Day 6

Nigerian doctor fleeing Kyiv for Poland calls treatment by Ukrainian officials 'dehumanizing'

A Nigerian surgeon who worked and taught in Kyiv says Ukrainian officials at the border to Poland delayed his exit from the country because he is African. Still, Dr. Awofaa Gogo-Abite, who is now in Krakow, Poland, says he's returning to Ukraine to provide support and supplies to others fleeing the conflict.

'I just couldn't understand the deep-rooted poverty of the soul,' said Dr. Awofaa Gogo-Abite

Awofaa Gogo Abite, a Nigerian doctor who worked and taught in Kyiv for 14 years, shared this picture on Twitter in September 2020. Awofaa fled Ukraine late last month as Russian forces began invading the country. He says that Ukrainian officials are discriminating against non-Ukrainian refugees attempting to flee. (@DrAwofaa/Twitter)

A Nigerian surgeon who worked and taught in Kyiv says Ukrainian officials at the border to Poland delayed his exit from the country because he is African.

Dr. Awofaa Gogo-Abite has lived in Kyiv for 14 years, but he says his treatment at the border, as he and friends attempted to flee the country, which was invaded by Russian troops starting last month, has him second guessing a future return.

Awofaa's story is one of many heard in recent days from people of colour attempting to escape the invasion. More than one million people have fled Ukraine in just seven days, according to the United Nations. 

Independent UN human rights experts have been critical of those discriminating based on ethnicity at the borders. "Measures that differentiate between people, on any ground, especially on the basis of race or ethnicity, are not only legally unjustifiable but morally and ethically repugnant as we embrace our common humanity and fight for fundamental freedoms," the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said in a statement. 

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."

Still, Awofaa, who is now in Krakow, Poland, says he's returning to Ukraine with supplies, including medications, in an effort to support others who are experiencing discrimination at the border.

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Awofaa spoke with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong about his experience at the border and what's next. Here is part of that conversation.

It has been quite a week there and if you can take us back to the moment you decided to flee your home in Kyiv, what was the moment that you decided: this is it, I've got to go now?

I just woke up in the morning. I was woken up by some vibration from my window and I thought it was just a nightmare. But it wasn't. It was really something loud — explosions.

Then I went on Twitter and I saw the speech from Putin and I was really shocked, and I knew that something serious is really happening in the country. So we risked the first day, the second day.

Throughout the night, it was impossible because all the day was full of explosions. I knew it was time; it was time to flee. So I made it to another friend's house where we hid in the bunker for several hours, and then we drove 14 hours to the western part of Ukraine.

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

2 years ago
Duration 1:33
Belisky 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.

We've all seen the pictures now of these enormous lines. What was it like when you got there?

It's really mind blowing when you're physically present. We drove from Kyiv for 14 hours, a journey that ordinarily should last for six hours maximum, and stopped close to the border. The queue was for about 40 to 45 kilometres, but we were able to stay in the queue for some time — up to 20 kilometres to the border. Then we decided to walk.

We walked for about 20 kilometres to get us to the checkpoint where our passports would be collected. So we arrived in front of the Ukrainian part of the border at 4 p.m. And before we could exit, before our passports were collected and stamped, it was 10:00 a.m. the next day.

It was extremely dehumanizing because, from the Ukrainian side of the border, we joined the queue, and any time it got to our turn, we [were] always sent back. We weren't allowed [across] and the pretext was that they only allow women and children.

We bought that for some hours, thought it was the truth and we were waiting patiently for our turn. But then we realized that they also didn't let some other women who aren't Ukrainian pass. They were just keeping us without anything — no water, no hot tea, no blankets, no place to sleep, no place to sit down. So we were literally standing in the [cold].

Did everybody else that was at the border at the time understand what was happening? That Black and non-white Ukrainians were being denied access or being allowed to pass? 

Yeah, everybody understood. I think the Ukrainians were pretty indifferent. When injustice benefits you, you become numb about it.

But the thing was that 90 per cent of the foreigners who are in Ukraine are students from African countries, from India or from some Arabic countries. So these are young people. These are kids who ordinarily can be easily bullied.

I'm not one of those [people]. I work in Ukraine. I lecture at the medical university. But still it didn't make any difference. So these border officials acted with impunity.

So how did you convince them to finally let you through, and what was it like the moment you were finally able to get out of the country?

We started protesting. I protested vocally.

I was talking to one of the ladies, 'Do you think it's fair that we've waited patiently all night standing in this in inhumane conditions … and you still don't want to allow us to pass?' The border control agent at the checkpoint, she looks clearly into our eyes in the broad daylight and said, "You are not our priority. The war is in Ukraine, and I will prioritize Ukrainians and I can keep you as long as I want, and you can do nothing about it."

This was in the open. It wasn't hidden. It was said rightly and plain into our eyes.

How did that make you feel? 

I've lived in Ukraine for a long time and I understand the peculiarities of the country. I understand it. I wasn't surprised. I have seen worse than that. So it was like the regular thing for me.

But for the young guys, for the people who are just like few years in the country who don't understand such things, it was depressing. It was really dehumanizing. People do not treat homeless animals like us. All of us are writing beautiful stuff supporting Ukraine, only to come to the border and be treated like that.

So it's like, I don't know, it's such a contrast in feeling, I felt really empty. I couldn't describe the soul of such people  … because the kids were freezing, frostbite, blisters on their leg; but it was like it was nothing.

And so eventually they take you through, you get your passport stamped and you get into the Polish side. What goes through your mind?

The Polish side was swift. They [gave] us a warm place to stay while you wait for [your] passport to be stamped. I didn't spend more than 20 minutes.

Afterwards they put us in a bus, which was free of charge, to the shelter. I felt tired. I felt relieved at the same time. I have mixed feelings and I just couldn't understand the deep-rooted poverty of the soul.

And it's not just at the border. I had calls from my students complaining, crying, sending me videos [saying] we're not allowed on the train, we were beaten in the train and thrown away from this train and only Ukrainians were allowed to board. 

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

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

You're going back to the border every day to help people. What is drawing you there? What are you doing? How are you able to find the the reserves inside yourself to go back and go through that again at the border every day?

I also ask myself that because for over five days, I've not slept for more than one hour. But I feel strong, I feel energized.

I think the motivation was just that having been through that, I couldn't imagine what the kids, what these kids who travelled could pass through…. No one deserves such treatment. And I know that if I did not do something … a lot of people would die from just standing [at] those borders for hours.

Ukrainians spend six hours, [a] maximum of six hours. Foreigners, non-Ukrainians, they spent days. Whenever it gets to their turn, they go back.

You've lived and worked in Kyiv for years now. Do you hope to return to live in Ukraine one day?

I don't know. I don't see these events ending any time soon, and I don't think Ukraine will be the same anymore.

And I think the last events [were] a deal-breaker for me because if a country that we somehow love so much, and in our little way stand with them in this hard time, and we are treated like less than, I don't know, even homeless animals? I don't see my future there anymore, unfortunately.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC Radio. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.