A convoy of Russian tank trucks and artillery barreled down towards Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. Ukrainian forces took up arms to hold off the attacks. Civilians turned their underground train stations into bomb shelters and many others gathered their belongings and ran to leave Ukraine—to escape harm’s way.
But concern has been growing since the Feb. 24 start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the thousands of Black residents stranded in the war-scarred Eastern European nation. While trying to protect themselves and their families from Russian bombs, Blacks in Ukraine are not receiving assistance from local authorities and have been denied chances to escape danger.
Civilian flights into Ukraine had been canceled and the only way out was on land—via trains, buses, or cars. But videos and photographs on social media exposed the extent to which African diaspora residents were being denied spots on trains leaving Ukraine. Black attempts to head for the borders were met with restraints as Ukrainian security forces and Border Guard Service officials blocked their entrance to trains and overcrowded buses.
“On Sunday morning we were advised to take a bus straight to the Polish border from the shelter, I woke up as early as 4am just to be at the top of the queue,” Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo declared on her Twitter page. “The person in charge told me to my face that ‘BLACKS’ have to walk, only Ukrainians are getting on the bus, I begged and begged, I even had to lie that I was pregnant to be considered but the other passengers said ‘why should foreigners enter and not us?,’ at that point I gave up.”
Victor Eldred, another student from Nigeria who had been studying in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, wrote frequently on his Twitter page about desperately trying to get away from the conflict.
“I was on the road for 4 days with no food and little water, under the cold,” he noted. Eldred posted a video Feb. 26 that shows him waiting at a train station with other African students. “No train since yet. We’re still out here though.. #UkraineRussia #UkraineConflict,” he wrote. “Don’t let Russians deceive y’all saying they’re not shooting at civilians. They are bruh! I just got a news of Russian forces firing at a bus, kill 5 and injure 6 in Kharkiv Oblast that we just left. We pray for journey success maan.”
Eldred and the students he fled with were able to make it to the border, but Russian missiles hit central Kharkiv just days later, damaging several residential and government buildings, and Russian paratroopers landed in the city on March 2.
#AfricansinUkraine –– #FleeingWhileBlack
African emigres and students shared images and information about their experiences online. Social media helped them amplify the difficulties they faced like waiting in freezing temperatures with no food, water, or blankets while trying to escape Ukraine. Hashtags like #AfricansinUkraine, #BlackInUkraine, #AfricanStudentsInUkraine, #FleeingWhileBlack and #BringOurPeopleHome helped those who felt stranded testify about being pushed out of vehicles that could take them to safety and having to stand in the cold until being allowed to cross borders.
Those stories prompted African diasporan groups to take action. Appeals were sent to African nations for help, and many became active by starting crowdfunding requests, chartering buses and hosting social media sites to keep Blacks in Ukraine informed about how to get out.
Lebone Kganyago, founder of Expat South Africa, worked with the South African government and her board members to get information to students. They helped many cross the border into Hungary. Expat South Africa is also setting up a funding site to help pay for student needs, anyone who wants to contribute to it can contact them directly at info@ExpatSouthAfrica.net
“We actually held a Twitter space last week to just make sure that people could connect directly with some of the students,” Expat South Africa board member Tshweu Moleme told the AmNews. “And we’re on the ground in the Ukraine—we were sharing what was happening in real time. So, you were able to get some of those students to jump on this space to share what was going on. It was extremely heartbreaking hearing some of them, it’s one of those things where you know you’re listening to someone that’s sort of hinting that they might not make it on the other side. You’re praying so hard that they make it through it all.”
“We spoke to a student on Thursday who was basically at the time on the ground in a bunker,” added Solomon Macson III, an advisor to Expat South Africa. “I would literally hear bombs, you know, just like in the background. They were hiding in the subway just waiting for the conflict to abate.”
Macson spoke with the AmNews about how Expat South Africa contacted South Africa’s head of public diplomacy to help the government get its students out of Ukraine. Expat South Africa has also been working with other African diaspora groups to get Africans out of Ukraine.
“I was in an online space I believe on Saturday with the Nigerian diaspora, and we were basically raising funds and basically sharing information in real time,” Macson said. “What I was able to sort through from people who were on the ground in Ukraine was about getting on trains to the Polish border; we leveraged that information to help other students to get to the Polish border. We picked up that there was a problem on the Polish border with regards to, I think, the Ukrainians or the Polish—one of the sides—was not allowing Africans to cross to Poland, so we shared the information that people should consider going to Hungary.”
Thousands of African students study abroad in Ukraine
Because Russia’s former Soviet empire invested so heavily into its universities, Ukraine has over 240 universities and attracts foreign students from over 150 countries. African students make up 20% of the foreign students in Ukraine, according to one news site.
Julius Kwame Anthony, the 54th general secretary of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) had his organization sit down with Ghanaian government officials and devise plans to get their students home.
“The National Union of Ghana Students records that it has 956 students in Ukraine,” Anthony told the AmNews. “It’s alleged there are some 400+ students who hadn’t registered with the student Union. So an estimated 1200+ students were in Ukraine before the war.
“We’re in contact with almost all of them…our difficulty now is how to get students in Sumy out. No trains or buses are allowed inside of Sumy but we have 93 students there according to the NUGS register.” As of March 1, Anthony said that some 520 Ghanaian students had crossed from Ukraine into neighboring European countries.
Meanwhile, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission worked with Nigeria’s Polish Embassy in Warsaw to spirit its citizens to safety. A video posted of Nigerians being bussed to safety
was widely celebrated. Nigeria’s Polish Embassy declares on its website that it is “actively engaged” in “collecting Nigerians from all the border crossings and entry points, as well as railway stations in Poland.”
The 54-member bloc African Union issued a statement Feb. 28 stating that it was “disturbed” by the news that Africans had been singled out and not allowed to flee war-torn Ukraine: “[A]ll people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity,” the AU declared.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law.”
The racism Blacks fleeing Ukraine are facing at the borders is shocking, the activist Tshweu Moleme commented: “I can just imagine how difficult that must be. I mean speaking from my experience—you know, I happen to have lived through apartheid in South Africa so issues of race and racism just coming back and in such a way…That has got to be a huge traumatic experience for many of the students.”