African students trapped in Ukraine say they face extra challenges as they try to escape the war, including being blocked from getting off trains or barred from crossing borders to neighbouring countries.
“My boyfriend is stuck in Ukraine and his phone is not reachable for the past two days. The last time we spoke he said he’s waiting for the train from Lviv to Poland, ” said a Nigerian woman who asked to go just by her first name, Precious. “He said they didn’t allow them to board the train. Only white people [could] and his phone had low battery so he had to go offline.”
Roughly 20 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign students are African, including 4,000 Nigerians. African activists and students have been raising awareness of their plight through the Twitter hashtag #AfricansInUkraine, as well as creating group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram to organise assistance.
At least one Telegram group for stranded African students now has more than 3,500 members. Members have been sharing videos, including several that appeared to show Africans being blocked from boarding trains towards the border, which The Irish Times could not independently verify.
Hundreds of Africans – including some in Ukraine, people in countries including Nigeria and Ghana and members of the diaspora in Europe – also talked for more than 16 hours in an online discussion held through Twitter spaces, sharing advice on logistics and strategising about how to help.
In less than 24 hours, more than €23,500 was raised by organisers who connected on Twitter. “There are still many black students and families who live and work in Ukraine who are stuck there,” the description for the campaign read. “Many more have made it to Poland to face horrific anti-blackness and racist Ukrainian and Polish soldiers and police officers.”
African embassies came in for early criticism for not planning to evacuate their citizens. One Nigerian medical student, who had been studying in Dnipro and asked not to be named, said the British students he studied with were bused to the Polish border by university authorities, while Africans were left behind. By Sunday he was driving in a four-car convoy towards Romania, where they heard they would be allowed to cross. “The black students, the African students are completely neglected. We are humans too,” he said.
“When the shelling started, a lot of people made their way towards Poland as an impulse reaction … When they got to the border they realised it was just Ukrainians getting access into Poland … We tried contacting the embassy but we got no reply. We just need to cross the border and know that we’re safe and within a short period of time we will find our way back to our country.”
Polish authorities have said publicly that third-country nationals will be allowed to enter. On Saturday, the Nigerian embassy in Poland also said it would have staff waiting at four locations to meet its citizens with buses and vans.
On February 24th, the Ghanaian ministry of foreign affairs tweeted that it was “gravely concerned” about the security and safety of our over 1,000 students and other Ghanaians in Ukraine. It later gave contact numbers for officials who could help them cross borders, while warning citizens to “be wary of unscrupulous persons posing as designated officials for the evacuation exercise”.
At least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine to countries including Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, according to Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees. On Sunday afternoon, a Nigerian student in Poland told The Irish Times that many Nigerians who had been waiting had finally managed to cross the border that morning.