Ukraine is not the first country that comes to mind for many African students wanting to study abroad. It certainly wasn’t for Jessica Oladejo, a third year medical student studying at the O.O. Bogomolets National Medical University in Kiev, the capital city. In fact, the 20-year-old Nigerian had never heard of Ukraine, a former republic of the long fallen Soviet Union, until she considered attending a medical school in Ghana.

As Oladejo was deciding whether to attend the school, she learned through friends of her mother’s that the professors who would teach her there had studied in the Ukraine during the Soviet era.

“I was told, ‘Why do I have to go to Ghana and study when the lecturers who will be teaching me studied in the former Soviet Union,’” Oladejo recalls. “So instead of going to [Ghana] and learning from them, why don’t I just go to the Soviet Union and learn from the source?”

Oledejo is one of 5,000 African students currently matriculating in universities across Ukraine, according to the African Center, a non-governmental organization which tracks racial discrimination against Africans as well as their migration patterns in the country. But the history of Africans studying in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries dates back as early as the 1920s.

The Soviet government began aggressively recruiting Africans and financing their studies in the Soviet Union in 1957, which happens to be the same year as Ghana’s Independence.

Maxim Matusevich, director of the Russian and East European Studies Program at Seton Hall University and an expert on African/post-Soviet relations, says that this is no coincidence. “It is clear that at the time of decolonization [in Africa], the Soviets were trying to promote their positive image in the Third World, in large part to counterbalance anti-Soviet Western propaganda,” says Matusevich.

But when communism ended in 1991, the recruiting of African students and the generous scholarships that were offered to them came to a screeching halt. While Ukraine no longer offers the financial incentives it once did during communism, it’s still an appealing country for students like Oladejo.

For one, it’s easier for Africans to get a Ukrainian visa than one from a European country. Tuition and fees at a Ukrainian university are also much lighter on the wallet than an institution in Britain or the United States. However, the financial and logistical advantages of matriculating in Ukraine aren’t without their social challenges.

The collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War. However, a new struggle with racial discrimination soon followed. Rising xenophobic and anti-immigration attitudes across the region began to rise, particularly in Russia and Ukraine. Skinhead attacks against immigrants, especially Africans, grew in number year after year. The fall of communism forced former Soviet countries into economic depressions, a fact that Matusevich says left the region ripe for the rise of anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment.

“The press and populace at large found Africans and other representatives of the developing world residing in post-Soviet Russia [and Ukraine] to be easy scapegoats for the country’s economic woes,” he says. “They were routinely blamed for “sponging” on the USSR and thus accelerating its decline.”

In 2007, eight racially motivated murders occurred in Ukraine, according to the African Center. The murders continued into 2008 and into this year with some of the victims being African students. However, such incidents have ebbed as of late. To Ukraine’s credit, the national parliament recently passed anti-racism legislation and heads of African NGOs that track racial incidents say violent attacks have dropped significantly.

Surprisingly, many students say they had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s xenophobia issues before arriving. One common complaint is that of being accosted with racial slurs and other demeaning language by Ukrainian youths on the streets.

Joshua Moses, a 21-year-old medical student from Akwanga, Nigeria, was offered a scholarship by the Nigerian government to study medicine in Ukraine. He hasn’t been physically abused and generally enjoys living here although it’s not uncommon for Moses and his African classmates to be called “monkey” and other names while walking around the capital. His response? “I just look at them and laugh because they know not what they do,” says Moses, borrowing a line from Jesus.

Nasir Abubakar, also a medical student from Nigeria, can’t recall experiencing any blatant racism during his two years here. But Abubakar, 21, admits the stares and giggles he gets from Ukrainians while walking on the street, many of whom may have never seen or had contact with a black person before, do make him a bit uncomfortable.
Yet despite the social challenges Moses and Abubakar experience, they appreciate the opportunity to live in Ukraine and praise its “high quality, low cost academic programs.”

In fact, Moses says he and his parents consider it an honor for him to have been offered a scholarship to study in Ukraine. He simply asks his parents to join him in seeking help from above to avoid any challenges he might face while completing his studies.

“I came here and told them how the country was, but I told them all I need are prayers,” says Moses. “So I guess their prayers are doing good.”