Ottawa-led coalition helps Black international students escape war in Ukraine

People of colour, including many international students, are facing racism and being denied entry to other countries as they try to escape the war in Ukraine. Some groups in Ottawa are stepping up to help.

Reports of racism, denial of entry to neighbouring countries for visible minorities

Turned away at trains, people of colour are facing many challenges while trying to escape the war in Ukraine. (Gwen Madiba)

Mukudzei Makurira crossed the border into Romania from war-torn Ukraine 11 days ago. He is still shaken up. 

"I still have panic attacks," said Makurira, a first-year dental student from Zimbabwe. "I'm trying to bury every memory, just put it in a coffin."

Makurira spent more than eight hours at the border waiting to cross into Romania as he faced racism and feared for his life. When he arrived, he said there were two gates: one for Ukrainians and another for foreigners. 

"We're seeing Ukrainians are going through, they're going through. We're waiting," recalled Makurira. "People are frustrated. They're hungry."

Mukudzei Makurira spoke to CBC News from Romania after he crossed the border from Ukraine. (CBC News )

Two million people — mostly women and children — have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, the UN's refugee agency has said.

Thousands more people fleeing fierce fighting in Ukraine streamed into central and eastern Europe on Tuesday amid renewed efforts to create safe evacuation routes from cities being bombarded by Russian forces.

WATCH | Ukraine renews efforts to evacuate civilians:

Ukrainians scramble to escape, relief efforts hampered

1 year ago
Duration 2:41
As Russian forces continue to lay siege to Ukrainian cities, residents are scrambling to escape. Those left behind are finding it difficult to access desperately needed aid because of drivers unwilling to travel into war zones, roadblocks and broken supply chains.

With fighting around many of Ukraine's main cities intensifying under Russian missile and artillery attacks, authorities across eastern Europe are struggling to accommodate the swelling wave of refugees.

Amid that wave, several reports have emerged of people of colour being denied access to trains and entry at border crossings, while white Ukrainians are allowed to pass through. 

Makurira said he was even held at gunpoint by Ukrainian officials while trying to stop a woman from being trampled.

Back home, and trying to help

Vukile Dlamini is a second-year medical student from Swaziland who also lived in Ukraine, and has detailed her experience online.

While Dlamini is now back home, she's focused on helping others get out. 

"They're just frustrated that they're trapped," said Dlamini.

"Right now, there's been open humanitarian corridors for them to get through. So we're able to organize sending them some funds and everything so that they could arrive at the borders to cross over to Hungary." 

1,000 students remain stranded in Ukraine

Since reports emerged of racism at the border, an Ottawa-led group has spearheaded a "Global Black Coalition" supporting international Black students fleeing Ukraine. Their focus has been crowdfunding to help pay reallocation costs, such as hotel fees, food and warm clothing. 

Gwen Madiba and her group Equal Chance are part of the coalition. 

"Our reaction was, 'Not again,'" said Madiba. "History is repeating itself again and again.

"We see that, unfortunately, Black people's lives don't always matter to certain people, and that we're often put at the bottom of the ladder, when we should all be equal."

She estimated that about 1,000 students remain stranded in Ukraine.

Helping students continue their studies

The coalition is led by Hector Addison with the African Canadian Association of Ottawa. He said he was "not shocked" by the reports of racism in Ukraine.

"It's something that has become part of our society now, whether it's in Canada, U.S., [or] in Europe," said Addison, who hopes to raise up to $150,000 to support those struggling during the invasion in Ukraine. 

"It's an international disaster that we all have to pitch in to help."

He also wants the Canadian government to do more to help people of colour stranded in Ukraine. In the meantime, the group is working with human rights lawyers and Canadian universities to find out if it's possible for some students to continue their studies in Canada.

"The government can facilitate issuing visas to some of these students who want to relocate to Canada," said Addison. "Now there's no way they are going back to Ukraine for any school. They have to continue somewhere." 

The Ottawa-based organizations plan to send two people to Poland next week to help with the relief efforts. Members of the public can drop off donations, such as blankets, on Saturday between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. at 40 Colonnade Rd. in Nepean.