- Stephanie Hegarty and Poonam Taneja
- World Service, BBC
Indian and African students spoke of facing discrimination and other hardships when trying to flee Ukraine. Foreigners of color told the BBC of being refused permission to board trains and being detained, while Ukrainians are allowed through first.
Tens of thousands of international students travel to Ukraine every year, most of them studying medicine and engineering. Some of them have faced extreme difficulties crossing the border to return home, while others are still stuck in Ukrainian cities since the start of the Russian offensive.
Asya is a medical student from Somalia studying in Kyiv. Two days ago, I posted a video on Twitter with the start of the air assault on the city. She managed to escape with some of her friends, but was unprepared for the long trip to Poland, and spent three days without food or sleep before she reached the Medica border crossing on Sunday.
Asya says the Africans were denied crossing for six hours, even though buses carrying Ukrainian women and their children were allowed to pass. “Finally we managed to cross, and then they told us that hotel rooms are only available to Ukrainians,” she says. Asia flew to Warsaw to find a place to stay.
Ukrainians are also facing a severe slowdown in their journey out of the country, with reports indicating a queue of up to 40 kilometers at some border points. But according to several international students who spoke to the BBC, the situation is more difficult for students with darker skin.
Nigerian medical student Ruqayya was studying at Kharkiv University in the north of the country when the city was attacked. She was unable to get any transportation during her journey from the city to the western frontier, and had to walk on her feet in the dark for 11 hours until she reached the Medica crossing on Saturday morning.
“When I came here, there were black people sleeping in the streets,” Ruqayya told the BBC. “She was told by armed border guards to wait until the Ukrainians were allowed to cross first. She saw buses carrying white people on board, and she was allowed to cross the border,” she told the BBC. While a handful of Africans were pulled out of the queue, she was allowed to cross at around 2 a.m. on Sunday and was able to fly to Warsaw to book a flight to Nigeria.
Polish border guards told the BBC that all people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine are welcome, regardless of their nationality. The BBC has tried to contact the Ukrainian border guards, but has not received a response.
The United Nations says that 368,000 refugees have left Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last Thursday morning.
Bulla Vishnu Vardan Rao is a medical student at Berghof National University in the city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. Paula and a group of other Indian students made the 12-hour drive to the border crossing between Ukraine and Romania. He says that only Ukrainians who were in separate queues were allowed to cross.
There were angry exchanges between the Ukrainian border guards and the Indian students who began to get fed up with the wait.
The Indian government says it is setting up control centers to help Indian citizens at the border crossings between Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Nigeria and South Africa say they have also sent officials to the border areas to help their citizens cross.
“South African students and other Africans are being mistreated at the Ukraine-Polish border,” Clayson Munyila, a senior South African foreign ministry official, tweeted.
Isaac, also a Nigerian student, arrived at the Medica border crossing at about 4:30 on Saturday morning. On Sunday afternoon, border officials told him they “do not take care of Africans.” “They forced us to move back, and armed police soldiers beat us with sticks when we tried to keep moving forward,” Isaacs says. “There was a clash between the soldiers and the people who were waiting here.”
A lot of the students we talked to had their cell phone batteries running low, and we don’t know if Isaac made it through, because his phone is switched off.
The BBC has also received reports of foreigners being discriminated against at train stations.
Osimene is a Nigerian who tried to board a train in Lviv to go to the Polish border. He says he was told that only Ukrainians would be allowed to board the train.
Other students spoke of similar experiences in the city, including a young Nigerian woman in the eastern city of Dnipro. Still unsuccessfully trying to get on a train, this young woman is also trying to rent a private transport with another group of foreigners.
Some students are stuck in Ukrainian cities, not yet faced with the challenge of fleeing a country they know little about and whose language they do not speak. Reports indicate that there are at least 15,000 Indian students stranded in Ukraine, including 4,000 in Kharkiv, which is currently under heavy bombardment.
A young student sent a video to the BBC showing her and hundreds of other students taking refuge in a basement. These students covered their blankets, and they sat together on the floor. The student said they were running out of food, and pleaded with the Indian government to help get them out of the country.
Elsewhere in Kharkov, medical student Siddharth and his friends took shelter in a nearby subway station. He says many of them were late leaving the country because the exams they wanted to take were approaching.
Siddharth adds: “We have heard many explosions since the morning. There is fierce fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian forces..Metro stations and bunkers have been closed so that no one can enter or leave.”
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