Black students Ukraine discrimination
University students, including many from Nigeria, fleeing from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, stow their luggage as they get on their transport bus near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border in the village of Tarpa in Hungary on February 28, 2022. Image by: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images via CNN

By Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D., and Dr. Clotaire Ariste, M.D.

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been subject to conscription and are not allowed to leave the country — martial law. Women, children and seniors, unequivocally, are given priority in the effort to reach safety in neighboring countries. 

In a war zone, it is also expected that international students and other foreigners, whether male or female, Black or white, attempt to flee. Black foreigners, however, have faced unequal treatment and discrimination in their journey for safety, according to Human Rights Watch. The violence from Ukrainian agents against Black and Brown boys and men is completely unacceptable. 

When viewing images of many Black foreigners being barred from accessing trains or buses, at first blush, one cannot see anything other than racism on display. But given the martial law targeting strictly Ukrainian men, it’s worthwhile to look at race and sex for a better picture of the situation. 

What is unknown or poorly known?

Among the flood of reporting on the subject, few have done an in-depth analysis to include sex or gender in trying to explain what happened. The Black students and foreigners who were refused access to trains or at the Poland border, were they mostly men or women?  

If they were mostly women, one can argue that would be overtly racist behavior. But if they were mostly men, given the martial law instituted, it would be harder to label the behavior as overtly racist. 

Also, authorities allow about only 30 foreigners after 500 Ukrainians get in, and that 6% would most likely be Black/Indian girls. It’s uncertain that any other country would act differently to secure a safe place for its children and women in a war zone, or not give priority to its nationals. 

Ottawa-led coalition helps Black students escape Ukraine

We don’t have hard statistics to make a point of anti-Black discrimination from Ukraine soldiers or agents. Sex and gender data about international students in general are scant, let alone for Black international students. But some anecdotal evidence or proxy can help give us an idea, though it won’t be as reliable as quantitative or actual data. 

Ukraine hosted more than 16,000 African students.  Typically, more than half of all international students are male. For example, 53% in 2019 for Canada. It is plausible that the male percentage is higher for Black international students everywhere. 

In Ottawa, an offshoot of the local African Canadian Association spearheaded a “Global Black Coalition” to support international Black students fleeing Ukraine. Their praiseworthy endeavor has successfully crowdfunded support to help pay relocation costs, such as hotel fees, food and warm clothing. 

To date, more than 1,200 students have been able to find safety through this Coalition. Based on our  student population guesstimate, the majority of these students are male.  

While racial discrimination cannot be completely dismissed in this matter, sex and gender discrimination bears a heavier weight in the balance. 

Russia is far from better than the west on racism  

Xenophobia, antisemitism and racism are common in present-day Russia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that up to 15% of the Russian population are racist to the point of having a stronger tendency and readiness for aggression. Another 30% sympathize with radical xenophobes. BBC also reported several anecdotal evidence of racism in Russia.

With that background, it was interesting to see that at a United Nations General Assembly meeting earlier this month, African countries formed nearly one-third of the 24 countries opposing a resolution to condemn Russia’s actions. They and some other Black people tend to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for a variety of reasons. These include anti-imperialism and a stand against discrimination Black foreigners faced while trying to flee Ukraine.

We would invite members of the Black community who side with Russia because of the mistreatment of Black people to think twice. At the very least, it may be much wiser to adopt a neutral stance.  

Contributor Dr. Clotaire Ariste, M.D., is an Internal Medicine Specialist based in Long Island, New York.

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Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Université Laval in Québec. He is affiliated with the Department of Operations and Decision Systems. He writes opinion pieces about matters of interest to the community in Canada and the U.S. He is based in the Ottawa area.

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