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African students living in Ukraine say they face racism while trying to flee

People arrived at Budapest's Western Railway Station from Zahony, Hungary, after crossing the border at Zahony-Chop as they fled Ukraine on March 3. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)
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Jessica Orakpo, 23, a medical student from Nigeria, and her friend Nataizya Nanyangwe, 24, an economics student from Zambia, both enrolled at universities in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, decided that the time had come, in the face of Russia’s invasion of the country, for them to leave.

They piled into a cab bound for the Polish border, some 136 miles away, at around 8 a.m. last Saturday. After two hours, they hit wall-to-wall traffic. The cab couldn’t go any further.

After the cab hit the bottleneck, Orakpo and her friend decided to continue their journey by foot. Orakpo said she only packed some clothes, blankets and her travel documents.

By the time they drew close to the Polish border — a day later — they faced another obstacle, one that Orakpo says was prompted by her race.

Several African and South Asian citizens in Ukraine have said they’ve seen different treatment of those who are non-White and non-Ukrainian and trying to leave the country, a situation that has been confirmed by the top U.N. refugee agency and other official authorities.

‘I woke up to the sound of explosions’: How war abruptly changed life in Ukraine

Orakpo and Nanyangwe say they were among those set apart and denied evacuation from Ukraine because they are African.

As they walked, Orakpo and Nanyangwe had taken breaks to rest by the road, lying on the blankets. After walking for close to 12 hours, they made it to a school’s basketball-court-turned-shelter, where they were able to rest, thanks to a traffic warden who offered to drive them there. “He sees that I’m very tired, and I was so grateful to him. Till this day, I’m very grateful to that guy,” Orakpo said.

Jessica Orakpo, a medical student from Nigeria, walks over 12 hours to reach the Poland-Ukraine border. (Video: The Washington Post)

The next day, they made it to a bus stop in the town of Mostyska, where buses were taking people to the Polish border. When they got there, Orakpo told The Washington Post, officials started allowing only women with children and pregnant women. The first bus took off, then the second. Pets and their owners were being loaded onto a third bus, without any noncitizens being allowed to board. Orakpo pleaded to be allowed on the bus and was initially ignored. She speaks a bit of Ukrainian, so she said she was pregnant so she could be considered.

Another bus came. “We were this close to entering,” she said. Orakpo overheard other people in the station saying in Ukrainian: “Why are the Blacks entering?”

“It was very devastating,” she said. Orakpo turned to a Ukrainian woman organizing the line and asked her: “What’s wrong with us entering the bus? When will you start loading us?” The woman looked at her and said: “Only Ukrainians are going to get on the bus,” according to Orakpo. “That’s very bad. What about us?” the medical student asked. The woman shrugged.

Requests for comment to Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service were not immediately returned.

Anna Michalska, spokesperson for the Polish Border Guard, said officers help all those who flee Ukraine. “All escaping people are allowed to enter Poland, regardless of nationality and citizenship,” she said via email. Among the people who entered Poland from Ukraine, 90 percent are Ukrainian citizens, mainly women and children, she said. “The remaining 10% are foreigners who have legally resided in Ukraine — citizens of the EU countries, the Schengen area and countries around the world — a total of almost 100 different nationalities,” she added.

Stories similar to Orakpo’s have been reported in news media and shared on Twitter and Instagram as people desperately try to flee Ukraine.

Barlaney Mufaro Gurure, a Zimbabwean space engineering student, said she was pushed by a border guard who was giving priority to Ukrainians at the Krakovets border crossing, Al Jazeera reported. The New York Times reported that Chineye Mbagwu, a 24-year-old Nigerian doctor, spent more than two days stranded in the town of Medyka by the Poland-Ukraine border crossing, as guards were allowing Ukrainians to cross but not foreigners. Saakshi Ijantkar, a 22-year old medical student from India, told CNN that Indians also faced instances of racism when going through one of the checkpoints near the Polish border.

They escaped Ukraine. But their ordeal has just begun.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said some people were receiving “different treatments” compared with others.

“You have seen reports in the media that there are different treatments — with Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians,” Grandi said at a news conference Tuesday. “Now, our observations — and we possibly cannot observe every single post yet — but our observations is that these are not state policies, but there are instances which it has happened.

“There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everyone is fleeing from the same risks,” he added.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told The Post that there were “isolated cases” of African citizens being mistreated at the border. “I don’t think it’s something done systematically,” he said.

The African Union released a statement condemning the treatment of African citizens at Ukrainian border crossings. “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach [of] international law.”

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said that he was aware of the incidents and that he had a call Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.

“He said that the instructions they had at the border was that everybody, everyone, irrespective of nationality or race, could leave and that the only ones that couldn’t leave were [male] Ukrainians from the age of 18 to 60,” he told The Post. Kuleba attributed the incidents to a chaotic situation at the border, Onyeama said.

Onyeama added that a number of Nigerian citizens in Ukraine have fled to Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, and that the government is trying to relocate them back to Nigeria. He is also trying to evacuate about 300 Nigerian students stranded at Sumy State University, in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. “We’re trying as best as we can to see if we can have a safe corridor to cross through Russia,” he said.

He called reports on social media of the treatment some Nigerians have received at the border from Ukrainian officials “harrowing” and “deplorable.” Onyeama added: “The question is, how do you know whether these were sort of just rogue officials or whether there was any kind of state sanction to what they were doing?” He reiterated that the Ukrainian minister insisted there had been a directive to let everybody leave.

Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, announced on Wednesday an emergency hotline for foreign students trying to leave the country. At least one international student, a medical student from India who was lining up for food in the city of Kharkiv, has died as a result of the invasion, prompting the Indian Embassy to issue an alert asking all Indian students to leave the country immediately.

More than a million people have left Ukraine, foreshadowing a massive humanitarian crisis

According to a study released by the Ukrainian government in late 2020, tens of thousands of students from abroad attend school in Ukraine each year, with the highest number from India. Ten percent come from Morocco, while others come from countries including Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Unable to board a bus to the Polish border, Orakpo went back to her city and managed to board a train to Hungary. She is now living with a friend in Debrecen, she says. She doesn’t know what to do next. “I don’t have any money. I don’t have any clothes. I have nothing,” she said.

Orakpo was a few months away from graduating before the conflict started; her graduation was scheduled for June 23. She is limping from all the walking and has blood clots in both her legs, she says. Her plan was to move to the United States after graduating, maybe to Baltimore, to do her residency.

“Now I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Medicine was the only thing I had going on for me,” she said.

Dariusz Kalan contributed to this report.