Fleeing war in Ukraine, African students scramble to study in Europe | Way of life

NAIROBI – Time is running out and Toluwalase Kolapo-Bello knows it.

For the past six weeks, the 21-year-old Nigerian medical student has fled Russian airstrikes in Ukraine and faced extortion from taxi drivers and racism from train passengers during his harrowing escape to neighboring Hungary.

Still reeling from her ordeal and dependent on donations, she has just weeks to find a medical school where she can finish the last two years of her degree and fulfill her dream of becoming a pediatrician – or risk being kicked out. .

“I have only been given permission to stay in Hungary until June 3,” Kolapo-Bello said via WhatsApp from a charity-funded Airbnb rental apartment in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

“Going back to Nigeria is not an option. If I come back, there is no place to complete my studies – the education system is not working in my country. I need help finding a place in Europe where I can complete my medical studies.”

After suffering the Russian bombardments and shocking racism where they were prevented from escaping via buses, trains and border crossings, African students are now denied opportunities to resume their studies, according to charities.

Largely forgotten among 4.7 million refugees who fled Ukraine, charities estimate that up to 10,000 African students from countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and Mali could still be in the European Union – desperate to complete their studies.

While the EU allows Ukrainians to stay for up to three years – with a slew of universities offering scholarships – non-Ukrainians only have a maximum of three months to secure a university place, so than expensive tuition.

Black activists, who have rallied around the world in support of Africans on the run, say the EU discriminates against non-Ukrainians, which could put young people’s lives at risk if they are forced into hiding in as irregular migrants.

“If these students do not have the same protections as Ukrainian students and support to resume their studies, they risk becoming undocumented,” said Karanja Gacuca, a member of #BlackForeignersInUkraine based in Washington.

“This will make them even more vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation by human traffickers. We have already had cases of students who have been attacked by neo-Nazis; others have just disappeared.”

“They can’t just go home”

Ukraine has long been popular with international students looking for a cheaper alternative to studying in Western Europe, especially for courses such as medicine and dentistry.

Government the data show more than 76,500 students from 155 countries were enrolled in Ukrainian universities in 2020.

Many African students are the first members of their families to attend university, with high hopes of using their education to better their communities.

“Many of these students come from poor families who have invested heavily in sending them abroad to study…they can’t just go home,” said Chibuzor Onwugbonu of the Nigerians in Diaspora, or NIDO, organization. that supports students. .

“They must have the opportunity to complete their studies in European institutions and this should include help with their tuition fees and living expenses. If they are not, I fear that people will go underground, which will make them more vulnerable.”

NIDO and other advocacy groups have already received reports of Africans being detained and threatened with deportation from Poland and Estonia, she added.

Nigerian Desmond Muokwudo, 30, had been studying in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, for just three months before the Russian invasion. He spent days traveling to Germany where he is allowed to stay until May 23.

Taking refuge in a charity-funded apartment with two other Nigerian students, Muokwudo urgently applies to universities.

“I was a pipeline welder and saved all my earnings to study international relations in Ukraine,” Muokwudo said via WhatsApp from Berlin, adding that he paid 3.8 million naira ($9,000) for the his tuition fees.

“There is nothing in my house now. The education system sucks there. All I want is to have the chance to go to school.”

Muokwudo and other Africans who fled Ukraine said higher education institutions back home were grossly underfunded and the quality poor compared to other countries.

In Nigeria, for example, demand for university places exceeds capacity. Between 2010 and 2015, only one in four applicants to higher education institutions was admitted, according to a report citing Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics.

To make matters worse, universities across the country have been plagued by lengthy strikes by professors over pay and funding issues – the latest strike beginning on February 14 – which can delay graduation by years. student diploma.

Students who returned home to Nigeria and South Africa said some Ukrainian universities were offering online courses, but it was not feasible.

“It’s impossible to study online because we have so many power cuts in Lagos and data is very expensive. I don’t even have a computer,” said medical student Aisha Ojikutu, 23, by WhatsApp from the commercial capital of Nigeria.

“I chose to be sent home to Nigeria, but I was in a very confused state and now I feel like I made a big mistake,” said Ojikutu, who was studying in Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine.

The Nigerian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

From students to refugees

A survey of 180 students by the Africans in Ukraine Education Fund, or AIUEF – Which one is Fund raising for students to continue their studies – found that around 70% wanted to transfer to another university.

But the EU’s temporary protection policy only allows non-Ukrainians to stay between a week and three months, depending on the country. Foreign students are expected to return home unless it is dangerous for them.

“Temporary protection… does not cover access to university, so it is up to each country to set the rules and conditions for this,” said an EU official who requested anonymity. because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In the EU, tuition fees and living expenses cost an average of $27,500 per year, up to five times more than in Ukraine, according to AIUEF.

Martin Kimani, Kenya’s representative to the United Nations, called for greater support for stranded young Africans who have been transformed by war from “hopeful students into fearful refugees”.

“It seems quite feasible that those who have been students in Ukrainian institutions could receive offers to continue their studies in other countries,” Kimani said. Told a UN briefing.

Some universities have established scholarships for non-Ukrainians, but African students said demand for places was very high – and not all courses were transferable.

“I apply wherever I can, but fees are an issue,” Kolapo-Bello said. “I just hope I can find a place soon, where all the years I spent studying to be a doctor will have been wasted.”

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