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'It's inhumane.' African refugees experience racism while trying to flee Ukraine


African students and residents of Ukraine trying to flee from the war are being pushed back at border crossings and trains while experiencing racism and aggression, with reports claiming they have been placed at the bottom of the priority list for refugees.

Photos and videos shared online with the #AfricansinUkraine hashtag aiming to shed light on the predicament showed Ukrainian guards refusing to let a Black woman board a train to safety while letting Ukrainians on and border guards brandishing weapons at unarmed African refugees attempting to cross into safety.

Other anecdotes on social media describe African refugees who are waiting days in line at the borders with no food or water, and local shops refusing to sell them anything, while being told that other, white refugees from Ukraine have the priority to cross.

Those anecdotes, videos and images of Black men, women and children sleeping in train stations and out in the cold on streets and border zones have spread widely on social media and sparked condemnation and statements of concern from the public.

A group of Congolese students from Kinshasha told CTV National News correspondent Daniele Hamamdjian in Rotkietnica, Poland that they were told “Ukrainians go first” while attempting to cross into safety.

“They only accepted Ukrainians first,” one of the students said in French to CTV News, adding that the Congolese were “put aside” until the border guards were done with the Ukrainian refugees.

“When we rushed to get in, Ukrainians screamed,” the student continued. “There were dogs [crossing the border] and that’s the moment we fought to cross.”

The students told CTV News they left where they were staying at 5 a.m. and arrived at the border at 1 p.m., having to travel on foot.

Ukraine is home to thousands of students from African nations seeking degrees in medicine and engineering, for example, at more affordable prices compared to schools in North America and the rest of Europe.

The Ukrainian Education Ministry says Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt are in the top 10 countries who have students in Ukraine, with more than 16,000 students sent between the three of them.

Daemeah Karbeah of Minneapolis is one of the creators of support groups for Africans attempting to leave Ukraine via the Twitter account @AfricansLeavingUkraine and on the Instagram account @blackpeopleinukraine.

Karbeah, who is first-generation Liberian-American, told in a telephone interview Monday that she saw social media posts of people in the Ukrainian city of Sumy who were stranded and were asking others to spread the word of the difficulties they faced fleeing Ukraine – which is why she mobilized with others to start support groups via social media accounts.

“We have compiled a list of different borders and what each border is requiring and if they're letting people in,” Karbeah said, adding that the Polish border “by far” has proven to be the most difficult.

“There have been accounts of the Polish border patrols and police threatening to shoot at people seeking refuge. Hungary and Romania have been very easy for a lot of Black people seeking refuge to get in. But from Poland border…there have been people that have been stuck outside in the cold for over three days in and they can barely feel their hands, their feet and it's just really inhumane,” she said.

Karbeah said her group has heard stories of Black students trying to escape from Ukrainian cities only to be physically barred from getting on trains or physically removed from their seats to make room for others.

She, and other members of her group who hail from all over the globe, have been petitioning embassies of African nations to step up their efforts to assist getting their citizens to safety – but being so far away from those she is trying to help is frustrating, she said.

“It's honestly just ridiculous to me, because even in times like this where war is going on -- how can you just look at somebody and look at their race and be like, ‘they don't deserve to live, they don't deserve to escape.’ I don't know how in times like this, where people's lives are in danger, you can still be racist,” Karbeah said.

At the moment, Karbeah and her group are attempting to raise funds and figure out the logistics of hiring vans or buses to pick up those stranded at border checkpoints or in Ukrainian cities – a dangerous venture, as she pointed out “the roads are bombed, the bridges are bombed and there are Russian troops that are shooting at anybody who is outside.”

“We're also trying to collect supplies to bring to people who are outside of the border who are cold, and supplies for people currently trapped in Ukraine,” Karbeah said. “Nobodies’ lives should be put above each other. We should all be seen as equal and we should all be trying to help them.” 

In a notice published Saturday, the Polish embassy in Abuja, Nigeria reiterated that situations at the border are “increasingly challenging” but that all border crossing points on the Polish-Ukrainian border are open and Nigerian nationals entering Poland will be permitted to stay in the country for 15 days, after which they must leave or apply for international protection.

“Crossing the border will be possible upon presentation of a credible document of identity allowing the border guards to ascertain the identity of the holder,” the notice states. “All nationals are given equal treatment and none are discriminated against.”

The treatment of African students and residents has been decried by African officials and politicians as well.

“South African students and other Africans have been badly treated at the Ukraine/Poland border,” tweeted senior South African Diplomat Clayson Monyela on Sunday, adding that the South African ambassador in Warsaw travelled five hours to the border to help their citizens.

In one video showing a crowd of people outdoors, shared by Monyela, a woman narrates the situation on the ground at the border near Medyka, Poland, saying “we’ve been pushed, we’ve been shoved, we are denied access, there are so many of us compared to the Ukrainians… Ukrainians are getting special treatment while the Africans are outside in the cold.”

In a statement issued on Twitter Sunday, the Nigerian government, noting the long history of Nigerian and other African students studying in Ukraine, said they were aware of the situation unfolding on the ground.

“From video evidence, first-hand reports and from those in contact with their wards and Nigerian consular officials there have been unfortunate reports of Ukrainian police and security personnel refusing to allow Nigerians to board buses and trains towards [the] Ukraine-Poland border, ” the Twitter statement reads.

“In one video circulating on social media, a Nigerian mother with her young baby was filmed being physically forced to give up her seat to another person,” the statement continues. “There are also separate reports of Polish officials simply refusing Nigerian citizens entry into Poland from Ukraine.”

Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama tweeted later on Sunday that he had spoken with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, to “express concern” at the reports reaching him from the borders.

Onyeama said that Kuleba assured him that Ukrainian border guards had been instructed to let all foreigners leave and that any issues were the “result of chaos on the border and check points leading to them.”

The UN’s Refugee Agency said Monday the number of refugees leaving Ukraine has now passed 500,000 Top Stories

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