A British-Nigerian medical student shares her ordeal of navigating dangerous routes in a bid to leave the country devastated by war.
As told to Adama Juldeh Munu
“Trying to leave towards the Polish border today.” These were the first words of hope in several days uttered by *Melissa, a British-Nigerian student who transferred to Ukraine from the United Kingdom for her third year of medical school. She could not have imagined that she would be trapped in the midst of a tense and volatile conflict between Russia and Ukraine, a mere three months into her studies.
Melissa was among thousands of African and Afro-Caribbean students left stranded after Russia launched its invasion on its neighbour on February 24. The United Nations says about 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the conflict so far, fleeing into neighbouring countries Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
But a brewing conversation, particularly in social media spaces, has shed light on the difficulties that Black students have been facing in leaving a country that locked down its airspace amid Russian attacks — including incidents of racism.
When I spoke to Melissa on February 25, a day after the start of the invasion, she told me over the phone, with exasperation, that she was trying to “keep calm.”
According to the Ukrainian government, as of 2020, an estimated 4,000 Nigerians study in higher educational institutions in the Eastern European country — the highest number of African nationals in Ukraine. This is Melissa’s story:
“Studying in Ukraine was not bad. The city I was in was Dnipro, which is a nice, quiet, and easy-going city. I transferred from medical school in the United Kingdom to Ukraine due to financial issues, linked to paying tuition as an international student. Life before the crisis (in Ukraine) was very calm.
“When the crisis fully began on February 24, I had mixed emotions, ranging from fear, anger, disappointment and shock. I had hoped that the situation would get better, but unfortunately, it got worse. I already had plans to leave on [Sunday] February 27, as school was already online and most of [my] colleagues had [already] left.
“My family [based in Nigeria] and I started looking for ways out, and knowing flying was not an option made my options very slim. I called the Nigerian embassy on Thursday [February 24] to ask if it was possible for Nigeria to offer a pass for its citizens through Poland to go home [to Nigeria], no concrete answer was given. However, it [sounded] like a no.”
When I spoke to Melissa on Friday, February 25, she was still in Dnipro. She also told me that the only support she received from her university was to keep safe and try to leave safely. This is what she wrote to me on WhatsApp at the time:
“The reason why I am still in Ukraine is that the Nigerian government advised us [on the day of the invasion] to stay put and calm, that the situation would not result in war. But unfortunately, it has, and there has been no further communication from the governments through the embassy.
“There has been no contact from the Nigerian embassy in Kyiv [sic], which is understandable due to the situation [there], however, there has been no contact whatsoever as to what to do. There is local news in Nigeria saying they are planning an evacuation through the Kyiv [sic] embassy, but we have not heard anything.
“I joined a WhatsApp group of Nigerians for information, someone mentioned they had contacted the Nigerian ambassador in Ukraine but they haven’t received a response yet since yesterday.
“I considered going to Poland [instead of Nigeria]. My sister called the Nigerian embassy in Poland whilst I was on the other phone. Unfortunately, the Nigerian embassy in Poland informed us that they had gotten calls from Nigerians at the Polish border saying that they are not being allowed to cross the border.
“The embassy in Poland said that there was nothing they could do because they did not hear from the minister of foreign affairs in Nigeria and that we needed to get in touch with the minister of affairs in Nigeria [by ourselves] to give them direction on what to do, which kept me at a disadvantage yet again. There was too much conflicting information.”
Meanwhile, social media has been an important source of support for not just Nigerian students but other Black students from Africa and the Caribbean. One of the people who has spearheaded spaces for information goes by @Korrinesky on Twitter. Reports of racism at the border under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine have flooded Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Some have alleged there have been incidents of racial “segregation” between Black people and Ukrainian citizens. Videos have been posted online depicting Black people being blocked from boarding trains, stranded at the border and even held at gunpoint.
The next time I speak with Melissa is February 26. She tells me: “I called the Polish border guard twice yesterday and they said Nigerians are allowed with a valid passport and residence permit, which I have. Some Nigerians are giving accounts of [being able to] cross borders.”
Since then, there have been a number of statements issued by a number of heads of state and foreign ministers from various African countries, to support Africans fleeing Ukraine. Nigeria and Ghana have used chartered planes to evacuate hundreds of their citizens from neighbouring Poland, Romania and Hungary. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s foreign minister, Christophe Lutundula, said on Twitter that he would meet the Polish ambassador to help with the passage of about 200 Congolese, most of whom are students.
The African Union issued a statement on February 28 of the mistreatment of Black people caught up in the conflict, describing it as “shockingly racist.” It said, “[A]ll people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.”
However, Melissa says there was no quick action from the Nigerian government and some other African countries, and that she had to plan her own evacuation from Ukraine, amidst fears of war and racism:
“I was so disappointed to see how African countries failed their citizens yet again by not rising up to the occasion as soon as possible when the crisis began on Thursday. African countries need to do better because, without pressure from the media, I don’t think much would have happened.
“Based on the accounts I heard about what Africans trying to leave at the borders had been through, I was worried during my journey towards the Polish borders. I travelled with a group of friends – we were seven in number (two Nigerians, two Moroccans, one Zambian, two UK residents but one with a German passport, the other with a British passport).
“We had booked a bus from Dnipro to Poland on Saturday, February 26 2022, at 07:20 in the morning. On getting to the bus station, we found out the bus was cancelled. We went to the train station, [but] there were no scheduled trains.
“Then a friend reached out to us that a couple of students had organised a bus to take them towards the Polish border and asked if we wanted to join. We did, and began our journey at half past four that evening. On the way there, the bus was divided at some point, as some students were thinking we should re-route to the Romanian borders while others wanted to continue.
“We were all scared Africans wouldn’t be let in. The majority of the students in the bus were Africans [and from] North and East Africa. We eventually decided to continue with our original journey but changed which border to go through. We chose [to travel from] Medyka to Krakovets [on the Poland-Ukraine border]
“The driver took us as close as he could to the border. We just walked about ten minutes to join the queue of pedestrians. The waiting part was the biggest challenge as we were waiting in the cold. After three hours of standing and waiting in the cold, women and children were allowed to cross over temporarily to get warm in tents and [with an] outdoor fire. But the men were not allowed. I felt bad for my male friends, but I was basically shivering, and they encouraged us to go get warm.
“After that, we were grouped and were escorted towards the Ukrainian border end where our passports were stamped, and then we walked through the Polish border in a minute and got our passports stamped with ease.
“I personally did not experience any racism, but I was worried based on the accounts and experiences I have heard from other African and Caribbean students about being turned away. The only experience in my trip was favouritism towards women.
“I am worried about some students still in Ukraine, and I hope they make it out safely and peacefully. I am concerned for Ukrainians as they get to watch their country go through this and have to leave for their own safety and possibly any loved ones they’ve left behind. I really hope things get better, and the country can rebuild and get back more than they have lost and peace reigns.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.