War and Racism: Discrimination at Ukraine’s Borderlands

by Francesca Marquez
March 31st, 2022

As millions of Ukrainians flee to escape a Russian invasion of their homeland, not all are welcomed into neighboring countries as easily as their white counterparts. For people of African descent, this discrimination is especially true as many African students report being pushed aside by border guards after waiting for days to cross.

Amid freezing temperatures, with no food, blankets, or shelters to house them, African students like Barlaney Mufaro Gurure, a space engineering student from Zimbabwe, feel that they are “treated like animals” at the border.

One Ukrainian medical student from Zimbabwe, Korrine Sky, said the exodus is like “Squid Games,” with a racial hierarchy that leaves people of color at a disadvantage, and Africans at the very bottom. Even Africans who stayed in Ukraine long after their schooling, people like Grace Kass who has spent more than a third of her life in Kharkiv, have reported maltreatment by border and train guards alike. Kass herself was forced to enter the train last while white passengers were allowed to board and was only given the “ends of stale bread” while others received full pieces of bread and sausages at a train stop. As someone who not just lived in Ukraine but was actively “making something” of her life there, Kass was heartbroken at the blatant discrimination she experienced at Ukraine’s borderlands.

On Twitter, the hashtag “AfricansInUkraine” is being used to raise worldwide awareness about the mistreatment of Africans at the border as new reports of discrimination emerge everyday. Other minorities and international students like Selma El Alaui similarly report being “not let in” at train stations and being told it is “not free for you because you are foreign.” Meanwhile, white Ukrainians are given priority and humane treatment on their journey out.

In response to these public reports of racism and discrimination, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, recently tweeted a video saying an emergency hotline had been established specifically for Asian, African, and other foreign students wishing to leave Ukraine. African countries like the Nigerian government have also been speaking out and condemning the treatment of thousands of their students and citizens fleeing the war in Ukraine. Just last month, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, said every refugee fleeing has the right to safe passage and the “color of their passport or their skin should make no difference.” Unfortunately, though, as these first-hand reports of discrimination have shown us, it does make a difference.

While the international community’s solidarity with Ukraine is subverted by racism’s ongoing, deadly legacy, true camaraderie is neglected and so many continue to suffer for it. In these times of conflict, equity proves to be just as difficult to attain as it has in any other moment, but still more necessary. Not in vain, but with empathy, we strive for this equity today and tomorrow, as the cruelty of war is unfurled for all to see.

As ever, Slava Ukraini.