Ukraine conflict: African students face missiles and racism

Africans fleeing Ukraine say they are up against Russian missiles and racism on trains, in refugee camps and via Airbnb.

Published : Apr 06, 2022 17:00 IST

A group of African students on the station platform in Lviv, Ukraine.

A group of African students on the station platform in Lviv, Ukraine.

At dawn on February 24, Olufunmilola Bamidele found 40 missed calls and numerous voice messages on her phone. The 33-year-old Nigerian post-graduate student at the Dnipro Medical Institute in Ukraine had wrapped up her studies and gone to bed just hours earlier. The calls were from relatives in Nigeria, worried about her safety because Russia had invaded Ukraine. "If I didn't wake up to use the restroom, I wouldn't have seen these because I would have probably woken up around 7.00 or 7.30," Bamidele told DW . News sites were reporting explosions in Ukraine's capital Kyiv and in Kharkov. Explosions were heard in Dnipro, which lies between the two cities, too.

Discrimination on trains

Bamidele initially wanted to remain in Dnipro, her home for the past six years. "I was like: I am going to remain here since this city is still calm and there is nothing going on. So, definitely, maybe, we would just be safe til the end of it," Bamidele said. But her parents in Nigeria ordered her to leave Ukraine.

On February 28, Bamidele set off for the train station. She told DW that she wanted to see if it was true that foreigners were not being allowed on outbound trains. Media reports about stranded African, Indian and Arab students were going viral. "I just wanted to see what was going on, because I was hearing on the news that they were not allowing foreigners to enter the trains," she said. "When I got there, there was a lot of people. I met some people who said they had been there for 12 hours and they were not allowed to enter the train." An Arab man smashed a train window and a fight broke out.

The scramble for any bus

The next day, Bamidele returned to Dnipro train station and found some of the foreigners she had seen the previous day still waiting. Only two Lviv-bound trains came in daily. The route is in the direction of the border with Poland. Russian missiles had damaged the train station and Ukraine's soldiers were ordered to prevent entry and exit to Dnipro as of 3 March.

Bamidele realised she had to leave the city immediately. A day before the city was shut down, she scoured bus stations for a way out and met a woman who could get her on to a private bus. Hours later, Bamidele, five other Dnipro Medical Institute students and 44 other people boarded the 50-seater outbound bus bound for the border.

Hypothermia and exhaustion

The six Nigerian students did not want to travel to the Romanian border but that was where the bus was heading. "So, when we got to a city that was close to Romania after 24 hours, it was a very hectic journey for us because we needed to be stopping at every checkpoint and there was a lot of checkpoints," said Bamidele. The soldiers, she said, checked everyone to ensure there was no "intruder" on the bus.

The students decided to stay in the city of Chernivtsi until they could figure out which country they would try to reach. In Chernivtsi, the six Nigerians had to figure out a plan while suffering from hypothermia, said Bamidele. They had heard about the discrimination and ill treatment being meted out to Africans at Poland's border. Hotels and apartments in Chernivtsi were fully booked but the group of students eventually found two very small rooms they could rent. "That city was cold and the apartment was cold as well. There was nothing we could do. So we were there the first day to see what was going to happen. Maybe there would be another border that would be opening, and we would be going there," said Bamidele.

A smoother journey to Hungary

But, by the third day, the cold rooms in Chernivsti had become unbearable. At the bus station, they bought tickets to Uzhhorod, near Ukraine's border with Hungary. The 12-hour trip to Uzhhorod was smoother than the ride that took the Nigerian students to Chernivtsi. There were fewer military checkpoints, Bamidele recalled. They arrived Uzhhorod at about 4 a.m. on March 6 and caught a taxi to the city of Chop.

There they transfered to a train bound for the Hungarian border. Too tired to wait the five hours for a free train, the students bought tickets for a train departing immediately for Budapest, Hungary's capital. On the platforms at the main train station in Budapest, many volunteers were on hand to help those fleeing Ukraine. Bamidele said they handed out toiletries and other basic supplies. Some even opened their homes to those who had nowhere to go.

In Dnipro, Bamidele is a volunteer for Diaspora Relief. In Budapest, a volunteer from the non-profit organization welcomed the six students and took them to a hostel. In Nigeria, Bamidele's uncle was not pleased that she was staying in a hostel where men and women share bedrooms and bathrooms. On March 8, she transfered to the private one bedroom apartment he booked online.

Bamidele volunteered to cook for her students and helping those still trying to reach Hungary. "I started cooking because I knew that a lot of people haven't eaten good food. We had been eating junk. And I knew that while they are in the hostel, they cannot even cook. So, finding myself in a comfortable place, I was like: let me just cook for other people that don't have this opportunity,” she said. Soon Bamidele started cooking for over 300 students. The meals are sponsored by Diaspora Relief.

Rejection upon rejection

Bamidele is doing more for African students than cooking because they are not having it easy in Hungary. Accommodation is hard to find. Apartments need to be booked for four to five nights and check-out is always 4 p.m., while checkout is 10 a.m. In the inbetween hours, the students need places to stay. Bamidele helps to search for apartments where the new arrivals can stay temporarily. "After booking on Airbnb, we have to go and check to see if they want us as people coming from Ukraine because it is very hard to get hosts that are going to take people coming from Ukraine,” she said.

DW asked several of the African students who made their way to Hungary if they had that experience. Many said that the owners of Airbnb apartments in Hungary are now refusing to rent to them. "They are not specific but I think it is Africans," Bamidele suggesed. African students in Hungary also told DW that Ukrainians who have fled to Hungary, are more likely to find private accomodation or stay in refugee camps.

Racism in a refugee camp

A Ghanaian student who declined to be named said he left the refugee camp he was placed in because of discrimination. The management student who fled Sumy in northeastern Ukraine told DW that a Ukrainian man had complained to camp officials that sleeping beside a black man was traumatizing. The student was then moved to another space within the camp. "So, hearing that, a lot of people don't want to stay in a refugee camp. So we just look for Airbnb and some of the NGOs like Diaspora Relief have been paying for food and accommodation," he said.

Many of the African students in Hungary are without stable accommodation. Some are trying to attend the online lectures offered by their universities in Ukraine and others are taking up the language classes offered by the government of Hungary. Olufunmilola Bamidele told DW she will stay in Budapest for now. But she is planning to travel to Ireland. She has heard it is open to Africans who left Ukraine.

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