It took two days for Janet and some other Ghanaian students to reach Lviv from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Then they spent another 13 hours waiting to cross the border, the third-year engineering student explains.
Even her mask couldn’t hide the agitation and fear she felt traveling across war-wracked Ukraine last week. Nor did it shield the surprise and anguish she felt as she recalled being segregated from white women and their children at Lviv’s railway station and blocked from boarding a train to Poland.
VOA interviewed half-a-dozen Ghanaian students Friday after they had reached the safety of Budapest, Hungary, and another dozen African students, Ghanaian and Nigerian, in Lviv and in Uzhhorod, a Ukrainian town near the border with Slovakia. Four students said they hadn’t encountered any discrimination in their frantic journeys west from Kharkiv, Sumy or Kyiv, where they had been studying mainly medicine and engineering.
The others said racism had hindered their flight and endangered them — although without exception they all said they looked on Ukraine as their second home and reported acts of kindness toward them.
Last week, Ukraine’s government set up a special hotline for Africans and other foreign students trying to flee the country, after reports mounted they were being blocked from boarding trains and buses. Representatives from several African countries — including Gabon, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – said they were disturbed by what they were hearing from the students they helped to flee.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for refugees, told a news conference, “There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everybody is fleeing from the same risks.” He cautioned any unfair treatment Africans experienced wasn’t the result of any Ukrainian government policies.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, stressed in a tweet that everyone regardless of origin must be treated fairly. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways. Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem,” he said.
His ministry has been urging all government agencies to assist foreigners, emphasizing there must be no discrimination at the borders against Africans, while blaming Russian disinformation for exaggerating reports of color discrimination.
Nevertheless, for all of the Ukrainian government’s efforts, the Ghanaians whom the VOA interviewed said they did experience harassment and aggression, creating more stress and fear as they tried to escape the shelling and blasts.
Janet and her friends say they left Kyiv two days after the invasion started. They slept in shelters as they plotted their exits assisted by a network that was quickly set up by the National Union of Ghana Students-Ukraine, led by its president, Philip Ansah.
The association also helped to fund the dash to safety of some of the students. Additionally, the Ghanaian government quickly swung into action, too, trying to find ways to get funds into Ukraine, dispatching diplomats from other European cities to border crossings with Ukraine to coordinate with the student association to be ready to assist Ghanaians once they had reached Poland , Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.
Ukraine’s education ministry calculates there were some 16,000 African students in Ukraine when Russia invaded. Nine hundred were Ghanaians, and among them, Janet, a PhD engineering student, who, with some other Ghanaians drove to Lviv. It was a hair-raising and exhausting drive, she said, made worse by some abuse she says they experienced when stopping at gas stations for fuel and food.
Janet was clearly sad to narrate her experience. “Ukraine is like my second home. I came as a teenager and it’s unfortunate. I never thought it [skin color] would be a problem as we ran for our lives.” On one occasion they were blocked at the pumps. But it was worse at Lviv railway station where they were shoved aside “even when the police came in to check what was going on.”
That was Nana’s experience, too, at the railway stations at Lviv and Kharkiv, where she was just months away from finishing her medical degree. When the bombing started, she headed to the train station and took refuge in a subway nearby, remaining there for three days, where people shared their food and water with her. As the explosions and blasts intensified, she and another Ghanaian student realized they had try to leave the city.
“Everybody was trying to get on the train as well and we had to wait outside,” she said. She then added, “And as I was waiting, I could hear the shelling and the explosions, but you couldn’t run to take cover because if the train arrived it would leave without you. So even though I was scared out of my mind, I had to stand there and when the time came, try to force my way through with the others,” she explains. “I was crying and tearing away to get on to the train and so were other women, crying and pushing and the kids were crying.”
The 29-year-old said preference was given to Ukrainian women and their children and she kept telling people, “But I’m a woman as well.” She and some other African students grouped together to try to board the train, but a Ukrainian man appeared with a shotgun and ordered the African men to go back to the end of the line. “He scared … everybody before four policemen pinned him down and took him away.”
A lanky Nigerian footballer, Golden, whom VOA interviewed last week just after he had crossed into Slovakia, said much of what he had seen was due to general chaos and fear, downplaying color discrimination. “Look, everyone was being aggressive to catch trains and cross borders. Everyone was scared and pushing and shoving and trying to get to the front of lines,” he said.
Other Africans disagree. Nana said at the Lviv station, “I was standing for hours and they kept putting Ukrainian women on the trains and not us and they were even laughing,” she said. “They even tried to use the language as a barrier to get rid of me and ignore me,” she said.
One Ghanaian student, Philip, says his most terrifying moments were when he came face-to-face with Russian soldiers as he worked his way out of Sumy, where was studying medicine. “There were a lot of Russians and they scared us and pointed their guns at us and threatened to shoot us,” he said.
The joint effort by the student association and the Ghanaian government has paid off — of the 900 students in Ukraine when war erupted, only 39 still remain inside, according to a Ghanaian official.