“Only Ukrainians, not Blacks”: Fleeing African students face racism
Those fleeing Russia’s invasion speak of discrimination by both officials and fellow refugees and of a lack of support from their governments.
Initially, Wasiu Sidiq, a 20-year old student studying at Lviv National Medical University, did not want to leave Ukraine when the Russian invasion began. He maintained calm as others rushed to the borders. But when he woke on 25 February, the second day of the war and found that his Nigerian roommate had left without notice in the middle of the night, he caved.
Sidiq joined four other Nigerian students and headed for the Medyka border which Ukraine shares with Poland. They packed their familiar lives into a few suitcases and bags and left at around 8am. They got on a bus going to the border, but after over two hours in which they had barely moved amid the queues of other people fleeing, the driver gave up and ordered them out. They began what would be a gruesome six-hour walk.
It was already evening by the time Sidiq and his companions dragged their tired bodies to the border. There were thousands of people already there. After another four hours of struggling to move through the mass, Sidiq managed to get through the gate, but had become separated from his friends in the process. He joined a queue, which didn’t move for almost 24 hours.
“The reason the queue was not moving was because of the Ukrainians. They said they are the owners of the country,” a furious Sidiq tells African Arguments over the phone. “I told one [Ukrainian] woman that both of us are foreigners right now.” When the queue finally did start to move, Sidiq says that officials told Africans to form a separate line and other refugees started yelling at them.
“They started shouting ‘foreigners go back, foreigners go back’. They were literally shouting it to our face,” he says. “They did not care about us at that moment. They just wanted us to die.”
Now that there were two queues, the border guards reportedly processed about a hundred Ukrainians before selecting about five Africans. But finally, Sidiq’s passport was stamped and he was processed for evacuation.
By this time he was exhausted, hungry and dehydrated. He noticed a stand that was giving out food to refugees, but he and other Black students were refused.
“They were sharing bread, burger, noodles and coffee,” he says. “We went to meet these people [and tell them] that we were hungry, and they said the food is for only Ukrainians, not Blacks.”
“There must be no discrimination”
According to official data, at least 20% of the foreign students in Ukraine are African. There are at least 4,000 students from Nigeria alone. Many are attracted to the eastern European country due to its affordable tuition costs compared to other overseas destinations.
Like Sidiq, many of these African students – including Kenyans and Ghanaians for examples – have also attempted to flee since Russia’s invasion and have faced racial discrimination on their journeys. After hundreds of these experiences were documented online, Fillipo Grandi, Commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) acknowledged the problem.
“You have seen reports in the media that there are different treatments with Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, but our observation is that these are not state policies but we have seen instances where it has happened,” he said in a press conference on 1 March.
Speaking to African Arguments, Kevin Keen, a spokesperson at the the office of the Deputy High Commissioner of UNHCR reiterated: “We stress that there must be no discrimination against any person or group. Among other human rights instruments, the 1951 Refugee Convention applies ‘to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin’.”
“They just kept hitting our chests”
While Sidiq was still contemplating going to the border on the second day of Russia’s invasion, Elizabeth, a 20-year-old Nigerian student at Kyiv Medical University who prefers we use her middle name, was already on the move.
From 5am that morning, she and a friend had decided to try to get to Poland. They went to the train station in the capital, but struggled to get information from the officials there. By contrast, they noticed that the staff seemed to be telling Ukrainians the correct platform. When the 9am train arrived, Elizabeth and her friend were behind a big crowd despite having been waiting for hours. They failed to board.
At around 7pm, another train arrived. This time, they were in the right place. They let women with children get on first and then tried to move forwards but found themselves facing strong resistance.
”We would try to enter and we would get pushed down very harshly and they just kept hitting our chests repeatedly,” says Elizabeth. “One of my friends almost got thrown into the middle of the train track area, a very dangerous place basically. And we just had to fight our way and then we got seats.”
Aware they were only Black people in the carriage, they tried hard to seem harmless. “We had to be very accommodating and be very nice and help them carry their kids so that they will not see us as a threat, they would not be too hostile to us, but that did not really help a lot,” says Elizabeth.
When they stopped in the city of Mostyska, near the Polish border, Elizabeth’s companion got off to use the toilet. When they returned, their fellow passengers denied they had ever been on the train.
“They kept insisting that they did not know who we were. We went to the next door to try and enter, and the people at the other door just started laughing at us,” she says. However, it soon got worse as passengers started forcing Black people off the train.
“A Black girl got pulled down and another Nigerian boy got snatched and they dragged them out of the train,” says Elizabeth. “She has been with us from the beginning.”
“We know all about [racism] in Ukraine, but I think this is the worst type we ever faced because I think this is the time we think everyone is supposed to have their humanity on their chest,” she adds. “I have never seen them being wicked before.”
“An over-estimation of capacity”
On 27 February, the Nigerian government condemned the treatment of Africans in a statement. “It is paramount that everyone is treated with dignity and without favour,” it read. “All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under UN Convention and the colour of their passport or their skin should make no difference.”
While this position was welcomed, however, some argue that part of the blame for the plight of Africans fleeing Ukraine lies with their own respective governments. Criticism has been levelled at officials in the likes of Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya for their perceived tardiness in evacuating their citizens in Ukraine. Before the invasion, Nigeria student union leaders had reached out to the Nigerian embassy in Kyiv for assistance, but to no avail. While the US, UK and many other nations issued notices for their nationals to leave and evacuated embassy staff, African governments with significant student populations in Ukraine called for calm.
“The Nigerian embassy did not even attend to us,” says Sidiq.
In the wake of the invasion, Nigeria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, defended the government’s position on national television, citing Russia’s denials that it was planning to invade.
Our requests for comment from the government went unanswered, but a source within the ministry who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorised to speak, tried to explain the ministry’s actions.
“The assessment at that time was inconclusive,” they said. “There is always an over-estimation of the capacity of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on dealing with certain issues and this is an unfair comparison with Western countries which tend to have far more diplomats and far more resources’.”
They added that Nigeria is grossly under-staffed and under-resourced in eastern Europe and that its relationship with countries in the region are at a low ebb, contributing to Nigeria’s inaction before the invasion.
On 2 March, President Muhammadu Buhari approved $8.5 million for the evacuation of Nigerian citizens from Ukraine to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. According to reports online, many Nigerian students are still stranded.
Sidiq and Elizabeth both have friends who were in Ukraine whose whereabouts are unknown. “We don’t even know if they are alive or dead,” says Elizabeth.
This article is published as part of the African Arguments fellowship for young freelance journalists.