Foreign students fleeing Ukraine struggle against racism and extortion

Students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East face racism in Ukraine as they desperately try to evacuate

  • Thousands of foreign students trapped in Ukraine

  • Many look to family and friends to fund the evacuation

  • Charities and individuals are mobilizing to support students

By Kim Harrisberg and Nita Bhalla

March 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – With the sound of shelling above his head, Nigerian medical student John Adebisi was trapped for nine days in a basement in the city of Sumy, northeast of Ukraine, ravaged by fear and without enough money or means to escape.

More than a million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on February 24, but many more are stranded, especially foreign students whose governments and families lack planes, money or relationships to get them out.

Racism makes it harder to escape, several students said, after watching videos on social media of African, Asian and Middle Eastern travelers being assaulted by border guards and hijacked from buses and trains while white people were left behind to pass.

“In terms of evacuation, we need a lot of money to pay because people are trying to extort us,” Adebisi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that money transfer apps were not working and that their cards had reached their withdrawal limits.

“Some students had to pay up to $600 to travel to Western Ukraine…we heard there was racism at the borders, which we experienced even before the fighting started. ‘burst. Black students are treated differently,” the 27-year-old said.

Thousands of people are estimated to have died in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, which led to a flurry of economic measures against Russia and stoked fears of a wider conflict in the West.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said the Twitter that there is no discrimination when crossing the border and that “the first-come, first-served approach applies to all nationalities”.

But Tanmay, who is Indian, said Ukrainian guards abused his brother as he tried to leave Ukraine.

“A guard near the Polish border pushed my brother and threw his suitcase, shouting at him and shouting at him and his (friends) to get away,” Tanmay said in an interview from Delhi.

“My brother said… the Ukrainian guards allow (white) people to pass… The message was: ‘If you’re not white, your life doesn’t matter'” , said Tanmay, 24, who did not ask to share his brother’s name for his safety.


Ukraine is popular with foreign students who want a relatively inexpensive education abroad. Government data shows that 76,000 students from 155 countries were enrolled in Ukrainian universities.

After an Indian student was killed by a shelling on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the evacuation of his citizens with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The other nationals are less fortunate.

Syrian Orwa Staif was studying in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where shelling left a desert of crumbling buildings and debris in its center.

Staif said he had to bribe the cashier to get him and three friends on a train to the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border.

The 24-year-old software engineering student said he hopes to travel “anywhere that’s safe”.

“It’s complicated because we don’t have an embassy in Ukraine and we don’t have any authority to ask for help,” said Staif, whose country has been in crisis since insurgents tried to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.


With little government support, closed banks and empty ATMs, foreign nationals in Ukraine have come together to lend money and help each other.

Afifa Maham, a Pakistani medical student, said 50 of them hired a private bus, each paying $50, to reach Shehyni, on the western border of Ukraine and Poland.

A trip that usually takes 2.5 hours took them 13 due to traffic jams and long queues at passport control.

“Within 30 km we saw a huge traffic jam. Our driver asked us to get off the bus and walk to the border, carrying our heavy suitcases… It was a traumatic experience,” Maham said.

“When we arrived at the border, there was a massive crowd and there was a lot of fighting and shouting. We were too scared to go any further to the gate,” said Maham, who eventually entered Warsaw four days later with the help of the Pakistani ambassador. .

Ghassan Abdallah, 28, a Lebanese student at Kharkiv National Medical University, said he spent $900 between trains, private cars and hotels to get to Romania. He then borrowed $1,300 from friends in Romania to return home to Beirut.

Egyptian brothers and dental students Mohamed and Mahmoud Hossam also borrowed money from friends in Kiev – $680 to get bus tickets to the Polish border and then back to Cairo.

“If it wasn’t for our friends here, we couldn’t have made it,” said 22-year-old Mohamed.


Getting out of Ukraine is only the first step.

Several Nigerian students who traveled to Poland and Hungary said they could not afford to return home – and the sacrifices made by their families to send them to Ukraine meant they had to find a way to complete their studies in Europe.

“My parents are farmers who grow cassava,” Ehigiamusoe Godfrey, who was studying languages ​​in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, hoping to be able to support his parents after graduation .

“They sold everything to send me to study in Ukraine,” Godfrey, 24, said by Whatsapp call from a church-funded hotel room in Lodz, central Poland, where he has family. food and lodging for the next three days.

The Nigerian government plans to evacuate more than 5,000 of its nationals from Poland, Hungary and Romania and on Thursday dispatched two planes to Warsaw and Bucharest.

“Some of us are waiting for the Nigerian government to organize a flight, but we don’t know when it will happen,” said medical student Ogunnika Oluwanifemi who traveled by bus and train for four days from the southeast. from Ukraine to Hungary.

“Our parents back home took out loans to send us to Ukraine. How can we ask them (for money) when we know they are already in debt?” said Oluwanifemi, 20, whose parents run a small business in Nigeria’s Ondo state.

Many now depend on the kindness of strangers.

Natalia Mufutau, who is Polish and married to a Nigerian, is mobilizing people in Poland to help stranded Africans.

“We do everything from arranging buses to transport them to providing immigration information and translation at the border,” Mufutau said by phone from the Finnish capital, Helsinki, where she lives.

“Some of their families may send them some money, like around 25 euros ($28). But it’s not enough for them to survive here, so we’re trying to raise funds to be able to support them.”

Meanwhile, Adebisi is staying in his apartment in Sumy with eight other Nigerian friends, hoping to save their funds until a safe evacuation strategy is in place.

“It’s scary, we don’t know what will happen in the next hour. We have seen on social media that Africans have died trying to cross the border, from hypothermia and exhaustion”, a- he declared.

“We see pictures of places we visited in Ukraine now destroyed by bombs. That feeling is not something I would wish on anyone.”

($1 = 0.9019 euros)

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Ukraine invasion unfolds online as web sleuths document conflict

Russian Invasion: Five Ways to Use Technology to Help Ukraine

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg in Johannesburg; Tala Ramadan and Maya Gebeily in Beirut; Nita Bhalla in Nairobi; Annie Banerji in New Delhi; Zofeen T. Ebrahim in Karachi; and Menna A. Farouk in Cairo. Editing by Katy Migiro. S Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http: //

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