African students who fled Ukraine to Poland wait in limbo: NPR



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 6 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Poland has taken in the majority, providing work visas, social services and money to people escaping the war with next to nothing. But not everyone who left Ukraine is Ukrainian, and some citizens of African countries have found that the doors of Europe are much less open to them.

TADE DANIEL OMOTOSHO: We wanted to help people of color, so we welcomed Guineans, Cameroonians, Gambians and, you know, people from everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Tade Daniel Omotosho moved to Poland from Nigeria 15 years ago for school. He has dual citizenship and is raising three daughters in Warsaw. Last year, he became chairman of the organization of Nigerians in the Polish Diaspora, and he figured the job would be mainly about building the community.

OMOTOSHO: What we should normally do as an organization should just bring Nigerians together, organize events, of course, stuff related to business, community development, not what we do here.

SHAPIRO: What we’re doing here is a humanitarian relief effort for African students who were living in Ukraine when Russia attacked. In late February, Omotosho learned that black people trying to flee the war were being arrested, harassed and even detained at the Polish border. So he made the five-hour journey east of Warsaw to help anyone he could find. Sometimes he would see a black guy at the border and just stop the car to ask if he needed anything. He posted his phone number online, saying Africans seeking help should call him.

OMOTOSHO: Which went viral, like, viral. I mean, I have people sending me my own number, like, if you need any help, those are the numbers to call. You know, so it was like, oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: He would post on Twitter, I’ll be at that border crossing then.

OMOTOSHO: You can’t imagine. It was so difficult. So at some point, every time I come home, I drop my phone, give it to my wife, and then she helps me answer each of these messages.

SHAPIRO: His organization got a bus and found volunteers to help transport people to Warsaw. They put African students in donated Polish hotel rooms and used vouchers from Airbnb. They received donations from a Go Fund Me campaign. And people sent money through PayPal. After a few weeks, the acute emergency started to turn into a longer-term challenge. And now it’s been months.

OMOTOSHO: There is no help from the government yet, I mean from the Polish government at the moment.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what Ukrainians in Poland have access to and what students here don’t have access to because they come from African countries.

OMOTOSHO: Two words, white privilege (laughs) – white privilege. (Inaudible), you know. So, in a way, Ukrainians would have access to free medical care. They would have access to the social security number. Those with children would have access to monthly allowances.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine someone saying, well, Ukrainians don’t have a country to go back to because there’s a war. But if you are from Nigeria, you can return to Nigeria. How about that?

OMOTOSHO: Again, white privilege, because you have no idea what it takes to leave Nigeria and go to study in Ukraine. Some of them, their parents borrowed money. Some of them, their parents just say, OK, that’s all I have on me. I’ll make sure to send you to school. So it’s not so easy to say, go back to Nigeria.

SHAPIRO: We asked the Polish government why they don’t give Nigerians who fled Ukraine the same benefits as Ukrainians and they didn’t answer. And so the African students who fled to Poland are in limbo. Many of them live in a rented two-storey house surrounded by forests on the outskirts of Warsaw.

CHIZOBA JOY OCHEI: It’s a happy house.

SHAPIRO: Chizoba Joy Ochei is officially the Secretary General of the Organization of Nigerians in the Diaspora of Poland. Unofficially, she’s the stay-at-home mom here.

OCHEI: Yeah. Happy people. Well, are you sad?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, mom. Were happy.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-five African students are staying in this house at the moment, many more have been there since the start of the war.

OCHEI: We have someone who arrived about 72 hours ago.

SHAPIRO: Most of the students here are in their late teens. They cram into bunk beds of five or more per room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It’s a makeshift bed. His…

SHAPIRO: So you’ve crammed beds into every possible corner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have to. Yeah, we have to do this.

SHAPIRO: The teenagers crowd around a stove, cooking noodles and beans. During the day, they play soccer in the yard or take online lessons.

EMANUEL: You see all my classes due. We really do our best.

SHAPIRO: Emanuel is 17 years old. We only use students’ first names because their legal status is uncertain.

EMANUEL: I was studying, I wanted to be a doctor. I was still in first grade. I had big plans, big dreams.

SHAPIRO: You’re using the past tense. You say I had big plans, big dreams.

EMANUEL: Well, thanks for an education, I still have big dreams.

SHAPIRO: How long have you been here in this house?

EMANUEL: A month.

SHAPIRO: And you made friends?

EMANUEL: Family.

SHAPIRO: Family?

EMANUEL: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Is this guy part of your family now?

DANIEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The two young men hug each other.

What is your name?

DANIEL: Yeah. I’m Daniel, I’m 17 years old.

SHAPIRO: Are you also a medical student?

DANIEL: Yes, I study medicine in kyiv, where I live.

SHAPIRO: That’s true for most students here.

IMA: When I was little, I said to myself: OK, I want to be a doctor.

SHAPIRO: Ima is 19 years old and she spent four months learning Ukrainian in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, preparing to enter medical school. Then the war broke out before she could start her higher education.

IMA: It’s not easy because if I have to continue my studies, I have to apply as a new student. And I don’t have all my documents, all my high school diplomas. They are all in Ukraine, the original copies.

SHAPIRO: So what does this mean for your projects, for your future?

IMA: Actually, I want to go back to Ukraine. That’s the only recourse right now – to go back to Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Teenagers here at home are doing the kind of things families would do together — braid hair, watch online videos, anything to create a sense of normalcy during this scary, uncertain time. Once a month they throw a party for everyone in the house who has had a birthday. And a student named Shakira shows us this video on her phone from last month’s celebration. She was pursuing higher education in philology, the study of languages, when she fled Ukraine. Now she feels like her life is ticking away as the weeks turn into months.

SHAKIRA: We’re tired of being here. Nothing happens. Our life is – we’re like stuck in a cage.

SHAPIRO: In a refugee crisis, you often find a cross section of society. But in this refuge, no one is average. There are perhaps more people pursuing higher education crammed into this house than any other single-family house in Warsaw. All students here are people with the skills, intelligence and ambition to graduate in a foreign country, in a foreign language. And so, while being adrift would be frustrating for anyone, it irritates Type-A overachievers like Shakira even more.

SHAKIRA: We haven’t committed any crime. We want to continue our studies. We want to pursue our dreams. Once it’s happened, you know, come on, don’t post and then nothing happens. OKAY. What are you doing now? We have been here for about two months. You are stuck in between. You know, you can’t move on. You cannot go back. The law should also favor us. We are not Ukrainians, yes, but we have to understand that we were there when this war happened.

SHAPIRO: War has transformed millions of lives. And years from now, these young people could consider their stay in this house as a key moment when everything changed. But it’s impossible to know if this will be a time when their lives were briefly cut short or a time when their plans for the future were completely derailed. Tomorrow, the scene at Poland’s busiest border crossing, where long queues are now heading into Ukraine.

When you get home, what will be the first thing you will do?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I’m going to tell my – I love you, my husband (laughs).

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