African students fleeing Ukraine report racial discrimination at borders

At least a million refugees have fled Ukraine over the past week, seeking safety in neighboring European countries from Russia’s advancing military forces. Amid the chaos and deadly attacks on major cities that the U.N. estimates have so far killed approximately 3,300 civilians, some African students have reported encountering ugly instances of racism from some civilians and members of the Ukrainian military as they try to escape the country.

Korrine Sky, a 26-year-old second-year medical student from Leicester, England, documented on Twitter what she endured, using the trending hashtag #africansinukraine.

On Feb. 25, after hearing the air-raid sirens sound in Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine, Sky, a Zimbabwean-born British citizen, and her husband, a neurosurgery student she met in Ukraine, hastily gathered documents and some of their belongings and set off for the Romanian border. The couple faced long lines for gas and to get money out of an ATM before they joined an automotive queue at the border. Still in Ukraine, they slept in the car for two days.

“On our way to the border, a man held a gun up at me and told us that if we don’t leave in five minutes, he would shoot us,” Sky told a pool of reporters that included Yahoo News. “Other Black women have been reported being shoved, being pushed, women with children. It’s horrific. The treatment has been awful.”

The last 24 hours of her journey in the queue, Sky said, were the worst because that’s when she started facing “racism and segregation.” She said that while she and her husband were making their way to the front of the line, Ukrainian civilians began aggressively circling their car, with one man allegedly lunging at her.

Fearful of the mob, Sky’s husband pulled the car off the road to seek assistance from the Ukrainian military, but was met by another civilian who attempted to divert them onto a pedestrian border crossing.

“In that pedestrian queue, there were only people of color,” Sky said. “There were Asians, Arab people, Black people. There were no Ukrainian people.”

At another crossing point, she said, Ukrainian people were just walking through the border.

“If you look on the other side, there was a fence, there were Ukrainian people just walking through, but we were told to queue. We had to queue, and there was not a single Ukrainian person in that queue,” Sky said. “Students who come from different countries to get an education for a better life for our families and friends, we’re the least of their worries.”

Another African student, Alexander Somto Orah of Nigeria, tweeted that when he finally reached the border with some companions, Ukrainian police and members of the army initially refused to let them cross while allowing white Ukrainians through the entry point without incident.

According to the New York Times, 24-year-old Nigerian doctor Chineye Mbagwu, who resided in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, said she was stranded in the town of Medyka for two days at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing as foreigners were denied passage by border guards.

“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through. They were beating people up with sticks” and tearing off their jackets, she added. “They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.”

Other accounts using the #africansinukraine hashtag (but unverified by Yahoo News) involve African men, women and children being shoved off trains and buses by Ukrainian troops.

Refugees from Africa, the Middle East and India
Refugees from Africa, the Middle East and India, many of them students at Ukrainian universities, gather at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Ukraine. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

Sky, who said she fled Zimbabwe with her family at a young age to seek asylum in the U.K., was one of tens of thousands of African students studying in Ukraine when Russia launched its invasion last week. She said she had come to the popular destination for international students to study medicine, engineering and military affairs.

“I was heartbroken because Ukraine was becoming our home. We never expected this. We never planned for this. Nobody really believed it was going to happen, and to happen on this scale,” she said.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that Russia’s invasion had “affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways” and emphasized the country’s support for African students fleeing the country.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Commissioner Filippo Grandi also condemned the alleged instances of discrimination on the Ukrainian border. “There has been a different treatment. ... There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everyone is fleeing from the same risks.” He added that UNHCR “plans to intervene to try to ensure that everybody receives equal treatment.”

On Monday, the African Union, which represents the 55 countries on the African continent, also warned that “reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach [of] international law.” The union urged all countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”

Sky and her husband, who drove for over 40 hours before finally arriving in Romania on Monday night, are now heading back to the U.K. after what has proven to be an emotionally charged week.

“The Romanian people have been so good to us. It’s been a massive effort of volunteers from people in Romania, seeing where they can assist.” Sky added that Romanians provided them with hotel rooms, food and water at the border.

Sky has also used her newfound platform to raise funds and awareness to get help for other students. She’s created a database via Telegram for students, including hundreds still stuck in Sumy, Ukraine, to stay in contact and provide resources while they navigate to safety.

“What we need right now is support from the U.N. or people who have the power to ensure the safety of those students,” she said.

On Thursday, during a second round of talks, officials from Russia and Ukraine agreed on a pact to create safe corridors to evacuate civilians and deliver aid.

Noting that many of those students still stuck in Ukraine are as young as 16, Sky said she worries about what they and their families may face in the days ahead.

“There’s children there, basically, and their parents are worried sick about them,” she said.