BUREIJ, Gaza Strip (AFP) — After Russia invaded Ukraine, Viktoria Saidam knew she needed to find a “safer place” than Kyiv and ultimately chose her husband’s homeland — a Palestinian territory not typically associated with security: Gaza.
Saidam, 21, was born Viktoria Breij in Vinnytsia, a town some 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of Ukraine’s capital.
While studying pharmacy in Kyiv, she met Ibrahim Saidam, a medical student from Bureij, a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, a Mediterranean enclave home to 2.3 million Palestinians.
Since they married two years ago, Viktoria Saidam had been keen to get to Gaza to meet her in-laws, but the Russian assault launched on February 24 accelerated that long-anticipated family gathering, she told AFP.
“We understood that there was no way to know what tomorrow would bring. The number of dead and dying was rising every day,” said the young woman, sobbing as she watched videos of Russian strikes destroying buildings in Ukraine.
Their first move was to pack up, leave Kyiv and head to Vinnytsia. They left the town before a March 7 Russian bombardment on Vinnytsia’s airport killed nine people according to Ukraine’s emergency services.
“My husband and I had to look for a safer place than Ukraine,” Saidam said. “We chose his homeland, Gaza.”
‘Hope and pray’
The couple fled Ukraine by minibus and then on foot, walking across the Romanian border.
They then flew to Cairo and from there headed for the Rafah crossing with southern Gaza.
The young woman said she knows “the reality” of life in Gaza, a territory controlled by the Islamist group Hamas since 2007 and under strict Israeli blockade for 15 years now.
The unemployment rate is above 50 percent, the electricity supply is sporadic and conflict can flare at any time.
Hamas, considered a terrorist group by much of the West, has fought four wars with Israel since taking power in Gaza.
The most recent conflict in May last year saw armed Palestinian groups fire thousands of rockets fired at Israel; Israel hit back with heavy airstrikes.
“There was a war here, and it can start again, but we had to leave Ukraine and (Gaza) was safe,” Saidam said.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” added the Ukrainian woman, who converted to Islam shortly after her wedding and who so far speaks only a few words of Arabic.
“We hope and pray for the best.”
‘I feel safe here’
According to Ukraine’s diplomatic office in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there are some 2,500 Ukrainians in Gaza, mostly women who have married Palestinian men who studied abroad, like Ibrahim.
The 23-year-old husband, who speaks fluent Ukrainian, told AFP that, having lived through three of the Gaza wars, he has “some experience” with conflict.
In Ukraine, “a week before the start of the war, I prepared some provisions. But we didn’t expect it to be so fierce,” he said.
“We could have gone to European countries to seek asylum, but I preferred to return to Gaza because I feel safe here and I know how things work.”
Comfortably settled at the Saidam family home, Viktoria Saidam said she was doing well but also that “fear and panic” grip her when she speaks to her brother and sister who are still in Ukraine.
“I still cannot believe that what has happened isn’t a dream, it’s horrible,” she said.
“I’m dreaming of the day my husband and I can go home.”