They fled Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine under fierce shelling, traveled 1,000 km west and walked the last 12 hours on foot to Poland in the snow.
But just 10 kilometers from safety, the group of Nigerian university students were told they could not get on the bus and had to turn back.
Stranded in a war zone, the group of young men and their two pet dogs sit on the floor of the crowded Lviv train station to plan what to do.
Around them, Ukrainian families and foreign nationals have set up small camps in the waiting rooms of the stations, because train after train does not arrive.
Panicked people crowd the information desk desperately looking for information on trains to anywhere.
Others wait in the snow on the tracks, flocking to each arriving train to try to board.
“We were supposed to get on a bus for the last 10 kilometers but they asked all Africans to get off and said only women and children should cross,” says Ben, 27, who was studying petroleum engineering in Kharkiv.
“In our experience and our friends, if you’re not Ukrainian, it’s even harder to get out.”
Behind him, another group of Nigerian teenagers, who had also fled Kharkiv, say friends at the border told them not to even worry about it, as it was almost impossible to cross the Polish border if you didn’t. weren’t European.
“We heard that the Polish border is harder to enter than other countries. Hungary, we hope it will be easier,” Amanda, a 17-year-old medical student, says among her friends. don’t have much hope.”
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The chaos at the borders has put extreme pressure on Ukrainian and Polish authorities struggling to process tens of thousands of terrified men, women and children fleeing Russia’s ferocious invasion.
The UN refugee agency said on Saturday that as many as 368,000 people had fled Ukraine in just a few days, and that number is expected to rise exponentially.
The EU executive said on Sunday that Europe was facing its biggest humanitarian crisis in years and that Ukrainians internally displaced by conflict could reach 7 million.
Janez Lenarcic, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said a further 4 million people could flee the country as refugees.
“We are witnessing what could become the biggest humanitarian crisis on our European continent for many, many years. The needs are increasing right now,” he added.
At the border with Poland, where the majority of refugees are fleeing, there are 50 km of traffic jams waiting to cross, as families leave their bags and belongings behind to complete the journey on foot.
Without shelters at the crossings, in mid-winter, fleeing civilians camped in freezing cold conditions for days.
As snow began to fall on Sunday, some had to turn around and head back to the nearest main town to find other ways out.
The nightmare has left some foreign nationals in limbo, prompting an “AfricansInUkraine” hashtag, with people sharing their own stories.
The Independent contacted the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for comment, but received no response.
Ukrainian and Polish authorities said anyone of any nationality was allowed to cross.
But with reports of delays from people from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia piling up, countries have started to express concern.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffry Onyeama said he raised the issue that “Ukrainian border guards [were] hindering the exit of Nigerian citizens” with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
“[Mr Kubela] claimed that Ukrainian border guards have been instructed to allow all foreigners to leave. He promised to investigate and come back quickly,” he added on Twitter.
South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, went so far as to say that South African students had been ‘abused’ and shared videos with The Independent terrible conditions.
A group of Yemeni citizens at the border told The Independent they had been ordered to go to the back of the queue when they arrived. Others from Morocco and Syria said all Middle Eastern countries had been grouped together and told to wait.
Back at the station, foreign nationals and Ukrainians prepared to sleep on the streets for fear of missing a train.
Families, many of whom are now scattered and divided across Ukraine, waited an entire day to catch a train anywhere.
A 17-year-old Ukrainian man named Kirill, from the coastal town of Kherson, said he had been separated from his mother and sister for days. They were still along the coast, while her father got stuck in another part of the country and was called up for battle. He had accompanied friends rushing to safety.
Meanwhile, Ben and his friends are preparing for a night at the station, as they were hoping for a train to Hungary.
“We are exhausted and scared and we want to go home,” he said. “We just hope we can cross a border to do that.”
The Independents Welcome to refugees The campaign is calling on the UK government to set up a resettlement scheme to give Ukrainians fleeing the invasion sanctuary in Britain.