As It Happens·Q&A

Nigerian student says she and her friend were treated like 'animals' trying to flee Ukraine

Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo says she never felt racism so deeply in Ukraine as she did last week, when she tried to cross the border and escape the war.

International students say they been denied passage as they try to escape the Russian invasion

Jessica Orakpo is a Nigerian medical student who was studying in Ukraine. When Russia invaded, she had to flee the country — but says she faced several racist obstacles on her way out. (Submitted by Jessica Orakpo )

Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo says she never felt racism so deeply in Ukraine as she did last week, when she tried to cross the border and escape the war.

With all flights to Nigeria cancelled and no word from her embassy, Orakpo and her friend Nataizya Nanyangwe, a Zambian citizen, fled the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil and headed to the border. Their long journey, they say, was plagued by obstacles and instances of racism. 

As more people scramble to flee the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several reports have emerged of residents — including Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese — being stopped at borders. Unlike Ukrainians, many non-European residents in the country need visas to enter neighbouring countries.

The African Union said that everyone has the right to cross international borders to flee conflict and that "reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law."

On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted an emergency line for international students trying to flee the country, saying: "We are working intensively to ensure their safety & speed up their passage."

More than 874,000 people have fled Ukraine in search of safety in neighbouring countries, a UN refugee agency spokesperson told CBC News Network on Wednesday.

As It Happens guest host Helen Mann spoke to Orakpo, who is now safe in an apartment in Debrecen, Hungary, on Tuesday. Here is part of that conversation. 

WATCH | Europe criticized over treatment of some people of colour fleeing war in Ukraine:

'The treatment was not equal,' says African student trying to flee Ukraine

2 years ago
Duration 1:33
Featured VideoBelisky Mbua Ngale, a student in Ukraine from Cameroon, says it was clear to him that white people were given priority when boarding trains and buses as they all tried to flee the fighting. He eventually made it safely to Slovakia.

When did you realize that you had to leave Ukraine?

Friday morning, after [Russia invaded].

We had to start strategizing. What country would take us? Do we go home? We literally checked tickets back to Nigeria and it was so expensive, and it was even cancelled. 

We reached out to our embassy ... but we didn't get any reply.

We couldn't stay calm.... There was a bomb, but we didn't know if [it] was going to happen again. So on Saturday morning, I took a commercial taxi by 8 a.m. to the Polish border, but there was a long line with private cars. 

The commercial taxi said he cannot go from this point on because of the traffic, that I would have to walk, and [Google said] it was a one-hour walk roughly.

So we were like, "OK, that's fine." And we started walking and it wasn't a one hour walk…. I started from past 11 to 12 [p.m] and I literally was still walking outside at 10 p.m.

By 10 p.m., it was so cold. I was literally contemplating going back to my city because I couldn't do it anymore. And a traffic warden saw me and said I should go to a shelter.

And before I got there I asked the warden how would I get to the border, because I cannot walk anymore. He said there will be a bus in the morning that goes straight to the border.

What was it like to rest after all those hours walking?

I couldn't believe it. 

Walking right now … it's really traumatizing to me. On my leg, I have blood clots ... as if someone punched my leg like when you have bruises on your legs. So we just rested on the floor. We're just so happy to sleep and be warm.

On the left, a jam-packed train station in Ukraine where Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo finally caught a ride to Hungary. On the right, people line up for a bus that Orakpo says denied her entry, claiming to be for Ukrainians only. (Submitted by Jessica Orakpo)

Tell me about getting to that bus and what happened when you got there.

Oh, that was the most traumatic. 

I got to the bus … at 4 a.m. just to get at the front of the line. And we waited til 6 a.m., and the first bus came. 

All they said was just: "Women with babies, and families with babies and women. No man was allowed into this bus."

So we were like, OK, we understand they should go first, that another [bus] is coming.

Then, it kept coming. Only Ukrainians were getting let on on the bus…. I literally had to lie that I was pregnant just to be considered — because no Black person was allowed. There was a pregnant Black woman there. She wasn't allowed on the bus.

WATCH | Cameroonian student describes ordeal trying to cross border to Slovakia:

Europe's approach to Ukraine refugee crisis drawing accusations of racism

2 years ago
Duration 3:33
Featured VideoEuropean countries are welcoming most Ukrainian refugees with open arms, but people of colour say they are having a much more difficult journey.

Did someone say anything to you about this or was it just apparent to you that you were not being allowed on the bus because you were Black?

I speak a certain per cent of the language, so I went to the warden and I asked, "Please, can I get on this bus?" He literally said ...  "Ukrainians, that's all."

Animals were being let on. There was space for animals, but there wasn't space for me and my friend and other Black people on the line.

She wouldn't look to a Black guy on the line. They were asking him why is he on the line? That he should start walking, like it was an easy journey. Then when I was about to enter, a Ukrainian asked me ... "Why Blacks?" Like ... why should Blacks enter when [white Ukrainians] are also trying to enter?

So what did you do?

I took a taxi back to my city ... back to Ternopil, because I gave up. I was tired.... Anything that happens, I would just go to a bunker and, you know, hope for the best.

But, thankfully, a friend back in my city had gotten a taxi that [would] take us to train station to get on a train straight to Hungary, and we got there.

There were so many people, but most times internationals. But the thing is, there were soldiers there and [they] were pushing everybody back.

My friend tried, you know, [tried] offering money to one of the officials [saying] that "Please just let my sister in." And they allowed us in just because we could pay.

Jessica Orakpo's friend Nataizya Nanyangwe, a Zambian citizen, got so tired on the long journey out of Ukraine that she rested on a blanket on the ground. (Submitted by Jessica Orakpo )

So you basically paid someone off.

Yeah, literally. I paid like hundred dollars just to pass, just to get in that special room and get stamped, just to get the Ukrainian stamp that I'm out of Ukraine, on board a train going to Hungary.

Your story is not unique. The United Nations has confirmed that people trying to leave Ukraine are facing racism. What does it say to you that during a war, at this time of crisis, when people are supposed to be helping each other, that you experienced this kind of racism?

It's not new. In Ukraine, there are hints of racism every time, but I never really felt it this deep.

Even before this happened, when there was a true threat from Russia, I kept telling my school to please let us go home ... because we know that in worst case scenarios, we would be the least of importance because, obviously, Ukrainians will want their nationals [out] first. And it's really sad that what we expected to happen is happening. We are the least priority.

To say we cannot have any chance of leaving, that is really sad. And to treat us like we are animals is really barbaric.

Where will you go now? What are you going to do right now?

I don't know now. I have to try to figure out a way to get a ticket back home because it's quite expensive.

And owing to the fact that I'm in final year of medical school, I have four months left to graduate. So I'm torn between: Do I wait here and see how this situation plays out? Or go back to Africa to start all over again? 

It is very devastating for me.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Jessica Orapko produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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