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We Spoke With African Students Stranded In Ukraine, These Are Their Stories

As Russia and Ukraine go into conflict with each other, thousands of African students have become displaced as their home embassies struggle to get them all out and to safety.

[Omar Marques/Getty Images]

Eastern Europe is at war and the Russia and Ukraine conflict has taken center-stage in world affairs, progressing from benign, out-of-view diplomacy to open-field military attacks. Earlier this week, the world watched in shock and horror as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an attack on the country of Ukraine. Russia invading Ukraine can be explained from many positions. And while an oversimplification of the issue can arise, it’s not inaccurate to point that Russia is going through these lengths to keep Ukraine out of NATO’s expansion agenda. Thousands of Ukrainian residents are now forced to flee their homes and leave their lives behind. On top of the stress of having to grab your life and go, is the added anxiety of being a foreigner in a country, seeking refugee amongst thousands. With little-to-no concrete communication or solutions from their respective embassies, thousands of African students are stranded in a war-torn Ukraine.

Civilian flights to Ukraine have been put on hold,. As Russia continues to get caught up in a post-Soviet unification pipe dream, taking a firm stand against the West, the implications on the rest of the world is becoming evident. Trying to navigate these tensions in Ukraine is an African diaspora community, ranging from students to migrant workers.

Through social media apps Twitter and WhatsApp, students are organizing themselves into groups according to the city they're in. The goal for many right now is to get out of Ukraine and in to one of the neighboring countries. Students are reporting a lot of anxiety over this move to the borders as some embassies have not communicated with their citizens whether or not they will be granted refugee status when there, and some fear being turned away. Many Africans have also reported spouts of anti-Black racism while trying to find shelter and survive.

Some African countries have expressed concern over the safety of their citizens in troubled regions. Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs via its Twitter account asked Ghanaian students to take shelter while they work out an evacuation. The Nigerian Embassy in Ukraine advised its nationals to remain calm, vigilant while also stating that they are responsible for their own safety and protection. While it’s true that evacuation of African students and nationals would prove difficult due to a shutdown of Ukrainian airspace, this state of affairs is showing the weakness of African consular relations, especially in times when it matters the most.

We spoke with several African students stranded in Ukraine as well as a member of Kenya's parliament to hear about the experiences of students, if they're getting any help on the ground, and plans to reach home safely.

AJ Bayero — a Nigerian medical student currently in Ternopil, Ukraine

"We thought the western side of the country was safe, but it seems like nowhere is safe in this country anymore. As of today in this city (Ternopil), we haven't had any problems. But the cities close to us are being blasted. Especially in the air spaces which have been hit in several places. It's more like a coordinated attack all around the country. We've had multiple entries informing us that the city where we are living is on high red zone alert. So, there's a possibility of the city being hit today. We are not sure. There is a lot of anxiety and fear. People are panicking. Some are going to shelters. I can't believe it. Three days ago, nothing like this was here, but now everything suddenly changed. You can't even get money from the bank. There's no cash anymore. It's crazy. Taxi fair that's usually $2 is going for $20 now. It's crazy. I don't know how to explain it.

Nigeria's current response has been a little more soothing and has given hope to us students. Personally, I feel like we would've had better chances earlier. We're left behind -- some students are already stranded in other cities, and I'm not sure how the Nigerian government plans on getting them out. Moving students from city to city is going to be a headache. I don't know, personally, I feel they should've done things a lot earlier than this. Around here, people are thinking of moving across the border to either Romania, Czechoslovakia, or Poland. It's a dilemma for Nigerian students because we can get to the border but what do you have from your embassy that guarantees you can cross? You're going to a different country for which you need a visa. An EU country that is hard to get into, especially bearing a Nigerian passport. Imagine, we just walk to another country's border and say, 'Oh, I want to get in,' and you have nothing? I tried asking the officials on the Twitter Space to see if they could provide us with any tangible information, but it seems like there's nothing confirmed yet. So, anyone that's moving to this border is just going to go with their fingers crossed, praying that, 'Oh, I'll be let in,' but you don't have anything to back your movement into that country. It's hard. And it's cold. It's winter and Ukraine is one of the coldest places you could be in. It'll be heartbreaking to go to the border and get denied. All flights have been canceled — no planes are leaving or coming into this country. It will most likely be military planes.

So, the main question for Nigerian students is, 'Do we stay here and wait for something that we are not sure of when it's going to come?' And from the reputation of our country, I'm going to guarantee you that we have really less hope on the fact that any help is going to come anytime soon. Everybody is forced to fend for themselves. We had been asking the schools to put the classes online, but they didn't listen to us. They didn't do it on time. There is no money to fly home or any discounts. There's nothing. We pray and hope. Maybe they could do something, but it is what it is."

Vukile Dlamini — a medical student from Swaziland, living in Vinnytsia, Ukraine

"We're making plans together with other Swazis, South Africans, and Southern Africans to move from the different cities that we're in to go to Lviv and to find a way to go to Poland. We've started forming groups in the cities we're in so that we can get away, to the other side and get to the borders.

Swaziland doesn't have an embassy here in Ukraine but South Africa does. And they're helping us, together with Swaziland's ministry of foreign affairs. They're trying to get us all together and so far they have a list of our names. But some countries aren't stepping up, so the South African embassies are getting passport numbers from people from Angola, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and of course South Africa. We're happy with the response but it's scary being on this side of everything. They're doing the best they can."

Korrine Sky — a Zimbabwean second-year medical student in Dnipro, Ukraine

"Prior to the bombings, the atmosphere was very normal and peaceful. I was actually in Kyiv a few days before the attacks and it was business as usual. A lot of the African students here have been studying in Ukraine for several years and these rumors of war are a regular 'myth.' We often hear it but nothing ever happens and our universities had even reassured us that classes will continue and we should remain calm.

I realized there were a lot of people [who haven't from their embassies.] So I just started compiling resources, then I created a group chat so people here can stay in touch with one another. There is also a lot of fake news circling so we needed up-to-date information from people who are actually in Ukraine.

My efforts are really just to comfort the community here and have some sense of camaraderie because as of right now, we only have each other.

The majority of the African diaspora community here in Ukraine are from Nigeria. I have witnessed interactions between the people here and the embassy and it’s honestly appalling. We as a community have managed to do more for one another than the embassies, and it just leaves people feeling let down.”

Honorable Zuleikha Hassan — A member of Kenya's parliament

Video showing the congestion at the Rawa Ruska, Poland border from Omar Suleiman, one of the 39 Kenyan students from Ternopil

"Many students are still in difficult circumstances. Some are still at the border -- some having had to walk 10 hours or to the border. We thank God a good number have crossed the Poland border thanks to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry. Some are at shelters and others have found volunteers to house them. Those in Poland have received 15-day visas, and are expected to leave the country by then. I was made aware of this issue by my niece, who had former schoolmates trapped in the bombings.

We started communicating with some students and learned that they were hiding in their hostels, with little or no water and food. They also couldn't use their Kenyan ATM cards as banks were only accepting Ukrainian cards. At the time there were no trains, planes, or cars as there was heavy traffic as many residents left the cities that were being attacked. With their parent's permission, we started making suggestions to the students on how to try and leave safely, as time was not on their side. The students were also great at assessing their situations, making group decisions, and moving together. On Friday, many started moving, with the majority being in cities closer to the Polish border. Eventually, they decided to walk for hours instead of waiting for transport. Once you get to the border, though, there are very long lines to contend with.

There were a group of five girls in Kyiv that we were most worried about. They were asked to carry light luggage, important documents, snacks, and water -- and advised to were sports shoes in case they had to walk for hours. Upon leaving their hostel on Friday morning, they found an American journalist who got on a train out of Kyiv, and he advised the girls to wait at any train or bus station for free transport by the Ukrainian government. They managed to get on a 2:30 AM train, but they reported extreme pushing and shoving as many people were trying to board. They lost all of their food in the process, but, at least all of the girls made it onto the train. The trip from Kyiv to Lviv was to take around six hours, but it ended up taking 10 as on two occasions they had to make diversions, as the railway lines had been bombed.

The girls reached Lviv safely and have joined another group of Kenyan students. However, due to heavy fighting on the outskirts of Lviv, the group decided to walk to the Polish border. The group of 13 took private transport and were dropped off 13km (8 miles) away from the border. The students walked from 3:30 pm EAT to around midnight.

We have also heard of Kenyan students in Sumy, a city that was under attack by Russian soldiers. We are yet to establish contact with them.

African students are facing blatant racism at the border. There is a hierarchy of crossing: White women and children, white men, followed by African women, and then African men."

Eldred — a Nigerian student studying science in Kharkiv, Ukraine

"I'm in Kharkiv and it's quiet here for now. We are just in the basement of the house and we are waiting. So, maybe by tomorrow, we'll know what to do next. I'm keeping in contact with family back home in Nigeria and my friends, but the government's response? I don't know. Seriously. I just don't know. We haven't heard any other news. The last letter I saw from the Nigerian Embassy, they said we should get cover for our safety, so that's what we're doing. We don't know about tomorrow, so that's what we're doing. No one has reached out. My friends in other cities like Kyiv, and Dnipro, are all just indoors. Just indoors and hoping something happens. We just pray."

Mohammed — a medical student from South Africa living in Dnipro, Ukraine

"There are about seven of us, here in Dnipro. It's calm at the moment, but when we constantly see how Kyiv, Kharkiv, and all the other nearby states are being constantly bombarded, we do feel threatened. And we do feel like it's just a matter of time before it might happen to us as well in Dnipro. And the fear that we have is... It's an experience I've never felt in my life before this. So, it's hectic, I could say. We are on a group chat with the (South African) ambassador. Most of us are still here because finding transportation has been really difficult. All the roads are blocked, and as well as that, it's very expensive for most of us. As soon as we can come up, we try but the tickets as sold out before we can even get them. The same with the trains as well. It's been very difficult for a lot of us. I do have friends that are in Kharkiv currently, and they're in bomb shelters as of now, and the same with Kyiv. They're also in bomb shelters and haven't left them for, I think, most of the day because there are constant bombings around them. The South African embassy has given us support in the sense that they have sent all our names to the Polish borders so that when we get there, we can easily pass through. But, the problem with that is, How will we get to the Polish border at all? Because transportation is so difficult to get to. So, we would love it if the South African government would get us those means. We are grateful that they put our names on the list because it helps us immensely. But we need transportation to get us there. And as well as, if we get there, it's a 14-day visa. And after 14 days, is South Africa going to supply a plane to take us home? Because the prices are going to be dramatically high, and as a student, it's difficult to afford, for most of us. It's very difficult. I'm in contact with my family back home and of course they're worried. They want me to stay at my apartment for now, because the worst place to be is on the street — but at the same time, you don't want to be at home incase they just attack here as well. Even though Dnipro is currently, I think, one of the safest cities in Ukraine. Either way, it's a risk. We just have to hope for the best. I'm hoping that things calm down, and then, I will leave as soon as I can. But we're also hoping that the government can help us."


(c) 2022, Okay Africa


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