Originally published for Refinery29 on March 4, 2022.
On February 24, Russia breached the Ukrainian border, invading the country from four directions. Immediately, the western world mobilized in support of the Ukrainian people: #IStandWithUkraine trended globally, and brands everywhere shared messages of solidarity, sporting the Ukrainian flag. In a rare first, people seemed to be mostly united on a topic of international affairs: the Ukrainian people needed support, and anyone fleeing the casualties of war should absolutely have the right to be afforded shelter and protection. Unfortunately, the hidden caveat of international diplomacy is that it is predicated on a global framework of anti-Blackness, and the current conflict is no exception.
Quickly, Black people in Ukraine began to tell their stories of facing horrific treatment while fleeing for their lives.On social media, the stories began to flow in. The hashtag #AfricansinUkraine began to fill with haunting stories of African students being beaten with batons, thrown off trains, and restrained at that Medyka port to Poland in favor of Ukrainian nationals. A Twitter space was created to share stories and mobilize support amongst one another, the greater diaspora, and the respective embassies and greater advocacy community. Astonishingly, they ended up having to fend off viral threads insinuating their plight was fake, a mirage borne of Russian disinformation; these claims came not only from the Ukrainian minister foreign affairs — who alleged that a “first-come, first-served approach applied to all nationalities” — but people within the Blackcommunity. As the student migrant community began to organize in greater numbers, they began to rebut the false narrative with dated videos and verified Instagram records: ultimately, stories from CNN and the United Nations rendered the conspiracy theories inert (although it hasn’t stopped some from alleging that amplifying their struggle is somehow supporting the Russians).
The real stories of the students have been whispers compared to the coverage in mainstream media of global investment in retaliatory action against the Russian state and all of its byproducts, even getting coverage in the State of the Union. In truth, if anyone should be upset about misinformation, it should be the students who have been forced to defend their name in the midst of a crisis where every moment matters, especially since some students saw this coming and tried to be proactive for their survival.While the unrest was growing, AJ Bayero found himself frustrated. A third-year medical student in Ternopil National Medical University and member of his Nigerian Student Association, he had been monitoring the diplomatic situation and asking his school for weeks when a remote plan would be implemented, only to be rebuffed. “We [would] clearly ask and they [would say] ‘You’re just panicking.’ We literally have letters and emails,” he tells Unbothered over a WhatsApp call from Poland, unable to contain his disappointment. “The US embassy, the UK embassy, they called back their people…but they just keep on saying ‘what if nothing happens?’”
The message from the university had been clear: the battle between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, so students should proceed with business as usual. Up until the day before the strikes began, he was still attending in-person classes. Once the conflict touched ground in Kyiv and panic began escalating within his western Ukrainian city, Ternopil, Bayero immediately began to mobilize, broadcasting messages across his Nigerian Student Association network on WhatsApp and Instagram to grab money and essentials and make their way to the Polish border.
Despite arriving at the border relatively early, Bayero’s group did not have an easy go of it: when train tickets were unavailable, they booked a cab to the border via the Bolt app, negotiating a supplementary rate to be taken as close to the Hrubieszów port as possible. It would still end up leaving them quite a ways away — his Bolt could only take them as far as the line for vehicles to enter customs, leaving them to endure the rest of their trek on foot — but they were still much more fortunate than many of their comrades.Nigerian student Jessica’s harrowing tale involved multiple hours long walks over two days. After taking a taxi to the car line for the border, Jessica ended up taking a 12-hour walk to a shelter overnight. The next day, a bus arrived to take people from the shelter to the border, but she was stopped. “The Ukranians said, just Ukranians,” she was told, she recounted to the BBC. “I was begging. The official literally looked me in my eye and he said, in his language, ‘Only Ukrainians that’s all. If you are Black, you should walk.’ Jessica ended up having to walk another eight hours. “I still feel like I’m walking, like I haven’t yet crossed over,” she said. At Bayero’s port of entry, Ukrainian officials were letting in about 30 people every 25 minutes or so, claiming to prioritize women and children. As understanding as Bayero tried to be, after walking for four hours past all of the cars that were in line, he couldn’t help but notice that most of the women and children were white Ukrainian nationals who were able to sit in cars and buses and gain access to a separate queue while the remainder of people left at the border were overwhelmingly foreigners and African students left to contend with a Polish winter overnight.Bayero and his group were eventually able to cross that night but would then struggle to find housing, with no Nigerian delegates awaiting him on the other side to offer shelter. Eventually Bayero and his friend, a 17-year-old student, were able to stay with the family of a fellow Polish student. Despite their trials and tribulations, Bayero knew that their circumstances were fortunate and that he would have to go back and help others safely make their way across as the situation in Ukraine continued to escalate; after a day of rest, they made their way back to the border to make sure they could receive newcomers. By their second trip, makeshift open air shelters had been constructed, with African students relegated to sleeping on the concrete.While Bayero and the countless others who faced discrimination at Ukrainian borders were desperately using any means possible to survive, their stories were being debated by pundits and called into question by racists on Twitter.The cascade of neglect and dormancy that has emerged in service of safeguarding the binary framework of “good versus evil” has resulted in a range of malfeasances. Some students were left to stand in line at the Polish border of Medyka for days at a time with little movement, leading to starvation and hallucinations; others have been beaten with batons for trying to get on the trains. In Sumy, there are still over 500 predominantly Black students cornered, unable to move safely because of surrounding and ongoing violence. Reports have emerged of Polish Nazis terrorizing African migrants on some parts of the Polish border after crossing; tragically, some classmates have died, an unbelievable devastation that has arisen not from Russian munitions, but from the unremarkable consistenc yof anti-Blackness.
“I think it’s evil,” said Korrine Sky, a 26-year-old medical student who made the journey from Dnipro to Romania, in a call with American press. “Ukraine was my home, so why would I document something that’s not true?” She originally began documenting her experience fleeing Ukraine on social media so that her family could be able to know where she last was in case they lost contact; it ultimately proved useful to debunk any contrivances as well as spread word to good samaritans who sought to send aid to the African students in need.Sky is a native Zimbabwean who has dual citizenship in the United Kingdom. Her family left Zimbabwe as asylum seekers when she was very young. Now a wife and mother herself, she was replicating a journey of her own, leaving everything behind in her apartment to confront closed borders and racialized violence — including having a gun pointed at her — while countries across Europe made statements welcoming Ukrainian nationals without condition or qualification, a privilege rarely afforded to Black communities, as recently witnessed by the furor over Haitian deportations in the United States. Fortunately, some helping hands began to emerge. Moved by Korrine’s testimonials, two women, Tokunbo Koiki and Patricia Daley, reached out on Twitter to ask how to support; within 72 hours, the three Black women had quickly moved from strangers to partners with a mission, working to help raise over €70,000 under the banner of “Black Women for Black Lives” and provide immediate transparency as to the recipients and services offered under the principles of Ubuntu: I am because we are. After seeing videos on social media of Africans being left behind with no transport options, Carey Carter was moved to get involved, using her platform and network to both amplify vetted stories and videos from people such as Bayero, but also to serve as an intermediary for students and migrants in desperate need of resources by connecting them directly to individuals who offered immediate financial assistance.She would also look up available transportation options, Airbnbs, and phonecards to call family back home, paired with a small write-up of the funding request for the group on the ground, containing elements such as the urgency, duration, and details about the students . “[Their background] makes it personal, you know. It puts a face to who they are and what they do,” Carter explains, as she shows me the mini-grant requests she churns out hour after hour. “I found that really helps, just to emphasize that they’re human and they’re someone.” She has not accepted any funds herself, but her work has prompted action from notable public figures such as UFC fighter Tyron Woodley — a native of Ferguson, MO. — who sent thousands over via bitcoin.It will be some time before the Black migrant community from Ukraine fully processes their traumatic experiences — trauma has a tendency to turn time into a mobius strip — but the anger is already bubbling up to the surface. “I personally would blame the schools for keeping people [in person for classes],” Bayero stresses, still upset at not being offered safety or guidance. “This attack didn’t come as something that is surprising.” Regardless of the timing, however, action needs to happen immediately, as Black lives remain in the balance at the border, and on foot. “It is hard for people to go through such things and then still sympathize with what is happening in Ukraine,” Bayero admits. “Most of these kids, we have been there for years…it’s just so heartbreaking.” Some others, such as Sky, have made pains to continue to emphasize that they still support the Ukrainian struggle, appreciating the few citizens who did help them along the way. Both approaches are valid, as is their anger.In The Devil and the Good Lord, Jean-Paul Sartre said “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.” Ukraine is fully within their rights to protect their sovereignty from Putin’s invasion, and the global community is welcome to stand beside them. The failure to not only embrace the Black diaspora within Ukraine, but to silence them in service of warfare as they fight to survive, reflects an astonishing level of cruelty in a time when every moment matters. No matter how many iterations of ‘racial reckonings’ we contend with, Blackness is continuously assessed on a subhuman level, denied the basic dignities afforded to the ruling class. Russian information doesn’t need to foment that simple truth; white supremacy perpetuates it on its own accord.