African expats say Ukraine is racist, but it’s home

Africans who have built their lives in Ukraine over many years reflect on their experiences in their adopted country, and what was waiting for them as they fled to Poland to escape the war.

“No matter the country we were from, they put foreigners aside and we couldn’t get on the first train to Lviv,” said Fred Walwasa, 46, who is originally from Zambia but has lived in Kyiv for 23 years and spent 10 years between Russia and Ukraine before that. 

He was recalling the distressing hours it took for him to get from the capital Kyiv to the northwestern border with Poland. “They didn’t harass us as happened to other foreigners, but they told us that we cannot go.” 

For the journey from Lviv to Przemyśl, the first big town in Poland, non-Ukrainians were put in a separate carriage. “Even [Ukrainian] people married to foreigners and their kids were put in it,” said Walwasa.

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This discrimination, he said, continued at the checkpoint at Przemyśl railway station, where he was held back again. The person who checked his documents seemed not to trust him and let people behind him in the queue through first. “It seems that she was surprised that I am a permanent resident in Ukraine.” 

Walwasa first arrived in Moscow in 1989 to study for his preparatory year, which was needed in the former Soviet Union to learn Russian before joining any faculty. He studied economics and got a master’s degree in philosophy in Donetsk, southern Ukraine. In 1999, he finally moved to Kyiv, where he eventually married a Ukrainian woman, had a family and became a builder.

The incidents of racism he and other non-Ukrainian refugees have experienced over the past few weeks are nothing new for Walwasa. Nearly three years ago, a neighbour attacked him with a knife because he was doing some noisy work in their building’s courtyard. Walwasa managed to take the knife away but injured his neighbour’s hand in the process. When the police came, they assaulted Walwasa and handcuffed him. It was intervention by other neighbours that saved him from being arrested. 

Adapting to a new country

Walwasa said he chose to stay in Ukraine all this time because he learnt to appreciate what it offered. And, his first impression of the Soviet Union had been positive. “There was no racism back in the 1980s until the fall of the Soviet Union. There was a tendency to keep a good relationship with African countries, especially because Cuba had Black people and it was the Soviet Union’s greatest ally in the West.”

According to Walwasa, international students were taught the Soviet Union’s laws on their arrival. “We were also given advice on how to avoid conflicts with local people and received protection from authorities,” he recalled. “We were told when to go out and where to get food. Then, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, we were abandoned and things went out of control.” 

Local people felt free to express the racism that had been suppressed before. “For any public holiday or football game, I kept off the streets because people can indiscriminately beat you without the police reacting.”

10 March 2022: At Przemyśl railway station in Poland, Fred Walwasa tells about his 33-year stay in what is now Russia and Ukraine. (Photographs by Alex Cizmic)

Despite the acts of racism that Walwasa had tolerated, he was still shocked by his treatment while fleeing Ukraine. “This is a period of war and when people are in hardship they usually try to help each other,” he said. “Look at Poland. They are offering free transportation and food. This is something that wouldn’t be there in a peaceful time.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded it on 24 February and started indiscriminately bombing civilian sites, including hospitals. The war has displaced nearly 10 million people so far and more than 900 Ukrainian civilians are among the dead. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the war a “special military operation” and suppressed all forms of dissent inside his country. Independent media have been shut down and a law has been promulgated punishing what the government considers “fake news” about the continuing war, with sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Welcome and unwelcome

About 2.1 million refugees so far have chosen Poland as either their final destination or their first stop en route to the West. The border most crossed, Medyka-Shehyni, is where thousands of them experience hospitality. They have been able to access necessities that people who have been torn from their homes need: a welcoming smile, food, hot drinks, clothes and information to continue their journey.

Meanwhile, along Poland’s icy northeastern border with Belarus, rejection and violence await migrants from the Middle East. A few thousand people, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan, have been entering the European Union from Belarus since last August seeking a better life. The Belarusian government has allegedly organised asylum seekers’ trips with the promise of a safe passage to the EU in retaliation for sanctions imposed on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. 

8 March 2022: Refugees from Ukraine enter Medyka, Poland.

Belarus’ new migration route to the EU led the Polish government to impose a state of emergency, and the few volunteers willing to help the migrants have to act discreetly or hide out of fear of reprisals. At least 19 migrants have died because of the Polish authorities’ hostility, and a wall is under construction along the Belarus border to prevent Middle Eastern migrants from crossing. It will cost €353 million (R5.78 billion) and should be completed by June.

Monika Matus, an activist for the Polish non-governmental organisations network Grupa Granica, wondered how long the solidarity towards Ukrainians would last. “Everyone always wants to help mothers and young children [who represent the majority of the refugees],” she said, frustrated by the sudden awakening of consciousness. 

“All these people who are helping now, where have they been? In just over a couple of weeks, Poland welcomed more than one million people with open arms, while further north a horrible racist segregation and discrimination are still going on. This moral double vision is really horrifying.”

Changes in Ukraine

Despite racism permeating the lives of Africans in Ukraine, Falikou Sangare, 36, said the interaction between the local population and Africans was improving. He comes from Ivory Coast and stayed in Ukraine after completing his studies in languages. A private teacher of French, English and Russian, Sangare lives in Dnipro together with his Ukrainian wife and their child. 

He recognised that Ukrainians had been trying in the past decade to improve their behaviour towards non-Europeans, in particular Black people, and said he encountered no discrimination during his recent journey fleeing to Poland. 

“There is a racist tendency in Ukraine, it’s true,” he said. “But Ukraine, like other countries of the Soviet era, didn’t have any relations with Africa until recently. This means that Ukrainians and Africans know each other too little and badly. 

8 March 2022: In Medyka, Poland, Falikou Sangare, wearing a blue beanie, awaits his turn to get on a bus that will take him to the north of the country.

“In 2012, the wave of the first international students, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, was a shock for Ukrainians,” he recalled. “They made fun of us. When they saw us, they changed direction. Then they got used to it.”

Sangare said Ukraine’s joint hosting of the 2012 Uefa European Championship with Poland and the large influx of international visitors who came to watch the football tournament contributed to changing people’s mentality. “Ukrainians have understood that one must be open-minded because foreigners can bring something new.” 

He had tried to improve Ukrainian society through his language lessons, said Sangare. “I have had about a hundred students so far to whom I have passed on some value and have told about myself and my country. They were curious and needed to be explained who we are because they don’t know. People like me who are married to Ukrainians and have mixed children help bring different cultures together.”

More equal than others

Most of those fleeing Ukraine today know with certainty that they will soon be able to find a new home in the EU, or at least temporary shelter until they can return to Ukraine. European governments are helping them and many people from all over the continent are offering them free accommodation in the city they prefer.

But citizens from developing countries who live in Ukraine and have fled, especially Asians and Africans, will very likely face greater difficulties if they want to stay in the EU. The European Council decided to guarantee a temporary protection of one year, renewable up to two years every six months, to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Owing to opposition from Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, however, the procedure for non-Ukrainians will be more complicated and vary from state to state.

Most of the refugees who filled the small waiting rooms of the Przemyśl railway station were aiming to go to Germany. Sangare wanted to go to France. Walwasa looked lost. He didn’t know where to go next and struggled among the volunteers who, having arrived only recently, had no clear answers to give him. 

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When Russia attacked Kyiv, Walwasa wasn’t in a hurry to flee. He didn’t want to give up his life and the properties he had bought with a lot of sacrifice. His wife and children were too scared to leave, but he eventually escaped for fear of being called to arms if the conflict continues and fighting men are needed.

Figuring out a plan B in case it wouldn’t be possible to go back to Ukraine anytime soon was also a priority now, but Walwasa said, “Europe [the European Union] is not a dream for me since I have everything I need in Ukraine.”

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