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‘We were on our own from the beginning’: Nigerian students share their journey of fleeing war in Ukraine

Attempting to reach safety, Black and brown students in Ukraine have been met with outright racism.

01 Mar 2022

Fleeing the worsening war in Ukraine, thousands of African students finally made it to the borders that promised safety this week – only to be told “no Blacks” and – in some cases – turned away altogether. 

After tireless and traumatic journeys to reach safety, people from countries across Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and the Middle East  have shared their experiences of racism and mistreatment, largely at the hands of border officials including Ukrainian and Polish authorities

As of Tuesday, more than 677,700 people had fled the war in Ukraine, according to the UN. Among them are some of the more than 75,000 international students studying in Ukraine, of whom nearly a quarter are African with the largest proportions coming from Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Egypt. “I knew I needed to leave because we don’t know when the war will end,” says Samuel George, a 21-year-old Nigerian software engineering student who left Kyiv as the war saw the city shutdown. 

Instructed by their respective embassies, people quickly began making their way to the borders Ukraine shares with the likes of Romania, Hungary and Poland. But the journey has been one marked by instances of intense racism against Black and brown individuals, perpetrated predominantly by border officials. Despite numerous complaints and reports, both Ukrainian and Polish border officials have denied allegations of racism and laid blame with each other and the fleeing people. According to a report by France 24, one Ukrainian official even suggested that the violent treatment experienced by students was because “perhaps they [African people] attempted to jump the queue”. 

Reports of racism at the border under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine flooded social media on Saturday evening, quickly followed by mass outrage at the discrimination, mistreatment and double-standards faced by Black people trying to cross the border. Some have called the situation “segregation”, and footage of Black people being blocked from boarding trains, stranded at the border and even held at gunpoint has gone viral. 

By Monday evening, the crisis hadn’t abated, with further footage uploaded to Twitter showing crowds of Black and brown people crushed together in snowy conditions. Unverified reports also claimed that there had already been deaths among those fleeing Ukraine, due to freezing temperatures. Confusion and worry reigned as people on the ground mobilised with online communities to raise funds for those stranded and contact embassies. More than £50,000 has been raised to date and is in the process of distribution. 

gal-dem spoke to Samuel over the phone as he made his way to the Krakovets border with neighbouring Poland late Saturday evening. “We’ve been on the road for more than 48 hours now,” he said at the time. His spirits were still high at 8.30pm as he and his friends edged closer to the border. “The traffic is crazy, whole roads are blocked. But we’re still moving.” 

At one point the security personnel tried to take me out of the line. I stood my ground”

But things changed quickly for the group. Amidst the chaos and congestion, a minor traffic collision occurred with a car transporting Ukrainians, and things escalated quickly. “They took money from us and didn’t let us go further. They were normal citizens who didn’t let us go further,” Samuel told gal-dem in a later phone call. He also says that a man emerged from his own car, attacking their car and breaking the windscreen. According to Samuel, the man also wasn’t part of any border control or law enforcement. 

Samuel’s cohort of students, hailing from Nigeria and South Africa, were forced to abandon their car around 30km from the Polish border and make the rest of the journey by foot. “We had to trek for five hours to the border. It’s not fair that these people were doing this.”

Samuel and his group of three friends walked through sub-zero temperatures to finally reach the border in the early hours of Sunday morning. “I was freezing. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet,” says Ernest, a 19-year old software engineering student who accompanied Samuel. On Monday, Samuel and Ernest sent gal-dem videos of their group huddled up around a small makeshift fire as massive crowds at the border lined up in the snowstorm. “Everyone is just trying to survive at this point in time,” he says in one video. 

The challenges Samuel and his friends faced didn’t stop upon arriving at the border. “At one point the security personnel tried to take me out of the line. I stood my ground,” he told gal-dem on Monday, speaking again from Warsaw. After four days of travelling, the group managed to make it to Warsaw, where they’re temporarily housed, on Monday morning. Ernest remembers his feeling of relief as the group “survived the next stage” and could proceed in the queue after countless hours of uncertainty, standing in line after a gruelling journey.

Now, their thoughts are focused on home. “I want to go back to Nigeria,” says Samuel. Like most students, he and Ernest don’t want to be forced to apply for international protection status, which would render them asylum seekers.  

It’s a stark reminder of the racism to be found at Europe’s borders and that in the midst of war, racial hierarchies are heightening, with horrendous results”

The pair plan to make their way back to Nigeria, out of necessity, rather than want. As Ernest puts it: “the situation at home is also bad”. 

Whether they’ll receive government support in getting back to Nigeria is still up in the air. This morning, the Nigerian government finally announced that citizens who make it out of Ukraine will be evacuated this week, via airplane. But their slow reaction to the crisis – and their apparent abandonment of citizens still unable to cross the Ukraine border – has led to critique

Ernest shares how the group decided to take matters into their own hands and evacuate from Kyiv alone after no one was answering the official Nigerian embassy lines they were told to ring for support. “We knew we were on our own from the beginning, but just wanted to prove that by calling.”

The students’ stories are some of many reports of discrimination by Ukrainian security officials – and ordinary citizens – against Black people as they seek to escape war. And while Samuel points to his experience en route as the worst part, he acknowledges that others have faced even greater obstacles and racism attempting to cross into Poland. He refers to the Medyka crossing where he heard reports of officials allowing only Ukrainians to pass through. 

During a UN Security Council meeting on Monday, African countries condemned the discrimination facing their citizens at the border. It’s a stark reminder of the racism to be found at Europe’s borders and that in the midst of war, racial hierarchies are heightening, with horrendous results.

From the Poland-Belarus border to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, and from the Greek Islands to the English channel, refugees and migrants of colour seeking safety continue to suffer racism and violence at the hands of European border authorities.

After days of suffering, Ernest was in a light-hearted mood on Tuesday, tired but glad for the free food and accommodation he and Samuel have been provided with. But both of them are only permitted 15 days’ stay in Poland before they must move on.

“That journey was very challenging,” Samuel reflects. For others still struggling at the border, and for Samuel and Ernest, the trek to safe haven is sadly far from over.

This article was amended on 2 March 2022 to state that of the more than 75,000 international students studying in Ukraine, nearly a quarter are African. An earlier version mistakenly said that 75,000 African students were studying in Ukraine.

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