“We come for ourselves”

Tokunbo Koiki (left) is a British-Nigerian social worker and co-founder of Black Women for Black Lives, an organization focused on supporting black refugees. UK-based Janine Anthony (right) works with black foreigners in Ukraine to help black students fleeing war. (Mandatory Credit: Alexander Pemberton, Socios Ltd, courtesy of Janine Anthony)

By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN Business

(CNN) – After some of the hundreds of black students stranded in the besieged city of Sumy, Ukraine, made desperate pleas for help on social media earlier this month, a group of grassroots volunteers entered into action to help them evacuate the war zone safely.

Black Women for Black Lives, a new coalition aimed at helping black residents flee Ukraine following the Russian invasion, amplified student appeals to the international community with the hashtag #SaveSumyStudents. The group launched a Change.org petition, which received thousands of supporters, calling on governments to urgently respond to the crisis. And he distributed more than $55,000 in donations to nearly 500 stranded students for food and necessities.

Within a week or so, the group was able to announce that after tireless advocacy work by its coalition and other volunteers, Red Cross buses had been dispatched to provide safe passage for “all black students stranded in Sumy”.

The three co-founders of Black Women for Black Lives – Tokunbo Koiki, Patricia Daley and Korrine Sky – were “virtual strangers” until a few weeks ago, according to Koiki, but they shared a collective angst about seeing people who look like them face discrimination while attempting to flee Ukraine. The three women connected via Twitter and formed the organization the first weekend after the Russian invasion began.

Since then, the group has raised more than $250,000 from donors around the world to support black refugees, mostly African students, fleeing conflict. He has also partnered with Airbnb to help coordinate temporary housing through the company’s charity arm. And recently, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield praised the group’s work, noting that she is “so proud to see black women leading the way.”

“It all started with a tweet,” Koiki told CNN Business. “I wanted to do something for us, it was through us, and I think that resonated with so many people around the world.”

As members of the global African diaspora sympathized online with the plight of black refugees in Ukraine, they formed digital coalitions like Black Women for Black Lives and Black Foreigners in Ukraine, which provide urgent support to the African community caught in the ongoing Russian invasion.

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded the country last month, according to the latest UN count, and more than 2 million people are believed to be internally displaced. While some neighboring countries have welcomed white Ukrainian refugees with open arms, many black residents of Ukraine have reported episodes of abandonment, racism and even violence as they seek safe passage.

Almost a quarter of the 76,000 foreign students in Ukraine were African in 2020, the BBC reported, citing government data. Advocates say these students were attracted by the country’s relatively inexpensive tuition fees and easy access to European job markets. The Ukrainian government said in 2015 that foreign students pump more than $500 million a year into Ukraine’s economy, nearly all of the country’s public higher education funding, according to a former education official .

As African students caught up in the outbreak of war appealed for help on social media, local volunteer groups emerged online to ensure that some of the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the war were not forgotten.

“We are black people, we come for ourselves,” Janine Anthony, a UK-based sports facilitator and volunteer working with black foreigners in Ukraine, told CNN Business. “We protect our own if no one protects us.”

In a war that has been fought online like no other, these volunteers have turned to a range of technological tools to help them. There are Clubhouse chat rooms and detailed Twitter threads that share updates on the situation on the ground; Telegram chats with resources for people on the front lines; donations of cryptocurrency and NFT art to provide funds to those in need; and online petitions calling for action to help black residents of Ukraine.

“Social media was what the students themselves initially used to tell the world what they were going through and dealing with as they tried to leave Ukraine,” Koiki said. “I knew when we started using social media to amplify our voices and the message we were trying to get across, it would resonate with people.”

Koiki said she hopes the group’s efforts can “show what’s possible” with collective action, even if they start on something as seemingly fleeting as social media. “I am not capable of moving mountains, but if, as a person, I take action and nibble this mountain, and everyone nibbles this mountain as well, collectively we can create an avalanche that will knock this mountain down. . ”

Build an army of aid workers via Clubhouse, Twitter and Telegram

Black Foreigners in Ukraine began with a Twitter Spaces meeting led by Glory “Duwa” Attaochu in Atlanta. The singer and content creator said she first tried to use her Clubhouse room, with 3,000 subscribers, to spread posts from African students she saw online, but then moved on. to the rival Twitter service at the invitation of a listener.

“It was my first time on [Twitter] Spaces, and we literally ran this Space room for 24 hours straight, no sleep,” she added. “And it just exploded.”

Attaochu said his direct messages were immediately filled with people around the world asking what they could do to help. Among them was Ephraim “Phoenix” Osinboyejo, who offered to help translate online maps and coordinate evacuation routes for African students.

In its efforts to help black students in Ukraine, the group has also had to contend with the pitfalls of social media, namely that information shared online is not always accurate. The group is now doing its best to act with wartime urgency while striving to verify and amplify student messages, and eliminate red tape in the dispersal of aid. as quickly as possible.

“That’s my job, always trying to make sure we check the details,” Anthony said. “So no one, none of us in the group, will be accused of peddling false information.”

Black Foreigners in Ukraine now includes 27 volunteers who use every tool at their disposal to provide direct support to those seeking safe passage. They run a handful of Telegram group chats, including one for those who are undocumented and trying to flee the war. The group helps students connect in groups to travel together more safely and coordinate housing. He also offers advice on his website, such as a guide on how to open a crypto wallet to receive donations or charge a smartphone cordlessly. The group has raised some $15,000 in donations, mostly through cryptocurrencies, and shares a public spreadsheet of how those funds are distributed to help people on the ground. Going forward, Anthony says it is crucial to provide legal assistance, visa assistance and academic relocation services to these students and refugees so that their lives are not derailed by the war. Russia in Ukraine.

Black Women for Black Lives also strives to verify donation requests while acting on a life or death emergency. The group reviews applications for financial aid through a Google form on its website, then distributes the funds directly to students and refugees trying to get out of Ukraine. It mainly gives grants of $50 or $100 at a time.

Kolki, the co-founder of Black Women for Black Lives, said she was amazed at the influx of support that poured in from black women and allies around the world, offering all the talent, time and money ‘they could. “You can see the worst of humanity,” Koiki said. “But you can also see the best in humanity, responding to these tragic circumstances.”

In addition to helping those trapped in Ukraine, these efforts help build community. Anthony may have just met the fellow volunteers she works with or the students she guides to safety, but she says, “I don’t think we’re strangers anymore. We are a family and the family sticks together.

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