'They chose pets over people': Nigerian students open up on Ukraine border racism

Credit: ITV News
  • By Roohi Hasan and Manuela Brown

Nigerian students helping others escape Ukraine have told ITV News of the racist, dehumanising experience at the border as they tried to flee for their lives. 

Their comments come as the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK admitted to Parliament last week that they have prioritised Ukrainian citizens over foreign students out of concern for what locals would think.  

Two Nigerian students spoke to ITV News after fleeing to Hungary and Poland about the racism they experienced at the borders, being denied access to flee Ukraine, and how they’re now trying to help other foreign students escape. 

Many who have just arrived say they have nothing to eat and can’t afford anything more right now. 

One estimate puts the number of just Nigerian students studying across Ukraine when Russia invaded at around 4,000 - but, with lower tuition fees than many other countries, Ukraine attracts students from many other countries. 

The walk to the border was busy and arduous.

Jessica Orakpo Somtochukwu is a sixth-year Nigerian medical student and student body president from Ternopil. 

The 23-year-old, in her final year as a medical student, was hoping to graduate in a few months before the invasion began. 

She finally made it to Hungary, where she is now, but only after a great deal of struggle and trauma at the Polish border. 

'What about us blacks?'

"I was about to enter, literally at the front of the bus, and they were literally pushing us away. Like why blacks? So the organiser was like, we should get back. I even tried calling out to him a couple of times. He ignored any black person or the Moroccans, Arabs and Syrians," she said.

"I didn't want to assume what I was thinking. I literally wanted a direct answer from them. So I went towards the woman and I asked, are you telling me that the buses is coming right now are provided for just Ukrainians? She said, yes.  

"And I said, what are about us blacks? She said, she literally did like this," she added, shrugging her shoulders in the way the woman did to her.

"And I told her that's very bad to her face. And I walked away around that point when everybody had it, everybody lost hope."

Losing hope at the border

She described how she met a man as she left the border walking back.

She asked him why is he walking the opposite way. He told her he had been there for two days and had no chance.

“So for him to get to the border and actually lose that hope and risk walking back, you can imagine how serious it was at the border," she said.

"So once we saw him, we're like, there is no hope.” 

'We are so tired... people are leaving things on the road to travel lighter'

In light of the comments by the Ukrainian ambassador making a distinction between Ukrainians and foreigners, Jess also highlighted that the border treatment was not just experienced by students - but by those who have made Ukraine their permanent home.  

Her Nigerian friend, now a permanent resident in Ukraine and who got married and had a baby in the country, was also denied entry due to her colour, she said.

'A bomb wouldn't pick who to blow'

"It was very, very dehumanising. Because if there was a bomb to come there right now, it wouldn't pick who to blow. It would blow all of us," she added.  

"So why not... let it be a fair chance.  

"I know they always have this saying that in the case of life and death like that, you rather protect your brother than a stranger.

"OK. If that was the case, let's say you say five Ukrainians, one international... but to give us no chance at all and to like ignore us, like we do not matter. 

“I do not wish bad for them [Ukrainians] but the fact that you have to treat people that way in a very sensitive time, is really, really awful. 

"On a normal day, I would understand, because we get it on a normal day as blacks and I'm not here to start complaining about that. 

"But this is a very sensitive time, so that means truly our lives do not matter.

"Because at that point it was either life or death. And then you told us that Ukrainians were priority, and we didn't matter."

Jess describes herself as 'delirious' as she shares some laughs with her friend

Pets over people

Jess says she couldn’t believe it when she saw people’s pet cages being given priority and seats ahead of foreign and black students.

"Some people have pets as their, you know, emotional support. That is perfectly understandable but give all of us a fair chance," she said.  

She told us she was so desperate to get to safety that she was even willing to stand while local families and their children and pets took up seats, but she says, simply: "They didn't want us to get on. They didn't care. Literally they pushed us aside.

"The line was only for Ukrainians. We're not allowed to be on those lines and were literally told to come out of line."

Helping other foreign students

Her priority right now, however, is to try to help fellow Nigerian students trying to leave Ukraine now and those just arrived. 

She said those newly arrived from Sumy are "devastated" and "they don't have anything to eat" and can’t afford anything right now. 

She visited them to provide accommodation advice and support and helping more from her phone, which is constantly buzzing or ringing with requests. 

One of those students who just arrived in Hungary told ITV News "most of us don’t have food to eat sometimes."

Hope of returning to Ukraine one day

Jess had been in the Ukraine for the past six years, since the age of 17, and considers it her home.  

She says she would go back in an instant if things became safer, as it's where she feels comfortable.   

She is upset by the idea that some people would expect her to "go back" to Nigeria.

"It's like very insensitive to say that," she said. "Because most people that are here to study medicine...they've been here for most of their lives.

"Their youth, their teenage years were formed here. So it's really difficult to go back."

Jess is worried about her future and is trying to raise funds to pay for the last few months of medical school somewhere else urgently.

Alexander opened up about his experiences.

Alexander Somto Nze Orah is a Nigerian national who was studying in Ukraine - and he is using his personal funds to rescue other foreign students from war and racism at the Ukrainian border. 

Alexander, a university Management student in Ukraine, fled Ukraine to Poland after experiencing days of racism and poor treatment by Ukrainian law enforcement officers during evacuation. 

Paying out of his own pocket for others

He said: "I’ve started sending invoices to send taxi drivers to the border to pick some people then I pay for the hotel rooms and hostels.

"I paid for some people's flights for more than 30 people, for their rooms. 

"I have used at least $2,000 (£1,500) of my money to do all this.

"Even though some people promised to reimburse me, I didn't see anything."

Pushing down African women at the station

Alexander's initiative to help others in his situation came about after his own experiences with racism in Ukraine when the war broke out. 

"We were trying to enter the train and they were telling us this train is for women and children," he said.  

"But we saw them pushing down African women. When I looked at the other side, they were pushing down on an Indian girl."

People walk to catch the last train and leave Kramatorsk for western Ukraine at the railway station. Credit: AP

Alexander, along with other foreign nationals at the border, began to shout in protest to demand fair treatment. 

"Every time they told us women and children, they actually meant white women, they didn't mean other Africans.  

"In that particular station, there are so many pregnant African women."

After Alexander's first attempt to board an evacuation train, he was pushed down by the Ukrainian police, who did not allow Africans and foreigners on the train. 

'Open this door or we die'

After days waiting in lines under below-zero temperatures and without food or water, Alexander and his friend forced themselves against the closed train doors and held onto the metal bars until they had to be allowed in to prevent serious injuries. 

"Either we die on the road or you open this door," he told Ukrainian officers.

"The train was not full, and we were the only Africans on that train."  

That was how he made his way to Lviv, which borders Poland. When he reached the border, he and other black and Asians students were met with further discrimination. 

Soldiers were pointing their guns at them, threatening to shoot if they kept protesting to be let on the trains to Poland. 

"We were shouting, we are not illegal immigrants. We are students and we came to study.  

"Deport us if you don't want us to stay in your country, deport us and let us move." 

Alexander also recalls being told by another Ukrainian official: "If you're African, if you're Indian, you have to leave this border and go to the Romanian border." 

"We told him that we will not go anywhere. We've been trekking for days, so we started shouting," he said.

After more protesting and waiting in line for three days, he was finally allowed to board on one of the trains to Poland.

Danger of racism in Ukraine

Alexander had been living in Ukraine for 11-months before the war broke out.  

Like many other Nigerian students, they were advised not to panic and leave Ukraine during by the Nigerian embassy Telegram group. 

Despite living in Ukraine for less than a year, this was not the first time Alexander has experienced racism in the country. 

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Foreigners are often charged higher renting fees by landlords and are targets for abuse on the road by drunk people under.

"When they see that you are alone in a place where nobody can rescue you, those drunkards might even start fighting you or stab you," he said.

Education is priority

When asked about the opportunity to travel back to Nigeria with the Nigerian evacuation planes, Alexander said he would not.

"I want to continue my education. I'm not going back.  

"Because most of us sold everything we had so that we would be able to get an education and this is the only opportunity we have.

"If the Nigerian government cared about all the news, they could have started and if not because of the whole awareness or might we still wouldn't care.” 

"Going back to Nigeria is like going to another Warzone for me because whenever I'm in Nigeria, I get harassed every day that I even fear to go from my tattoos, my dreadlocks.

"It's like I’m a criminal in the eyes of the Nigerian police."

What Ukraine says

Last week, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukrainian ambassador to the UK addressed the issue of racism at the border to a House of Commons Select Committee. 

Vadym Prystaiko spoke to a select committee. Credit: PA

He said: “We don’t want it to happen... problems arise when young foreigners are prioritised over women and children of Ukrainian citizenship who are trying to get on the same trains.  "Maybe we will put all foreigners in some other place so they won’t be visible and there won’t be conflict with Ukrainians trying to flee in the same direction.

"This is something that has to be taken care of and we will be doing it."

Last week, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukraine’s foreign minister attempted to address the outcry by establishing a hotline to assist ethnic minority students trying to leave Ukraine.  

"Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways," he said.

"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."