Last year, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Zimbabwean student Korrine Sky was enrolled in medical school in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro.
When Sky and her husband tried to flee at the Ukraine-Romania border, Sky said they were forced to abandon their vehicle as they waited in a long queue of cars, and were then directed to stand in the frigid cold in a separate line full of mostly Black and other diverse immigrants for hours — until the last Ukrainians crossed the border.
“We were last. They were going to make sure that the Ukrainian people were safe, and then, they would allow us after days,” she recalled. “It was so heartbreaking.”
By and large, many African countries have stayed on the sidelines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As major importers of wheat and fertilizers from the two warring nations, they are reluctant to jeopardize those vital supplies by taking sides, observed Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in Britain.
He added that the plight of African students in Ukraine may have bolstered the positions that African countries have taken toward the conflict in Ukraine.
Sky, 27, had seen and heard about videos circulating on social media showing African students being prevented — sometimes, physically — from fleeing the country, but was initially reluctant to attribute these actions to racism until her own harrowing experience.
A year later, Sky said she and other African students who fled Ukraine are struggling to survive, while Ukrainians have been welcomed and supported by other countries.
“We lost everything and nobody cares,” she said.
“Yet, when we see our counterparts, the people we left with, our neighbors, they have been accommodated and the world has opened their arms to them.”
Last year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced parts of eastern Ukraine were now independent states — one of the most memorable rebukes came from then Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations Martin Kimani.
“The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine stands breached,” he said in a speech at the United Nations Security Council on which Kenya had a nonpermanent seat.
Kimani went on to compare the insecurity in these border areas to Africa’s own troubles with border disputes.
“Today, across the border of every single African country live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds,” he said.
“At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later,” he continued.
The speech received a lot of attention globally.
“It shows that Africa is more and more significant at the international stage when we look at the reception from all around the world,” Ajala said.
Since then, there’s been a lot of attention on how African countries have reacted to the conflict — especially those who have opted to stay silent.
“The initial reaction of African countries is not to get embroiled in another long conflict,” Ajala observed.
“Some people were not happy with that, because some people felt that if you are not aligning with the West, that means you are actually in support of the conflict.”
Ajala cautioned, however, against lumping 54 African countries together. Each one has different foreign policy objectives that should be respected, he said.
For example, some countries – like Namibia – have the policy of nonalignment enshrined in its constitution.
Others have growing trade, economic, and military ties with Russia that they might be hesitant to jeopardize.
“Many African countries depend on Russia for fertilizers, for wheat, for oil. For different things like that. So, many of them strategically found it very difficult to just turn their backs on their ally.”
South Africa, which has faced pressure to condemn Russia over the war, has also criticized the role that NATO expansion had played in the lead-up to the conflict.
Ajala added that at the end of the day, many African countries see the war in Ukraine as a European conflict that needs to be resolved internally.
Sky said she still wants to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, but that most African students who fled Ukraine haven’t been able to continue their education.
Recently, she launched a campaign calling for universities around the world to grant African students who fled the war the same opportunities to continue their education as their Ukrainian counterparts.
Still, despite the racism she experienced in Ukraine, and the subsequent struggles after — Sky said that African countries like hers could do more.
“I think that the African countries should have definitely made a bigger stand. Despite everything that happened, war is wrong and a lot of innocent people have died.”
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