When Ukraine was invaded on February 24 by Russia, thousands of citizens fled their homes for safer spaces across the borders of the Eastern European country. Civilian flights connecting Ukraine with the world were cancelled, and people had to move over land by trains, buses and cars. Among the civilians fleeing is the African diaspora community, who are tackling the challenges of lack of official support from home, and racial discrimination on the ground in Ukraine and at border crossings.
The bravery and resilience of Ukrainians defending their nation has been celebrated widely on social media, such as the Ukrainian soldiers telling the Russian warship to “go fuck” themselves, the Ukrainian woman offering Russian soldiers sunflower seeds, so that “sunflowers grow when they die,” or the Ukrainian president rejecting the US offer to evacuate.
Yet, this is far from a complete picture of the situation in Ukraine. African students self-reporting on social media tell of a more complex experience with discrimination.
16,000 African students in Ukraine
Ukraine, with more than 240 universities and over 76,500 international students, is a popular destination for students from countries from the global South such as India and African countries. Myroslava Hladchenko, a researcher at Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland, explains that a degree from a university in Ukraine is well recognised for further studies, while the admission process is less strict, and fees and living costs are lower than in other European countries.
There are 16,000 African students in Ukraine. Among these, Moroccan students form the biggest group with 8,000 students, about 4,000 Nigerian and 3,500 Egyptian students, reports Deutsche Welle. While Egypt and Morocco warned their students to leave Ukraine ahead of the invasion, people of other African nationalities were left to organise on their own exit.
According to World University News, Study in Ukraine, the official Ukrainian government source of information for international students advised them on February 24 to follow the news, stay in touch with their universities and to prioritise safety.
On February 26, The East African, a Kenya-based newspaper, reported reactions from East African countries — both Uganda and Tanzania — similarly encouraged students to “follow directions from local authorities and monitor the situation on news channels.” A statement (not dated) from the Tanzanian embassies in Stockholm and Berlin circulated on social media on February 28 with a WhatsApp contact for Tanzanian students in need of help to reach out to.
Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on February 24 that plans were underway to evacuate Nigerian students, on the same day that Ukraine closed their airspace. However, on February 26, Nigeria’s Embassy in Poland tweeted that a diplomat will be waiting for Nigerian students crossing from Ukraine into Poland.
On February 26, the government of Sierra Leone had, according to a tweet by local newspaper Newswatch stated that 97 Sierra Leonean students in Ukraine were safe and accounted for. The West African government also asked neighbouring European countries like Hungary to take in students if they managed to cross the borders.
Mobilisation of informal help
Yet, in a crisis where everyone is fleeing to safer spaces across the borders, local authorities work under pressure, and the situation on the ground turns complex. In the absence of concrete official guidelines from African governments and embassies on how to evacuate for safety, people themselves took to social media to organise and self-report.
On Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and in specific groups based on their city of residence in Ukraine, or other online groups supporting people fleeing Ukraine, such as Host a Sister, Africans in and outside Ukraine, began to coordinate between people in need and people who are in a position to give help. For example, Zimbabwean student, Koko, in Dnipro in Ukraine, organised a massive effort from her social media platforms. She asked for resources for African students in need, formed WhatsApp groups, shared a template for writing the embassy, and useful information in times of crisis.
Africans were advised to travel in groups on the way to the border. Many reported problems with access to cash, options of transport and increased prices for rides. The absence of clear communication from home countries may make it more difficult in regards to migration issues when crossing borders.
It is evident that the situation on the ground has been further complicated for African students, who have reported experiences of racial discrimination.
In this tweet a video clip shows Ukrainian officials blocking Africans at a train station from entering the train to the border. Another tweet in the same Twitter thread above says that “Africans left stranded at the train station after being blocked from boarding a train to safety (Poland) yet they have been standing with Ukrainians #racism #Ukraine #ukraineracism.”
From Bernice Fernande’s Instagram profile we follow her Tanzanian friend Nenyo’s 24-hour-long journey from Kharkiv to Lviv where they are hosted for the night in a church before they plan to cross into Poland.
Zimbabwean students shared their experiences with “segregation and racism” at the border controls in Romania. At the border to Poland a Nigerian student reported that “border guards are stopping black people and sending them to the back of the queue, saying they have to let ‘Ukrainians’ through first.”
Nigerian Nze tweeted from the border to Poland:
Trekked for more than half a day to the border and still gotta be treated like shit here. Immediately the media guys with camera left, they start pushing us Africans to go back even when have formed a queue like we are pests to be get rid of.
— Nze (@nzekiev) February 27, 2022
“We are students. We don’t have guns,” was repeatedly shouted by this group of African students at a border checkpoint with Poland, holding their hands up in the air. They are not armed with guns but with mobile phones.
The self-reporting by African students of their ordeal in Ukraine has been confirmed by media reports.
The Globe and Mail and Irish Times have followed up on the social media reports and interviewed Africans experiencing racial discrimination. South African head of public diplomacy, Clayton Monyela, confirms the discriminatory treatment of Africans at the Polish and Hungarian borders.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is reprehensible, so is the racial discrimination of African students and others. Nigerian novelist Elnathan John’s satirical tweet aptly captures the conflicting truth of this sad reality: “I respect the racism though. If even in a war you have the energy to separate based on race I respect that level of commitment. It's the level of work ethic I aspire to. Bless.”