By Isaiah Peters and Dawn Suggs
Ukraine continues its heroic homeland defense against Russia’s accelerating invasion to purportedly ‘rid the state of Nazis.’ More than 1.3 million refugees have evacuated their homes and fled the country to escape Russia’s indiscriminate bombardment throughout the country.
Black Ukrainians and Africans living in Ukraine are no exceptions; however, their treatment while trying to evacuate the war torn country has been anything but equal in numerous cases.
About 20 percent of all international students in Ukraine are African. According to The Telegraph, there were more than 70,000 international students in Ukraine when the war broke out.
Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian medical student in Lviv, was left stranded at the border town of Shehyni, some 400 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
The Nigerian government issued a statement of outrage that Ukraine’s Nigerian students were being “badly treated” at the border, but Onyegbule commented, “[The] Nigerian government is being their usual nonchalant self.” She continued, “There are many of us in Ukraine. They can’t just leave us like this. It’s so sad…”
African, Asian, and Middle Eastern refugees say they were taken off buses around 12 miles from Poland and left to walk to the Polish border, but the same buses brought white Ukrainians there without a hitch.
“There has been a difference in treatment,” Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said. “There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everyone is fleeing from the same risks.”
The incentive for international students to venture to Ukraine is education. Universities in Ukraine offer high-quality education for students from third world nations for a much lower price than most of Europe.
A terrifying situation all around, some international students aren’t getting the assistance they need and don’t have adequate documentation to arrive within the European Union (EU) states that neighbor Ukraine.
An often-played clip on MSNBC features a Black Ukrainian woman facing the rejection of a neighboring country and border officials when trying to leave Ukraine. She describes their admittance practices this way, “White people first, Indian people, Arabic people before Black people.” Video footage of Africans barred from exiting Ukraine and entering other European countries is increasingly circulated on social media.
Ukrainian officials stated these discriminatory cases were individual biases rather than a blanket policy of discrimination.
Cihan Yildiray, a 26-year-old from Turkey, told PBS that [white] Ukrainians passed through the border checkpoint relatively quickly, while some Ukrainian guards even beat Black people and Arabs.
There have been outcries by Africans refugees against these experiences online using the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine, which continue to bring international attention to the issue.
Nneka Abigail, a 23-year-old medical student from Nigeria explained, “It’s very difficult for Nigerians and other foreigners to cross. The Ukrainian officials are allowing more Ukrainians to cross into Poland.”
“For instance, around 200 to 300 Ukrainians can cross, and then only 10 foreigners or five will be allowed to cross… and the duration of time is too long. It’s really hard.. they push us, kick us, insult us,” Abigail said.
“More than 10 buses came, and we were watching everyone leave. We thought, after they took all the Ukrainians, they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses and told us to walk.”
Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister Geoffrey Onyeama said Ukrainian authorities made clear there were no restrictions on foreigners wanting to leave Ukraine.
“My body was numb from the cold, and we haven’t slept in about four days now. Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans — men and women — at every point. There’s no need for us to ask why. We know why. I just want to get home,” Onyegbule said.
This treatment begs the question: why would some European countries embrace white Ukrainians but shun Black people from Ukraine and people of color from other war-torn nations in the recent past?
International criticism was leveled against America, and mass protests took place in the U.S. against the Muslim ban which Trump instated the first month of his presidency. The federal government blocked it, but after subsequent appeals by the Trump administration, it was upheld in June 2018 by The Supreme Court. As part of the settlement of U.S. Civil Rights cases against the ban in February of 2020, the federal government prioritized the processing of hundreds of refugee cases.
There are reports that Ukraine has created a hotline for African and Asian students trying to flee the country and at least one West African Nation, Ghana, made arrangements for their airlines to fly Ghanaian students studying in Ukraine out of the country.