Refugees from Africa, Middle East and India seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Poland fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, on Feb. 27, 2022 / Wojtek Radwanski / AFP via Getty Images
Africans face kindness and discrimination as they flee the war
“I am safe in Warsaw, Poland, right now, the capital city. I am not working alone. My team and I have been helping coordinate and get Africans that cross the border into houses or hotels where they can eat, sleep and plan for what will happen next,” Alexander Somto Orah, 25, told New Lines during an interview over the internet. He seemed exhausted, the lack of sleep visible on his face as he had not had a quiet night since the Russian military invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Behind and around him in the camera frame stood other African students who had resided in Ukraine, all of them now displaced in Poland.
“[At first] we thought it was a joke. I [even] made a joke about Russia starting the third world war. Then, it became serious. We started hearing blasts even in Kyiv, where I lived,” Orah added. The blasts began in three hour intervals and soon changed to one hour intervals. The air sirens wailed and people went down to their bunkers or underground train stations. Three other Nigerian men lived in Orah’s apartment building and, together, they did what they thought was the logical thing: They rushed to the Nigerian Embassy in Kyiv hoping to find shelter from the war that surrounded them. But upon arrival they found their embassy was locked and shuttered; the embassy staff had already been evacuated.
Soon after, the Nigerian Embassy issued a memo asking Nigerians in Ukraine “to remain calm” and stay safe. “When the embassy asked us to keep calm, I knew we were in danger,” Orah explained, for he knew that such a statement combined with the fact that the embassy no longer had a presence in Ukraine meant that Nigerians were now on their own. So he and his friends decided to take matters into their own hands and leave the country to the first safe place they could find. They packed light for what they knew would be a long journey to the border, where they hoped they would cross into Poland. But then, another obstacle presented itself. The Ukrainian government announced that men ages 18 to 60 would not be allowed to leave, and it was not immediately clear whether the ban included men of all nationalities or only Ukraininains.
In the evening, Orah and his friends decided to try their luck at leaving, so they headed to the train station in the hopes of boarding a train to Poland, which had announced that it was accepting refugees from Ukraine. But at the train station they found that Black people were being summarily turned away, at times even violently pushed off the trains. “It was the police and the authorities at the train station saying Black men could not board,” said Orah. As the final train that evening closed its doors and pulled away from the station, the grim reality hit. The train station was already crowded and by all indications it was only going to get worse by morning. Everybody in Kyiv was trying to leave for Poland, Romania or Hungary. If Orah and his friends didn’t want to remain behind, they figured, their chance was now or never.
So, in true Lagos style, Orah and his friends jumped onto the moving train and latched onto its locked doors. Fortunately the train conductor noticed and stopped to reopen the doors for them to board safely.
Nine hours later, with thousands of other people fleeing from the Russian invasion and rumors of bombings at the civilian residential regions, Orah and his friends finally arrived at the relatively safe Ukrainian town of Lviv.
At Lviv, there seemed to be a distinct divide between the people who had fled Ukraine. The Ukrainian police were asking for papers and immediately conscripting Ukrainian men looking to leave the country. Black residents of Ukraine huddled near one another and moved together. There was still no word from the government of Nigeria or, for that matter, from most other African embassies or consulates on our fate or how to best proceed to protect our safety. New groups of African organizers began to sprout online to fill the void of useful, often life-saving information, and Orah and his friends tuned into these feeds on social media. The rumors were that Poland was accepting “everybody” who made it across its border from Ukraine, so Orah and his friends thought Poland it is.
But there were no trains, buses or taxis available, and many people had abandoned their cars by the roadside after running out of gas.
So Orah and his friends began to walk the 50 miles from Lviv to Medyka, a “market town” and a border crossing into Poland. “I left Lviv train station by 9am and got to [near] the border where there’s a barricade by 12 p.m.,” he said.
That night, on the eve of March 1, Orah and his three friends finally entered Poland.
“I was given 53 days to stay,” he said, referring to the Polish visa stamp in his passport.
The next day news came that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had approved $8.5 million in emergency funds to evacuate 5,000 Nigerians caught in the crossfire of the Russian invasion and to bring them home. But the offer lacked logistics and clarity and, besides, it would help only those who have crossed over to safety — those already in another European country. For Orah and his friends and most other Nigerians who left home in pursuit of a better future abroad, the thought of returning to Nigeria comes with great hesitation.
“Nigeria is definitely the last place I would consider,” said Muhsanah Olamide. She had been living in Ukraine since September 2020, working part time and studying computer engineering, for a degree she hopes will be her ticket to the middle class, away from the troubled economy and politics of Nigeria. “I have just four semesters to go with school. I’m looking at the possibility of transferring to a school in Europe,” she added during an online interview from an Airbnb in Hungary, after fleeing there from Kharkiv. She recalled to New Lines the panic she felt when the Russian soldiers rolled into Kharkiv and how she swiftly packed her laptop, documents and an overnight bag. Then, the long journey to safety began.
Olamide left her apartment at 7 p.m. to catch the train to Dnipro but ended up sitting in an idle train until 5 the next morning. The train finally began to move and, six hours later, around 11 a.m., she arrived in Dnipro.
“Dnipro was supposed to be relatively safe. On getting to Dnipro, I saw that most of the people I know were at the train station. I decided to join them,” she said.
For the next two hours at Dnipro, her new group of 20 hopped around the train station looking for any form of transport that could get them to Lviv. But all the trains were full. Some people had bought train tickets ahead of time and had priority boarding. Olamide said she and her friends “fought tooth and nail” to get into the train as soon as one became available. It was an old train and there were no seats available. “An elderly white man gave us his bed to sit. He accommodated as many of us as possible. It was only when a lady and her four toddlers got on the train that he pleaded with us to let them sit. He was the nicest person ever,” she said.
Eleven hours later, Olamide and her friends arrived in Lviv.
Originally the group, like other Africans, had planned to head to Poland. But the varying reports on the situation at the Polish border left them feeling undecided. The news on social media reported that Poland was granting free passage to nationals and residents of Ukraine into its country, but African students were not getting into Poland so easily, if at all. Then, Hungary became an option, especially combined with new reports that in order to reach Poland, some people were having to walk for hours in a forest.
“We decided [on] Hungary. The major [deciding factor] was the walk through the forest that some people reported,” Olamide said.
The group took another train for about five hours to get to Uzhorod, near the Hungarian border.
It was almost 6 in the evening when Olamide arrived at the passport control checkpoint. She had to wait another eight hours to enter Hungary to get a 30-day permit (which can be renewed twice) and her passport stamped. At the Chop border crossing into Hungary, Olamide says, the border agents seemed impartial. “The soldiers at both borders were nice and prioritized ladies because there were so many of us and the struggle was real,” she said, adding that to her relief the actual process of getting her passport stamped took all of 10 seconds.
Olamide, Orah and their associates may count themselves among the lucky ones for having fled the war to safety, and a big part of the thanks goes to the network of volunteers — both online and offline — who continue to help.
One such volunteer is Amarachi Nzekwe, a software quality assurance engineer from Nigeria now living in Lithuania. On the morning of Russia’s invasion Nzekwe began tweeting offers of help to Nigerians displaced from Ukraine. “I’ll get you to Vilnius and host you for as long as you need,” she said in a tweet, which quickly went viral. But her charity would face many hurdles.
“When I made the tweet, I assumed that Nigerians in Ukraine could move across the European Union because of the Schengen Agreement. Since people were crossing into Poland, [I assumed] it was easy to gain access to Lithuania,” Nzekwe said. But at the time the news came that only Ukrainian nationals were allowed into Poland, while Ukrainian residents had no such guarantee of entry into the European Union. Yet, like Nzekwe, others kept offering help to Black residents who managed to cross the border.
“A lot of people were offering their homes to refugees on Facebook groups. I did not expect the way the tweet circulated. Nigerians in Poland began reaching out to offer to help,” she said.
Despite the goodwill, it quickly became clear that volunteers such as Nzekwe could do only so much without the help of governments, both her own as well as Europeans’. The government of India, for example, had quickly organized to help its citizens in Ukraine and guide them to safety.
Nzekwe said that her fellow Lithuanians have been eager to help displaced people from Ukraine; they, too, view “Russia as a bully.”
“But [there] is a fierce reminder that I am Nigerian. As a Nigerian, the Nigerian passport feels useless. While the other countries were coordinated, there was no support for Nigerians from the government,” says Nzekwe.
Nzekwe kept reaching out to Nigerians in Poland and Ukraine, coordinating and organizing efforts to help especially the younger Nigerians who had been living in Ukraine on their own as international students, though aiding those who become stranded to cross the border remains a challenge.
“Getting money, bed spaces and food for Nigerian and African students as soon as they got into Poland was one thing,” she said. Getting them across the border? That was a whole other matter.
Several groups inside Ukraine have also over the past few days begun organizing ways to offer help to Black people stranded in the country, which freed up Nzekwe — who feels so far away from the actual events inside Ukraine — to focus on her online campaign of logistical information gathering and share it with her brethren.
Fadekemi Adegbite, a first-year medical student in Kyiv, was one of the beneficiaries of Nzekwe’s social media lifelines. She saw Nzekwe’s viral tweet. Underneath it she found another tweet by a Nigerian person in Poland who was offering to help Nigerians able to cross over into Poland.
“I felt horrible as a Black person. We are all running from the same war, but the police and train attendants had no problem pushing Black people to the side and out of the way. One standard of kindness for the white European Ukrainians and shabby treatment for everybody else. I had to beg to be allowed onto the train. There were separate queues for us from Nigeria,” Adegbite said.
Back home in Nigeria’s Ogun state, Adegbite’s family grew worried about their daughter. She had no money, her phone was dead, and there was no way for them to assess her well-being — whether she was safe or had any food to eat.
“My parents had to scramble around for money from friends and the church to help me. They were scared because I am Black and we have seen how the world treated refugees from the Middle East,” she said.
She managed to join up with a group of Nigerians and they finally crossed over into Poland.
Like many Ukrainians, Nigerians who found themselves stranded in Ukraine at the onset of the Russian invasion had trouble accessing their finances, except for a lucky few, like Olamide, who had just cashed her paycheck the day before Russian forces rolled into Kharkiv.
“I work part time, so my salary had just come in. My parents and sister have also been supporting me,” she said. At the moment, she is staying at an Airbnb in Budapest and expects to move into an apartment soon.
But for most Nigerians things have not gone so smoothly. After chronicling his problems on Twitter with pictures and videos especially of institutional anti-Blackness in Ukraine, Orah began raising money and organizing to get Nigerians across the border into hotels or houses.
“I spent 350 euros [US$382] to get from the Polish border to the hotel where I currently am. That amount of money is very steep for anybody. I got four other people into my cab,” Orah explained.
Orah’s small volunteer operation continues to eat into his sleep hours. One member of his team is tasked with finding hotels and homes to house fleeing Nigerians. Another member transports the newly arrived Nigerians from the border crossing to their accommodations. Orah focuses on fundraising, and says that so far he has helped over 50 Nigerians reach safety, at times using his personal funds to bridge expenses.
To him and to his compatriots, this makes the silence from the Nigerian government only that much more deafening. Orah has been contacted by “almost everybody” except his government. Aid agencies, celebrities and even a Canadian member of Parliament have reached out to inquire how they can help Africans stuck in Ukraine. But nothing yet from his own government.
Oluwatosin Adeshokan is an economist and journalist covering sub-Saharan Africa
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