Crisis in Ukraine shifts to a rally of support for African students and migrants

EXCLUSIVE: Video footage of Africans being mistreated and blocked at Ukrainian borders has caused political leaders to speak out and Africans in London to jump in to help raise money.

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As global leaders attempt to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it wages war in the neighboring country, missiles continue to fire in Eastern Europe, killing innocent people. Meanwhile, the world is watching the violence unfold in horror. 

African refugees in Ukraine
Refugees from many different countries – from Africa, Middle East and India – mostly students of Ukrainian universities are seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, in eastern Poland on February 27, 2022. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet, there are new levels of the deadly travesty that are now causing people around the globe to rally for African migrants who are not able to leave the country for safety due to what many are calling outright racism.

Video footage that circulated on the internet this past weekend appeared to show Africans being blocked from trying to leave Ukraine’s borders in the midst of the military conflict. The images sparked condemnation on both sides of the aisle and made #AfricansinUkraine.

“Allegations of mistreatment of Black families, Africans, as they try to evacuate a deadly war zone are unacceptable,” tweeted U.S. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Requesting State Department brief Members of Congress with verifications on what is currently happening in the Ukraine re: evacuation efforts. #AfricansinUkraine.”

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who migrated to the U.S. from war-torn Somalia, tweeted “Bombs don’t check your nationality and border security shouldn’t either. Everyone fleeing Ukraine is in desperate need of shelter. I hope neighboring countries who are opening their borders to Ukrainians wouldn’t discriminate against Africans and Asians. Let’s lead with grace.”

Ilhan Omar
Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar (above) told CNN’s Jake Tapper that defense attorneys for Derek Chauvin are putting murder victim George Floyd on trial in a ploy that she called “horrendous.” (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Republican strategist and businessman Armstrong Williams told theGrio that he was struck by the visuals of what is happening in Ukraine. “When I watched how some Ukrainian people were forcing Africans (Blacks) off the trains, including women and children, I was disappointed and appalled,” said Williams. 

“The support of Ukraine from Western nations comes from tax-paying citizens of these countries including the United States and among those taxpayers are Black people. Ukrainians need to understand that the world is a globally diverse place and if they want to continue to have sympathy from countries in the western world, it is important that freedom is equitable to all Ukrainians and visitors alike.”

Many of the Africans who were reportedly discriminated against at the border are students who chose to study in Ukraine. According to BBC News, there are about 4,000 students from Nigeria alone. Many of the African students are said to have traveled to European countries for education in fields including medicine and engineering. 

Among many people working to ensure safe passage for students are two women of African descent who reside in London. When Tokunbo Koiki, a cultural curator, and Patricia Daley, a barrister (lawyer), saw what was happening to their own in Ukraine, they decided to do something about it. 

People arrive on a train from Ukraine at the main railway station due to ongoing Russian invasion on Ukraine. Przemysl, Poland on February 28, 2022. Russian invasion on Ukraine causes a mass exodus of refugees to Poland. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, Koiki said she got involved after seeing tweets from a medical student who was attempting to journey out of Ukraine. The student, Korrine, tweeted about her experience and provided tips to other students attempting to flee the country. 

“I reached out to her and asked her if she had a GoFundMe created and she said no. Obviously, she wasn’t in a position to do that. And so I offered to do that for her because I have been fundraising with a charity that I volunteer with…the African-Caribbean Leukemia Trust for over 22 years,” Koiki told theGrio.

Koiki said she helped Korrine set up group chats on the social messaging app Telegram. “There are now several Telegraph groups that have hundreds and hundreds of students across different parts of Ukraine,” she said.

Some of those chats, she added, were for students in the city of Sumy, who she said are “stranded because it’s so far east in Ukraine that they’re not actually able to make it to the border because the transports just refused to come and take them to the border.”

Jumping into action, Koiki, who was later joined by Daley, created a Paypal account and GoFundMe page. “We started the Paypal at about 11:50 on Saturday morning (local time), and by 9 a.m. Sunday morning we had raised over £20,000, which would be about 25,000 US dollars,” said Koiki. 

“We then created a second PayPal simply because there were so many people who were still wanting to donate. And we’ve now raised another £20,000 on that call. We also created a GoFundMe, which was actually under review.

A man covered with a blanket at Przemysl station, six days after the start of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, March 1, 2022, in Przemysl, Poland. (Photo By Pau Venteo/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Providing funds became crucial as Daley noted “fees were being hiked up or they were not given the support they needed in terms of transportation.” 

Daley said they also created a map of all the borders in Ukraine so that the African students could know which direction to go, particularly which route is the safest. 

“We were also giving them live updates on borders that were not accepting Black or Afro-Caribbean migrants trying to avoid these borders so that they do not make the hefty journey, only to be disappointed,” Daley told theGrio.

In order to determine how much money to give each student, the women asked them to send videos in order to “understand the severity of the situations that they were in.” 

“We had students who had trekked almost six hours to get to a border. This is after having no financial arrangements and having to pay a substantial amount of money just to get to this border, only to be turned away and told that they are no longer going to be allowed,” recalled Daley.

“We had students that had turned up to the border [and who were] then segregated, so you would see a line of Black and Brown students of African Afro-Caribbean backgrounds and then a line of Ukraine, national white Ukraine Russians, and they would be allowed through the border.”

Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas told theGrio she is in support of the Ukrainian people, however, she is not happy with the treatment of Black Africans who are trying to flee the country now ravaged by war.

“The world is supporting Ukraine, and the last thing it needs to do is sustain the support of all of us by discriminating against legitimate Ukrainian citizens who are of African descent or those who are immigrants of African descent,” Jackson Lee told theGrio. “Let us stand firm that each person within Ukraine’s boundaries deserves that respect. And this is not a time to purge. This is a time for unity.”

theGrio’s Gerren Keith Gaynor contributed to this report.

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