The invasion of Ukraine, which began in February, has created one of the largest refugee crises in history. In addition to displacement and the immense trauma of war, students from African countries faced racial discrimination while attempting to flee the region.
And today, over 100 days since the conflict began, African students continue to face challenges relating to securing visas and/or continuing their education while being displaced all over Europe.
Korrine Sky is a Zimbabwean-born student doctor. She documented her experience of discrimination on social media as she tried to flee Kyiv in February. In the weeks after the conflict started, she also began assisting students that were stranded after leaving Ukraine. Here she reflects on the challenges facing African students as they try to continue their education with little to no support and relief.
I’m a 26-year-old student doctor and mother of one. I was born in Zimbabwe and left when I was six for the UK. We were forced to leave Zimbabwe due to the authoritarian regime. We sought asylum in Leicester, UK and I have lived there ever since until I moved to Dnipro, Ukraine just under a year ago to pursue my dream to become a doctor.
I would describe myself as hardworking, compassionate, and somewhat laid back. I really care about people and I would like to say I am a humanitarian at heart. This is part of the reason I chose to pursue medicine as a career as it would give me an opportunity to make a change for my community from the inside.
I had a pretty traumatic birth experience that is reflective of a lot of Black women's experience giving birth in the UK and the US. Prior to giving birth to my daughter, I had heard the statistic that Black women were four times more likely to die during childbirth, and giving birth to my daughter gave me firsthand experience of how health disparities happen when there is a shortage of people who look like you, treating you. This inspired me to pursue a career in medicine and to eventually become an obstetrician and gynaecologist.
My husband and I were due to have our wedding in Dnipro on Feb. 26, and (being the last-minute person that I am), we had visited Kyiv on Feb. 22 (two days before Kyiv was bombed) to find a wedding dress and to see the city. I had never visited Kyiv, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was reminiscent of a Disney movie with dome-shaped orthodox churches that were dotted around every turn. I remember saying to my husband, “This city is so beautiful, I wish we could stay here for a few more days.”
Those words play over and over in my head because little did I know that in less than 48 hours, people would be residing in bomb shelters and the same buildings I admired would become rubble.
The concept of war was something I had only ever witnessed in World War II documentaries; it felt like something so detached from reality and not something I ever thought I would experience in my lifetime. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we were constantly reassured by the government, our universities, and local Ukrainian people that the war was not going to happen and that it was “war mongering from the West.” Because of this conflicting information we were receiving from Ukraine and media outlets in the UK, I would wake up every morning and check Twitter for updates from reputable sources to see if anything had actually happened. On Feb. 24, I woke up at around 5 a.m. and checked Twitter to see that Kyiv had been bombed and the war had started.
We attempted to leave Dnipro the same day but due to all the long queues and cash shortages at ATMs, we were unable to leave. I spent that entire day collecting resources, creating a census, and creating Telegram chats to see how I could assist my African colleagues to leave. Having lived in Ukraine, I was aware that the plight of the African student was not going to be an easy one due to the apathetic attitudes of a lot of African embassies.
Poland was the first neighbouring country that had announced they would be opening their arms to Ukrainian refugees, but my colleagues and I were still left with unanswered questions as to whether this hospitality would be extended to the Africans in Ukraine. Eventually it was announced that, regardless of your passport or nationality, all were welcome and neighbouring countries such as Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia followed suit.
On Feb. 25, the sirens in Dnipro began to ring around 6 p.m. and we decided it was now or never, and we decided to leave and head towards Lviv by car. A journey that would normally take 10 hours took 26 hours. We had to stop at over 20 military checkpoints, where soldiers with guns would circle the car, check your documents, and inspect that you were not the enemy. Every single time we had to stop at these checkpoints, my heart would sink from the fear that anything could happen to us. At one point, we stopped on the road side to stretch our legs and armed vigilantes told us, “If you don’t leave in five minutes we will shoot you,” and held up their guns.
I spent those 26 hours documenting our experience via Twitter, fundraising to assist those still stuck in Ukraine, and sharing resources with my colleagues attempting to flee. The journey was hard, but knowing that I was helping people was the distraction that I needed. Throughout that journey, people were bombarding my mum's phone asking for updates about my safety and trying to find out if I was still in Ukraine. People were also bombarding my phone with calls and texts, which I found very unhelpful and even more anxiety provoking. My mum was in Leicester looking after my daughter and we all had to remain level-headed while we went through this difficult time.
Once we arrived in Lviv, we checked those we travelled with, and others we picked up along the way, into a hostel with the funds that had been raised by people who had been touched by my story to help Africans fleeing Ukraine.
In that hostel, I met six other girls from Zimbabwe, Swaziland [now Eswatini], and South Africa. They shared with me the harrowing racism they had experienced trying to leave Dnipro. They shared how they had been told: “No foreigners allowed;” and how they had been pushed off the trains they were trying to board to evacuate.
In the Telegram group, those who had reached the Ukrainian side of the Polish border told us the waits were 65 hours long and how some had been turned away because of the colour of their skin. We had initially planned to go to Poland, but after hearing these stories we opted to go to Romania.
After 10 hours, we reached the back of the queue towards the Ukranian side of the Romanian border. We were only 9 kilometres away, but it took us three days to finally reach the front of the queue. After reaching the front of this car queue that’s when we began experiencing racism and segregation at the hands of Ukrainian people. We were told to leave the car queue and join a pedestrian queue that only had Black, Asian, and Arab people. A Ukrainian man attempted to lunge for me once I began to record this incident. The military did not stand up for us; and they actually sniggered when the man attempted to lunge for me.
A group of Indian students who had seen the incident allowed us to join the queue with them. We spent a further 10 hours standing outside in the snow, rain, and -3 degree weather. There was barely any food, no water, no paramedics, just soldiers. Once we passed the final military checkpoint and proceeded to passport control, that is when I began to see that there was obvious segregation. On my right, I could see through the fence, hoards of Ukrainian families just passing, not having to queue, and proceeding directly to Romania.
We eventually arrived in Romania, in which we were welcomed with so much hospitality and kindness from the people. My time in Romania is something I will always treasure. They showed me the true meaning of humanity.
When I eventually arrived back in the UK, fellow students and I began asking our universities questions about if and when we would be able to continue with schooling. Our university told us they were “closed until further notice” so I began reaching out to universities in the UK, starting with University of Leicester (my local university), and asked them if they had any availability for students whose studies had been affected by the war. They gave me a cold, hard no, but also told me having been studying medicine before, if I wanted to apply from year one, I would be required to provide a transcript and a reference to check for any issues of academic misconduct.
My colleagues and I contacted several other universities and they gave us the same answers. Eventually, universities around the world started offering scholarships and tuition waivers for students from Ukraine. In our naïveté, we assumed this meant ALL students who had been living and studying in Ukraine.
On April 9, we were able to organise a rescue mission that assisted the last group of students who were stuck in Kherson to evacuate safely. To my knowledge, there are no longer any African students stuck in Ukraine, thankfully. However, we are now in phase two of our journey in which students have been displaced all over Europe and some went back to Africa, others were detained and deported.
The challenges continuing to face African students include high university fees, inability to get transcripts, systematic racism, several immigration and visa barriers, infrequent online lessons, apathetic governments, no laptops for online studies, no long-term accommodation, several enrollment requirements, no international transfers from some universities. As a result, students are now trying to find ways in which they can legalise their stays and continue with their education. In response to this, I founded a student-led organisation called Africans in Ukraine Education Fund (AIUEF) with the aim of advocating and fundraising for students in this next phase.
AIUEF is essentially a portal with the format of a job site and it would allow students to see all the different scholarships and educational opportunities on offer from universities around the world. I run a Telegram group with over 5,000 students and volunteers concerned with Africans in Ukraine. I posted the website in the group and students began applying.
Within days, students began receiving responses from universities telling them they were not eligible as the scholarships were for “Ukrainians only,” which was re-traumatising for a lot of students as they had been told the same thing when attempting to board the buses and trains out of Ukraine.
Students were sharing stories of depression and suicidal ideation as many of them felt hopeless and as if all their hard work was now in the bin. So I held a Zoom conference and invited students to speak and share their experiences, and come up with solutions. The stories shared were the basis of the open letter for the petition.
On May 5, the evening after the conference, I started the petition, and two weeks later the petition received over 25,000 signatures. I also set up a petition and open letter, which also explains the hurdles students are facing at the moment, calling on UNESCO, the Global Education Coalition, the European Commission, universities in Europe, Britain, the Irish States, Canada, the United States, and all countries and organisations that are concerned with education to put in place a support package and scholarships for African students whose studies have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine so that the students can continue with and finish their studies.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak and appeal at the University of York (Canada) and University of Liverpool (UK) regarding this issue. We are not there yet, however, after all the gaslighting we have experienced, it’s comforting to know that people are standing in solidarity with us. This is because we have essentially been forgotten, have very little support, and rely on grassroot organisations in order to get by, mainly because a lot of resources are being reserved for Ukrainians only.
I would like Global Citizens to know in times of war people should be treated the same irrespective of their colour. During the time I spent trying to flee the war, I experienced firsthand segregation, racism, harassment, and threats of violence. The African population in Ukraine are people who came for a better life to get the education they need in order to serve our communities and we don’t deserve to be punished for that.
It is important that irrespective of any politics, humanity should always come first. I request the international community to help the thousands of students who are now displaced all over Europe to urge your policymakers to make a way so we can continue our education. Many students are now stuck in a place of limbo not knowing what their future holds.