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Refugees from other wars see themselves in fleeing Ukrainians

KRAKOW, POLAND - MARCH 18: People who fled the war in Ukraine walk towards a humanitarian train which is relocating refugees to Berlin on March 18, 2022 in Krakow, Poland. More than half of the roughly 3 million Ukrainians fleeing war have crossed into neighbouring Poland since Russia began a large-scale armed invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)
People fleeing the war in Ukraine walk towards a humanitarian train on Friday in Krakow. More than 3.4 million people have left Ukraine since Russia began its invasion almost four weeks ago.

More than 3.4 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded nearly four weeks ago, and millions more have been displaced inside the country, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Scenes of families pouring across borders have captured the world's attention. Nidaa Aljabbarin is one of those watching — but unlike many others, she knows what this experience is like. When she was 13, she fled her home in Syria.

"I see myself in these kids," Aljabbarin said. "I went through this. I exactly feel your pain. I know how that feels. And I really hate to see other families leaving [their] home, maybe leaving part of their hearts in there."

Aljabbarin also has an idea of what's next for the children fleeing Ukraine, whose lives have changed forever in an instant.

"This is not an easy experience and this is not fun. But it will definitely shape who you're gonna be in the future," she said. "And it will definitely teach you a lot."

In Syria, Aljabbarin said she enjoyed a simple and peaceful life with her parents and siblings. They lived outside a village, where they were surrounded by olive trees and she was able to walk to school.

That changed as the war in her country got closer to home. Her brothers got sick, one of them died, and her father got shot in the leg, she said. On one trip to the hospital, Aljabbarin said she remembers hearing bombings and shootings happening all around her.

Her family's decision to flee was abrupt – just as it is for many Ukrainians right now.

"My dad made the decision the night before we left," Aljabbarin said. "And then I just woke up, like, four in the morning and my mom told me, 'Yeah, today we have to leave,' so we just took just a few clothes with us."

Initially, her family didn't want to leave, Aljabbarin said, but ultimately, they were forced to for their own safety. They arrived at a refugee camp in Jordan.

"They gave us a tent and some blankets, food. And they told us, 'Yeah, this is your new home.' And I was like, 'No way, this is not where I want to live,'" she said. "But it was – I was thankful that I was able to escape out of the war."

It's been nine years since Aljabbarin has been in Syria, and today she is a student at Syracuse University. Looking back, she said she believed her parents did make the right decision, despite how hard it was.

Maiwand Basiri knows the feeling of not wanting to leave a beautiful life behind. Basiri worked as a translator for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Hours before the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, he flew out of Kabul with his wife and son.

"It was very chaotic because before leaving Afghanistan, I was – I did not want to actually come to America because I always thought that, you know, life is not easy, especially starting everything from scratch," Basiri said.

Today, Basiri helps other refugees get settled in the U.S. with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee, but watching the situation in Ukraine unfold brings back memories of his own experience.

"When I see children are suffering, when I see women and elderly are suffering, it gives me all the images that I have from my own country," Basiri said. "And as a human being, wherever we are, if you're in America, if you're in Europe, we should have open arms for the Ukrainians and we should feel their pain."

"I can feel their pain more than anyone else because I come from a country that's been torn apart by war. I urge people to have respect for the refugees."

While both Aljabbarin and Basiri have more recent memories of fleeing their countries, Viet Thanh Nguyen left Vietnam when he was four years old. Nearly 50 years later, he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at the University of Southern California. He said he doesn't remember much about his life in Vietnam, but some things have stayed with him.

"I'm not even sure that they're real. But the fragments I have are all actually mostly related to war, like meeting an American soldier, bouncing on his knee, or thinking, I've seen a tank in the streets with North Vietnamese soldiers on it, because our town was the first one captured in the final invasion of 1975," Nguyen said.

Nguyen's family arrived in Fort Indiantown Gap, Penn., in the summer of 1975. The barracks at the refugee camp stick out in his memories from there, he said.

"Of course, when you're young and your parents are taking care of you and you're surrounded by other children, it can actually seem like fun, a fun kind of a camp. But of course, that wasn't the reality," Nguyen said.

"And I've certainly seen photographs in retrospect of a time in those camps, and there were lots and lots of people. Our lives were completely displaced. People had lost everything. So the pictures show people just trying to adjust to their new realities when their new realities were really devastating."

Nguyen is settled in the U.S. now, but like Aljabbarin and Basiri, he has been shaped by this experience. That's something that's on his mind as he sees the images of people leaving Ukraine.

"I can only say to them that I feel for them," Nguyen said. "I've been in their place, and it's a place of terror because you've lost so much, you've left so much behind and you don't know what the future holds for you."

"And none of us knows what the future holds for them. But I would say that looking at my own experience among Vietnamese refugees, many of us remain traumatized by what happened, but as a community, we survived and we built new lives. And we are able to tell their own stories and claim our own voices."

And part of the story is that not all refugees have been welcomed with open arms. That's something that Aljabbarin noted.

"Refugees are refugees, regardless of where they came from or what colors their eyes [are] or how they look. I think all refugees just should receive the same respect and help from anywhere they go," she said. "It shouldn't be more sad to see Ukraine's refugees than Syrians or anywhere else, because, at the end, we're all humans." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.