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International students are facing challenges as they try to evacuate Ukraine

Nigerian students in Ukraine wait at the platform at the Lviv railway station on Sunday.
Bernat Armangue
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AP
Nigerian students in Ukraine wait at the platform at the Lviv railway station on Sunday.

Updated March 3, 2022 at 1:09 PM ET

Among the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine are many Africans and South Asians who were studying and working in the country. As they have tried to cross the borders into neighboring countries, some have voiced complaints of discrimination and poor treatment, while others have said they've seen exceptional kindness extended to them.

To get a sense of these varying experiences, NPR spoke to refugees, many of whom are students, as they tried to cross borders into Poland and Hungary.

Many students of color said they faced discrimination at the Polish border

Clement Akenboro, an economics student from Nigeria, was already on a train headed to Poland from the Ukrainian city of Lviv when he said he was thrown off by security guards on Sunday.

"They drug all the Black guys from the train," Akenboro told NPR's Tim Mak, adding that the experience made him want to cry following the embarrassment he felt from being targeted.

Freedom Chidera has spent five years studying medicine in Ukraine. The Nigerian said he also faced discrimination while trying to cross into Poland, including insults from border guards.

"I'm traumatized. I need to relax. I need to detox my mind. I've been through a lot in Polish border," Chidera told NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. "I mean, that's the worst experience in my life. I called my mother. I was crying. I was really crying to her."

Nigerian students are not the only ones who have faced issues leaving Ukraine. More than 600 Indian students have taken shelter in the basement of university dorms in northeast Ukraine. In a video posted to social media, they said they were told to evacuate near the western border and to get there by bus or train, but those modes of transportation were not available.

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"We are running out of food. We've tried talking to the embassy but they keep saying we'll tell you what to do next however nothing has happened so far," one student told Deepesh Goud, a fellow student who is documenting how they are all faring amid the Russian attacks on the city of Sumy.

"We are very scared and we don't know what to do," said another student. "We aren't getting any information on when to leave and no ministry is telling us nor is the embassy calling us to tell us how and where to leave from. Please help us and send us help."

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced on Wednesday that Indian officials would be arriving in Lviv to aid evacuation efforts. The ministry said it was also looking at the possibility of sending officials to eastern Ukraine to help those who are currently stuck.

Many of the students in Ukraine came there because they saw possibilities to get an education and live with a sense of security around them. But that was shattered when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war.

Nigerian Victor Eshiet remembers the moment he realized the war that many had thought might not happen became a reality. He said it was about 5 a.m. when he was studying for his U.S. medical license last week.

"Then, all of a sudden, my table shook," Eshiet said. "And we went to the window and — you know when a rocket's trying to move, like, you know, the pressure and everything? I just felt it. I'm like, no."

Nigerian student Chioma Udo had been trying to get through border crossings for days when NPR met her as she was preparing to enter Hungary from Ukraine. Udo said she has enjoyed her life and studies in Ukraine and hopes to return one day.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
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NPR
Nigerian student Chioma Udo had been trying to get through border crossings for days when NPR met her as she was preparing to enter Hungary from Ukraine. Udo said she has enjoyed her life and studies in Ukraine and hopes to return one day.

Even as students are forced to leave, many hope to return one day

Word spread about the difficulty that people of color had trying to get across the Polish border, and eventually it led others to head south and try to seek refuge in Hungary.

Chioma Udo was attempting to leave Ukraine for a third time when she spoke with NPR. She, as well as other Nigerians, did not have the privilege of visa-free travel throughout the European Union. Countries in the EU are now waiving that requirement. Despite difficulties getting out of the country, Udo said she enjoyed her life and studies in Ukraine and still hopes to return one day.

"One of my friends ... said that this is the last time we're seeing him because he's not coming back to this country. And it's really, really heartbreaking," Udo said. "People have built a life here. Like, three years — you meet a lot of people, and this is, like, people's home. People really love this country."

While some students have expressed frustration with their border-crossing experiences, others spoke of the kindness of the Ukrainians.

Francis Chukwura (right) and his brother crossed into Hungary from Ukraine. Chukwura said he received shelter and warm clothes from the Ukrainian government and was not bothered by Ukrainians getting priority on trains leaving the country.
/ Frank Langfitt/NPR
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Frank Langfitt/NPR
Francis Chukwura (right) and his brother crossed into Hungary from Ukraine. Chukwura said he received shelter and warm clothes from the Ukrainian government and was not bothered by Ukrainians getting priority on trains leaving the country.

Francis Chukwura, who is working toward his master's degree in economics, said he had been at Lviv's train station and didn't begrudge the Ukrainians who were given priority on trains headed out of the country.

"There's a war in Ukraine. We Africans, we have somewhere to go to. But them — they don't have anywhere to go to," Chukwura said. "We are humans, you know? Sometimes we don't — we have to put ourselves in other people's shoes to understand your situation."

The Ukrainian government provided Chukwura and some fellow Nigerian students with winter coats and shelter at a hotel as they worked to leave the country, he said.

Chukwura said his respect for Ukrainians and their country continued to grow as he watched them defend their country against Russia.

"Western governments should try as much as possible to support Ukraine in any way they can, 'cause actually [I] feel like Ukraine is actually doing this alone," he said. "And it's not fair because I was expecting the U.S. to intervene, but maybe they're not intervening because it might be a full blown-out war. I understand that, but they should try to support in every way."

Frank Langfitt and Eleanor Beardsley reported from the Hungarian border with Ukraine. Tim Mak contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine. Wynne Davis adapted this story for the web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 1, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Francis Chukwura's last name as Chokura.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.