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Black and brown students are reporting shocking racism on Ukraine border

One Nigerian student in Kyiv tells Dazed that he was forced to jump onto a moving train to flee the city

Alexander, 25, is a Nigerian management student at university in Kyiv, Ukraine. As Putin began raining down bombs on the city, Alexander and his friends headed to the subway station to take cover. They slept there, swaddled in coats and blankets in the freezing cold, before heading to the train station early the next day. When they arrived, they were told that only women and children were allowed on the train. “I didn’t say anything because that’s normal,” Alexander tells me. “Until they started taking only white women and children.”

Alexander and his friends challenged the authorities and succeeded in ensuring that African women and children were permitted to get on the train. Then another train bound for Warsaw rolled into the station, which Alexander tried to board. “I jumped in with two other Africans, and they dragged us out of the train,” he recalls. Alexander was ultimately only able to get out of Kyiv after dangerously jumping onto a moving train. “We jumped on and held onto the door and begged them to open it,” he says.

There are tens of thousands of people from countries across Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia, and the Middle East who have been studying in Ukraine. The country hosts over 76,000 international students, of which 17,000 are Indian and nearly a quarter are from African countries.

Over a million people have now fled Ukraine following the invasion, but thousands remain trapped and struggling to leave the country. Many of those still struggling to flee are international students – particularly those who are people of colour. Reports have abounded on social media detailing racism and mistreatment at the border. Some claim they have been unable to board refugee buses, while videos show Black students lugging suitcases along the road as they are forced to make their way out of the country on foot. Others have reported that border agents in Ukraine and Poland have assaulted them.

When Alexander arrived in Lviv, he walked 70 kilometres to the Polish border as no trains into Poland allowed men to board. Upon arrival at the border, Alexander says all the refugees were segregated. “They told Ukrainians – they meant whites – to stay on the one side, while foreigners – Africans, Indians, and Middle Easterners – stayed on the other. It was a terrible experience.” Alexander and other people of colour slept at the border, outside in the snow, for three nights. Again, they protested against their treatment, and only then were finally allowed to cross over into Poland.

Shivangi, 25, is an Indian medical student at Sumy State University. Like Alexander, she’s also faced difficulties fleeing the country since the invasion. “There is no transportation for now, because all the roads have been bombed and all the railways are broken,” she says. “We are completely exhausted.”

Shivangi tells Dazed that she has been staying in a hostel and has not gone outside since hearing the news that Naveen Gyanagouda, a 21-year-old medical student from Karnataka, India, was shot dead in Kharkiv. “We are too scared to go outside,” she says. “We are hoping that someone can just take us away from here, somewhere far away.”

She explains that the Indian embassy has told students stranded in Ukraine to “be calm” and try to cross the border into any other neighbouring country. “But in Ukraine, it's not easy to do that,” she explains. “Here we are facing some racism. They are kicking African and Indian students out of trains. So it’s really hard.”

Misinformation about the situation in Ukraine is rife at the moment, and it’s important that we don’t instinctively take unverified social media accounts as gospel truth. But this point, there are simply too many testimonies to ignore. On Tuesday, journalist Tim Mak wrote on Twitter that he had recently spoken to a Nigerian man who had been dragged off a train despite having a ticket. The same thing happened to a woman from Sierra Leone who tried to board a bus to Poland. On Tuesday the UN acknowledged that refugees had faced racism at the Ukraine border. 

There’s also been demonstrable racism in the way the crisis has been reported in the Western media. Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, told BBC News that he was emotional to see “people with blue eyes and blonde hair” being killed. CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata “this isn't like Iraq or Afghanistan [...] this is a relatively civilised, relatively European city”. Writing for The Telegraph, Daniel Hannan wrote: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.”

Their racism isn’t even implied: it’s overt. Framing the Ukraine war like this just reaffirms the fact that the lives of people of colour are so often valued less than the lives of white people. D’Agata means that people in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Syria, or Yemen, or Palestine) are less deserving of our sympathy and support because they’re brown. Hannan means ‘white’ when he says “like us.” Other international conflicts aside, there’s another urgent issue with framing the Ukraine crisis in this way: what about the Black and brown people in Ukraine?

Alexander is now safely in Warsaw, but Shrivangi remains in Sumy. She desperately wants to go back to India, her home, but she adds that Ukraine is her “second home” too, as she’s now lived there for more than four years. “We live here, we saw good things and good moments here, and now it's being destroyed. So it's very hard to see all this,” she says. “We want to evacuate this place, but I’ll still be praying when I reach home that things get better in Ukraine.”