Soviet Collapse Leaves Foreign Students Stuck
MOSCOW - For nearly a decade, Roman Obama's life at Patrice Lumumba University was almost paradise. He studied for free and got warm clothes and cheap airline tickets that let him see the world.
"We had so many possibilities. Maybe it was not a luxurious life, but we could travel and do things," said Obama, 31, a law student from Equatorial Guinea.
The former Soviet Union spent huge sums of money over the past few decades to educate tens of thousands of foreign students - mainly from the developing world - in the name of "peoples' friendship."
Young people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America studied medicine, agronomy, law and Marxist economics.
For those students, the place to be was Patrice Lumumba, founded by Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s when dozens of Latin American, Asian and African countries won independence.
Now Lumumba's dorms are crumbling. The Russian government and the university have little money. Once a Soviet showcase, the university and its students are now a burden.
In Obama's building, the elevator lights do not work, the garbage chute is clogged and heating is a problem. Named for a Zairean revolutionary, Lumumba was considered in the West to be a ideological training ground for future cadres in Soviet-backed regimes such as Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Vietnam.
As the collapse of communism became more apparent, Obama revised his thesis to address the problems of cooperation between the International Monetary Fund and Africa. He hopes to work in private practice or for his country's government.
Sitting on his bed, which takes up most of his dorm room on the 13th floor of a deteriorating high-rise, Obama wonders how he will survive his last semester.
His scholarship of 137 rubles a month is now worth about $1.37. He has no money to pay for the airline ticket that would cost 215,000 rubles to return home to Equatorial Guinea.
Obama's room is more cramped than usual. His countryman Luis Alonso, who was studying in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, managed to buy a plane ticket at the old price and is headed home. But hotels cost too much, so Alonso is camping out with Obama until he gets an exit visa.
"It's impossible for us to study. The universities have no money and our government has no money. We are hostages," said another countryman, Enrique Edu, 29, a law student at Baku University in Azerbaijan.
Edu came to Moscow to plead for help for his wife, their child and about 150 other students from Equatorial Guinea in the former Soviet Union.
Baku University no longer gives foreign students any money and wants foreign students to pay a dollar a day for their dorm rooms, Edu said. He still gets his former Soviet stipend of 150 rubles ($1.50) but is not sure how long even that small sum will continue.
The students' plight was raised last week at a meeting of heads of government of the Commonwealth.
Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Burbulis of Russia said the commonwealth members agreed to seek new accords "taking into account the obligations of the former Soviet Union and preserve them in order to guarantee normal vital activity of foreign students."
Obama remembers the days when he and his friends could buy airplane and train tickets for rubles. They went around the world, often stopping in West Berlin to buy electronic goods that they would bring back and sell for high prices in the Soviet Union.
Now, they can't afford even a second-class train ticket to Berlin, and Obama said, "These days, life is good if we have bread and chicken."
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