More and more people of colour who are currently fleeing the war of aggression in Ukraine are reporting experiences of racism that they have been forced to encounter as they fled. Videos are circulating on social media in which POCs describe how they have been harassed in Ukraine while fleeing and how they are being prevented from leaving the war zone. Likewise, the three Nigerian students Ruby, Jude and Andy also had to flee Kyiv suddenly and experienced discrimination due to their skin colour.
“I just thank God that I got out of there alive”, says Jude as he smiles over breakfast on a sunny morning. “I’d been in a war before and now this?” In February 2021, Jude moved from Nigeria to Kyiv, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in business administration until the war started. He worked evenings to pay for his studies. Ruby moved to Kyiv from Nigeria five months ago and was taking a language course that was a prerequisite for a master’s program in public administration. She got her bachelor’s degree in Nigeria. Her favourite hobby is cooking and in Kyiv, she cooked Nigerian food for friends all the time. She gushes when she talks about eating. The two did not know each other before Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. They met a short distance from the Polish border as they were fleeing.
Suddenly the walls began to shake
On 25 February, a rocket hit a residential building very close to Jude’s apartment. The reverberations were so powerful they shook the walls in her flat. Plaster and dust suddenly crumbled from the ceiling. “I quickly grabbed my jacket and my shoes and just ran outside”, Jude says. He had to leave a lot of important documents in the apartment, like his secondary school diploma and his laptop. The streets were in a state of chaos. Jude tried to get a taxi, initially without success.
He ran to an underground train station to find safety from the bombs and called his mother in Nigeria. She told him that he should go back to his apartment and get his documents. “No, I don’t want to do that. Those are just material things. My life was more important to me”, he smiles.
He eventually met a small group of Ghanaians and together they were able to book a taxi that was supposed to bring them to Lviv. The ride took over 24 hours because so many people were trying to leave the city. Along the way, he used his phone to film a Russian convoy en route to Kyiv on the other side of the highway.
On the road to Lviv
Ruby and her partner Andy also decided to flee Kyiv on 24 February after bombs destroyed a neighbouring building. They headed to the train station with a suitcase and some hand luggage. “It was so packed there, you can’t even imagine”, she says. After a long wait, they were eventually able to get on the train. Ruby’s hand luggage went missing in the dense crowd. “I wanted to jump on the tracks again to look for my bag, but Andy held me back. If I had gotten out, we wouldn’t have been able to get out of Kyiv after that.” Just like Jude, Ruby and Andy made their way to Lviv. There are three border crossings into Poland from there.
Because the roads were so clogged, Jude and the three Ghanaians got out of their cab about 12 kilometres from the border. Jude is athletic and helped other refugees carry their bags. Ultimately, he had nothing with him but what he was wearing.
“My feet were swollen and sore from the cold”
Ruby and Andy also had to walk about 16 kilometres to the Polish border. The small woman says it took nine hours. By that point, it was 26 February. It was along this stretch that Jude met Ruby and Andy. Jude helped Ruby carry her bags and the three have been travelling together since then. When Jude hastily fled his apartment, he was wearing only regular sneakers and the nights when he was fleeing were icy cold. “My feet were swollen and sore from the cold”, he says as he rocks back and forth on his chair without tipping over.
When the three of them reached the border at three in the afternoon, they were overjoyed that they had finally made it. And yet “they didn’t let us through”, Ruby says. “The Ukrainians were supposed to cross the border first. The border guards just wouldn’t let foreigners through.” They spoke and pleaded with the border guards again and again to finally let them cross – without any success. One of the guards pushed Jude away roughly. Desperate, hungry, and chilled to their bones, Jude called the Nigerian embassy in Poland to ask for help, but there was nothing they could do while the three were still lingering in Ukraine.
As Ukrainians slowly crossed the border, these migrants had to keep waiting in the cold. At one point, an Indian man next to them simply fell over and his eyes rolled back, possibly a victim of a fainting spell or the icy cold. The migrants called for help, but it did not come. The paramedics were too busy taking care of Ukrainian people.
“It was humiliating”
“It was humiliating. They treated us like trash”, Jude says in retrospect. For a brief moment, he looks both furious and perplexed at the same time. He doesn’t believe that skin colour or a passport should make any difference in the way refugees are treated. “I wanted to give up at that point, but I’m glad I didn’t”, Ruby admits and smiles a little.
At some point, the three of them decided to try their luck at a different border crossing and set off. They don’t know what happened to the Indian man who fainted. He was still unconscious when they left. They bought bus tickets and hoped that they would be allowed to board, although they had learned that Black people and POCs were being thrown off buses that would otherwise take them across the border.
After an almost 24-hour delay, the bus finally arrived and carried them across. Even though Jude had no documents with him, he was able to enter Poland and, ultimately, Germany without significant problems.
Now they are sitting in Berlin and enjoying breakfast in peace as a few sunbeams enter the room. They found shelter in the apartment of a young woman who is staying with friends for a short while. The three are grateful. Jude hopes that acquaintances will be able to send him his documents. How things will go from here, the three do not know. “That depends on the politics now.” What they want is to continue their studies in Germany, but whether that will work out is uncertain right now.
Translated by Joseph Keady