collectively to return residence and the 5 of them set off on the 14-hour drive to the border. On the way in which, he referred to as Roman and informed him he wasn’t completely satisfied in Switzerland and wish to prolong his rental contract. “No drawback, simply carry me some Swiss sweets!” got here the reply.

Nelson laughs as he remembers the second he handed his Cameroonian passport to a stern-faced Ukrainian border guard who, for a lot of stress-filled weeks, had been stamping the passports of international residents fleeing the nation. Now, confronted with a international resident voluntarily returning to wartime Ukraine, she didn’t know tips on how to react.

“She was so confused and requested in English, ‘The place are you going?’” Nelson remembers.

Nelson, who speaks conversational Ukrainian, replied that he was “going residence”.

She continued to ask him for extra particulars, till his three-old niece who was standing behind him blurted out “Slava Ukraini”, a nationwide salute as soon as banned within the Soviet Union, which implies “Glory to Ukraine”.

The border guard’s expression softened and he or she started to talk to the younger woman in Ukrainian and chat with the household. By the point they crossed again into Ukraine, the guard had exchanged phone particulars with Nelson’s sister and invited his niece to fulfill her daughter.

A photo of Nelly Nelson in a parking lot laughing with someone.
Nelson shares a joke along with his neighbour in Lviv, Ukraine [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘They get pleasure from life extra’

Nelson is now completely satisfied to be settled again into life in Ukraine the place he has arrange a flourishing facet enterprise creating web sites for an eclectic array of purchasers, together with a falconry enterprise in Dubai.

His expertise in Basel has made him recognize the standard of life he enjoys in Lviv much more.

“Switzerland isn’t energetic,” Nelson displays. “You’ve got so many guidelines, you get fines in every single place you park. Folks simply work and sleep. It’s the identical routine. Right here [in Lviv] folks need to have enjoyable, they get pleasure from life extra.”

Nelson says different Africans, a lot of whom have been finding out there, are returning to Ukraine.

For now, he’s not scared for his household’s security in Lviv.

“Battle is simply politics,” he says wistfully, citing his residence nation’s previous battle with Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula, ceded to Cameroon in 2008, as one instance. “I don’t know that a lot about Ukrainian or Russian historical past, however I do know Russia is making an attempt to take Ukrainian territory. That is similar to what Nigeria was doing to Cameroon,” he says.

He believes that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is “too proud” to surrender and that the battle, and the political impasse surrounding it, look set to proceed for a while. Nevertheless, he has no intention of leaving his residence once more. “I simply have two international locations in my life now. Cameroon and Ukraine,” he says firmly.

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