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Black immigrants chose Ukraine for quality of life, education. War leaves them fearful.

Thousands of African and Black people have made Ukraine their home and report rarely dealing with racism. The humanitarian crisis, however, has called their lives there into question.
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After having studied in India, Heidi Nguema visited Ukraine a few years ago with no plans to make it his home. But as an African from the country of Gabon, in the central part of the continent, he said, he “fell in love” with Ukraine and “decided to stay.”

Part of the reason for his affection for the European country that neighbors Russia is that he never had problems with racism in Ukraine, “even if I know some who did. It can’t compare with the U.S., for sure,” said Nguema, who lives in Uman, a city in central Ukraine.

So it jolted him when he heard from others that many Black people of Ukraine, most of them African, had been prevented from entering Poland and other safe countries to elude the Russian attacks that started last week. 

Image: Heidi Nguema
Heidi Nguema, originally from Gabon, visited Ukraine a few years ago and fell in love with the country. He’s lived there ever since.Anna Savchenko

Africans in Ukraine are reporting discrimination and hostility in attempts to flee the country at some border crossings. Nguema said he heard about the problem from many, including his brother, who also lives in Uman.

Still, because he had not personally experienced racism in Ukraine, he has found the treatment of Africans trying to cross the border to be surprising. “Africans should be able to cross just like everyone else who wants to,” he said. 

Nguema, the owner of a digital agency who also teaches English and French in Ukraine, said life had been solid before the invasion. “I have great colleagues, my brother who helped me a lot, his family and awesome friends,” he said.

But the war is taking a toll. “It’s getting worse every day in big cities,” he said, calling Russian invaders “dogs.” “Sorry for the word, but that’s all they are. They don’t just target military facilities, but civilian buildings, as well. They have people on the ground marking civilian buildings, then they hit.

Image: Ukrainian refugees
University students fleeing the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, including many from Nigeria, stow their luggage as they get on a bus Monday in Tarpa, Hungary, close to the Ukrainian border. Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images

“The situation is really bad, but the Ukrainian army is brave, strong and united. They are not alone, because the population helps them, as well. It’s not just the army, but the whole country fighting for their land.”

Africans in Ukraine mostly migrate there for a high-quality education at what they call “affordable” rates. Many, like Dammy Raji, are in medical school. She and others describe life in general as “comfortable,” despite not always feeling welcomed, as evidenced by the fact that it is difficult to find data that calculate how many Blacks are in the country.

While a large segment of the Black population has tried to flee, some are paralyzed in fear to make the trek to the surrounding borders. 

Raji, a Nigerian student at Kiev Medical University, remembers the first night of bombing. She heard the frightening explosions in the distance. “I’m a bit scared,” she said.

Raji said many of her friends fled for the Polish border. She said she learned of Black people who were being turned away and not allowed to cross. Raji and her family remain in Kiev for now. She said she will “run to safety” if things get worse, but she has not tried to flee yet because “I feel safer inside than traveling around without knowing what I’ll be met with when I go out.”

Being Black in Ukraine has not been challenging, she said, but it has also not been without issues. “In some other small cities in Ukraine, the Blacks are united because they’re not many; they all know each other,” Raji said. “But here in Kyiv, there are lots of Blacks from different countries and also from different parts of a particular country, so it’s hard to be united. Of course, I have felt being Black, but it’s not so serious, because I live in the capital, where there are lots of Blacks.”

Image: Ukrainian refugees
Ukrainian refugees at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland on Sunday.Wojtek Radwanski / AFP - Getty Images

Kim Crowder, a diversity and inclusion professional from Houston, said the reports of Africans’ being denied at the borders fit a pattern.  

“It’s not surprising, particularly if we look at this in the historical context,” she said. “It’s happened to Black and brown people before,” including in the 2015 European migrant crisis, when Africans and Syrians sought asylum from war, poverty and genocide in Somalia and Syria.

“There’s always fear-mongering that exists when it’s attached to Black and brown faces, and it gives us a sense of what their experiences could be at those borders.”

Abraham Emmanual Oluwafemi, 24, a student from Nigeria, said he lives in fear of what could happen — if he tried to flee and as he stays sheltered at home. He chose Ukraine to advance his education, he said. He never anticipated he would be caught up in a war. 

“The situation presently is devastating and confusing,” Oluwafemi said. “The sounds of bombs and explosions terrifies me so badly. We all feel the strange side of being Black, because we are always treated differently. Most Africans want to evacuate, mostly to Poland. ... It’s so scary and tiring. I have no one, nowhere. If I move, what’s the possibility that I can even get to the border, not to talk of crossing to other European countries?

“I only pray this should be over by God’s grace. I just want to go back to studying and stop thinking about being a victim of this war.”

Image: Ukrainian refugees
Ukrainian refugees wait Tuesday to go to Poland at the border in Shegyni, Ukraine. Emmanuel Duparcq / AFP - Getty Images

Vivian Ezenwoke, a medical student, said she has lived in Ternopil, Ukraine, for four years and had gained a comfort level before the bombing started.

“I don’t think I have experienced any racism,” she said. “Everything has been fine and calm, and I think the people are not bad towards us foreigners.”

The calmness Ezenwoke enjoyed may not return for some time, if ever. Raji seems keenly aware of the geopolitical machinations and said Russian President Vladimir Putin seems determined to extend the battle. 

“I think Russia is under this delusion that Ukraine belongs to them and no matter how long it takes, they’ll eventually own or rule Ukraine,” she said. “That’s why they’re trying to take up the lands little by little. They started with Crimea, and now they want to take over those small cities that Russia separatists have occupied for years. 

Image: Ukrainians Arrive At The Train Station In Poland
Refugees arrive SUnday on a train from Ukraine at the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland. Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

“If Ukraine thinks about giving them those lands for the sake of peace, they’ll leave. But they will be back again in a few years for more — and that’s how it’s going to continue until they eventually get what they want.”

Still, she hopes for a peaceful and swift resolution. The country has been on a daily curfew from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. since the Russian invasion. She said she loaded up on food to limit her need to leave the house.

“Everything happening right now is really devastating and has put our lives to a complete stop in one day,” she said. “We all can’t wait for it all to be over so we can go back to our daily lives.”

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