LVIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of African students from Ukraine’s Sumy State University managed to escaped the war-torn country, many by bus, train and taxi, after days of Russian bombardment. Now they're taking refuge in Hungary and struggling with the uncertainty of what comes next.
“I’ve invested five years of my life in Sumy State University. I’m just confused. I don’t know what’s next,” said medical student Angel Ebeh, 23. “I just need help from anywhere. I really can’t put it into words how hard it has been. I feel like mentally I’m not stable.”
Residents from the besieged northeastern city of Sumy began evacuating on March 8 after Russia agreed to a cease-fire to create safe evacuation corridors across the country. The night before the evacuations, several strikes in the city hit residential buildings and killed civilians.
More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began Feb. 24, including hundreds of foreign students who filled about 20 buses out of Sumy.
African students in Ukraine have led their own rescue efforts, creating networks to connect students across the country and provide resources, as non-Ukrainians say they have been met with discrimination and abuse while trying to escape. But student organizers had no way of reaching those in Sumy, which was left without electricity, food, water or heat. Students from Nigeria studying medicine at the school described a harrowing ordeal of being trapped in dormitories for days without electricity.
“The trauma from hearing bomb sounds and missiles have kind of affected me mentally,” Tolu Kolapo-Bello, 21, a fifth-year medical student, said, adding that sometimes she and other students would spend days in a bunker.
“Sometimes we’d just hear the alarm for us to go underground to the bunker. Everyone’s running around, we’re hearing sounds, the walls are vibrating. We have to go to the basement, and it’s dark. We don’t know when to come out or what’s going to happen next. Sometimes bombs go off as early as 5 a.m. and … we still have to remain there until afternoon, sometimes all day. At some point I just felt like all hope was lost.”
Many of the students escaped to Hungary with nothing but their passports and the clothes on their backs. Several students described relying on taxis to escape and drivers demanding hundreds of dollars per passenger, making it nearly impossible to get to trains heading to border towns. After finally making it to the trains, students traveled for days before arriving in Budapest.
African students living in Ukraine have reported being denied entry to trains, beaten or left stranded in border towns while trying to flee. Students recalled being the last to board and waiting hours to do so. Passengers pushed African students and told them “don’t touch me,” Kolapo-Bello said. “It was very, very hurtful,” she said. “Ukraine and racism, they still have a long way to go concerning that.”
Several students have been staying in Airbnbs in Hungary with the help of the disaster relief nonprofit Global Empowerment Mission, in partnership with the American TV personality Bethenny Frankel’s BStrong organization. The groups have assisted nearly 300 African students in fleeing Ukraine.
Still, there’s a long road ahead for the students. Many say their dreams of becoming doctors are now in limbo, and they’re desperately trying to transfer to other schools. Students have said these universities have asked for reference letters and transcripts, but the war has made it nearly impossible to get the documents they need to enroll.
“I just entered my third year and I’m feeling hopeless. The years I spent reading and putting in effort could all go to waste,” said Adeniyi “Nancy” Oluwuademilade, 18. “I’m looking into transfers to other schools, and if I could get that I’ll be so happy.”
Erika Angulo reported from Lviv. Char Adams reported from Hartford, Connecticut.