By Stephanie Busari, Nimi Princewill, Shama Nasinde and Mohammed Tawfeeq, CNN
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, foreign students attempting to leave the country say they are experiencing racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces and border officials.
One African medical student told CNN that she and other foreigners were ordered off the public transit bus at a checkpoint between Ukraine and Poland border.
They were told to stand aside as the bus drove off with only Ukrainian nationals on board, she says.
Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian first-year medical student in Lviv was left stranded at the border town of Shehyni, some 400 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
She told CNN: “More than 10 buses came and we were watching everyone leave. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses and told us to walk.”
“My body was numb from the cold and we haven’t slept in about 4 days now. Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans — men and women — at every point. There’s no need for us to ask why. We know why. I just want to get home,” Onyegbule told CNN in a telephone call Sunday as she waited in line at the border to cross into Poland.
Onyegbule says she eventually got her exit document stamped on Monday morning around 4.30 a.m. local time.
Allegations of violence
Saakshi Ijantkar, a fourth-year medical student from India, also shared her ordeal with CNN Monday via a phone call from Lviv, western Ukraine.
“There are three checkposts we need to go through to get to the border. A lot of people are stranded there. They don’t allow Indians to go through.
CNN has been unable to confirm the identities or affiliations of the people who operated the checkpoints, but Ijantkar said they were all wearing uniforms.
hey allow 30 Indians only after 500 Ukrainians get in. To get to this border you need to walk 4 to 5 kilometers from the first checkpoint to the second one. Ukrainians are given taxis and buses to travel, all other nationalities have to walk. They were very racist to Indians and other nationalities,'” the 22-year-old from Mumbai told CNN.
She added that she witnessed violence from the guards to the students waiting at the Ukrainian side of the Shehyni-Medyka border.
Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are no longer allowed to leave the country, but that decree does not extend to men who are foreign nationals.
Ijantkar says she saw Indian men were left in queues for long hours along with other non-Ukrainian nationalities.
“They were very cruel. The second checkpoint was the worst. When they opened the gate for you to cross to the Ukrainian border, you stay between the Ukraine and Poland, the Ukrainian army don’t allow Indian men and boys to cross when you get there. They only allowed the Indian girls to get in. We had to literally cry and beg at their feet. After the Indian girls got in, the boys were beaten up. There was no reason for them to beat us with this cruelty,” Ijantkar said.
“I saw an Egyptian man standing at the front with his hands on the rails, and because of that one guard pushed him with so much force and the man hit the fence, which is covered in spikes, and he lost consciousness,” she said.
“We took him outside to give him CPR. They just didn’t care and they were beating the students, they didn’t give two hoots about us, only the Ukrainians,” she added.
CNN contacted the Ukrainian army in light of the allegations of violence, but did not immediately hear back.
Ijantkar said many of the students waited for at least a day, but she eventually turned back to Lviv because she was terrified, waiting in freezing temperatures with no food, water, or blankets.
“I saw people shaking so terribly in the cold, they were collapsing because of hypothermia. Some have frostbite and blisters. We couldn’t get any help and (were) just standing for hours,” she said.
Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for the Border Guard Service of Ukraine told CNN Monday that allegations of segregation at the borders are untrue and that the guards are working under enormous pressure at the borders — but are working within the law.
“From the day when (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has made an attack on Ukraine, the influx of people trying to leave Ukraine and the war zone has increased tremendously. If earlier, people trying to cross the border into the European Union and back amounted up to 50,000 (people) a day, now the amount doubled and continues to increase. There is huge pressure on checkpoints, on border guards.
“In order to speed up the process and allow larger amounts of people to cross, the government has simplified the procedure of the border crossing as much as possible. Due to the increase in the volume of the individuals crossing, people have to stay in long queues. However, I can state that everything happens according to the law. There is absolutely no division by nation, citizenship, or class at the border,” Demchenko said.
Ukraine attracts many foreign students wanting to study medicine because it has a strong reputation for medical courses and tuition — and other expenses are much lower than in programs in other Western nations.
Another stranded student told CNN on Sunday that border staff on the Ukrainian side of the border were showing prejudice against foreign students.
“They are depriving the foreigners. They are being very racist with us at the border. They tell us that Ukrainian citizens have to pass first while telling foreigners to stay back,” said Nneka Abigail, a 23-year-old medical student from Nigeria.
“It’s very difficult at the moment for Nigerians and other foreigners to cross. The Ukrainian officials are allowing more Ukrainians to cross into Poland. For instance, around 200 to 300 Ukrainians can cross, and then only 10 foreigners or 5 will be allowed to cross… and the duration of time is too long. It’s really hard.. they push us, kick us, insult us,” Abigail said.
Africans have been sharing their experiences online using the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine. Their stories have prompted an outcry and a number of crowdfunding appeals have been launched to try help those stranded in the country.
One of those who shared their story online is Korrine Sky, a medical student from Zimbabwe who had been studying in Ukraine since September.
She fled the country on Friday but, with the aid of two London-based friends, managed to raise more than £20,000 ($26,800) to help stranded Afro-Caribbean students.
“This situation we’re in is a life-or-death situation. We need to make sure that all the African students cross the border successfully and safely,” she said, speaking on Instagram Live from the Romanian side of the border on Sunday.
Around 500,000 refugees from Ukraine have so far crossed to neighboring European countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Monday.
Are home countries doing enough to help their citizens?
Some of those CNN spoke to said they did not blame the Ukrainian authorities for prioritizing their citizens but rather their own governments for not making arrangements to assist them out of the country.
The “Nigerian government is being their usual nonchalant self,” Onyegbule said.
“There are many of us in Ukraine. They can’t just leave us like this. It’s so sad but we are used to the bad governance in Nigeria. It’s very sad.”
Onyegbule acknowledged that there were Nigerian officials waiting to meet her and others once she crossed over into Poland.
“It would have been so helpful in Ukraine, we were looking for someone to speak on our behalf there.”
Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister Geoffrey Onyeama said on Twitter that Ukrainian authorities had assured him that there were no restrictions on foreigners wanting to leave Ukraine.
“Problem is the result of chaos on the border and checkpoints leading to them,” he stated, adding that he is “personally coordinating with our missions in Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Romania and Hungary to ensure we get our citizens out of Ukraine and bring back to Nigeria those ready to return while supporting those who are remaining in Ukraine.”
CNN has contacted Onyeama for comment on allegations that the Nigerian government hasn’t done enough to help its citizens leave Ukraine.
A spokesperson for President Buhari, Garba Shehu, has urged that: “All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under UN convention and the colour of their passport or their skin should make no difference.”
Shehu added that there are some four thousand students in Ukraine from Nigeria mostly studying medicine.
African nations on the UN Security Council Monday condemned discrimination against African citizens at the Ukrainian border during a UNSC meeting at the UN HQ in New York City.
“We strongly condemn this racism and believe that it is damaging to the spirit of solidarity that is so urgently needed today. The mistreatment of African peoples on Europe’s borders needs to cease immediately, whether to the Africans fleeing Ukraine or to those crossing the Mediterranean,” Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani said Monday.
Onyegbule, the first-year medical student, said she was attracted to study in Ukraine because she was looking for a “safe and cheap option outside Nigeria.”
“Generally living in Ukraine has been peaceful, it’s a beautiful country. Sometimes in the trams, people don’t want to sit beside you and they stare at you but generally, the Ukrainians are nice people,” she said.
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CNN’s Mohamed Tawfeeq reported from Lviv in Ukraine