‘Vladimir Putin is a very selfish man,’ says a medical student on fleeing Ukraine

Many African students study in Ukraine, and their flight from the country has been particularly traumatic

in Przemysl Refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued to pour across the borders of central Europe for a fifth day on Tuesday, bringing their total so far to more than 660,000, according to the United Nations.

An estimated 400,000, by far the single largest contingent, have come to Poland, whose foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, said his country expects to receive about one million people.

The refugees arrive in Przemysl station from Lviv, western Ukraine. Those who cannot board trains travel by bus, car and on foot to the Medyka crossing, 13.5 km from Przemysl, and are bused into the city, where they populate the area around the train station.

Baggage and bedding are piled up against the station walls while their refugee owners wander nearby streets. They charge telephones and use the WiFi in cafes to contact friends and family.

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Unesco said there were 13,000 African students in Ukraine in 2019 – roughly 20 per cent of the country's foreign students are African. Their flight from Ukraine has been particularly traumatic, and many can be found milling around Przemysl train station.

Four African women, one Namibian, the other three from Cameroon, sat and stood against a wall outside my hotel with their baggage. All are university students aged between 22 and 27. They fled the central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi last Friday.

Though the women saw no fighting and heard no explosions they were frightened by the noise of warplanes overhead, Ukrainian army tanks across the city, police searching suspected Russian agents and the mass exodus of residents.

The authorities told them to turn lights off at 7pm, and warned that the city would be bombed. Trains to Lviv were packed so they went to the bus station where a bomb scare sent them to an underground shelter. After a bus ride to Znamenka, they endured a 16-hour train ride to Lviv.

There were terrible scenes in the Znamenka train station. "Fights broke out," says Linda Joyce, a 22-year-old business student from Cameroon. "They pushed us and shouted, 'Get out! Get out!' We lost a lot of our baggage."

Joyce’s friend Lionnelle Efouba, a 27-year-old economics student, breaks down in tears several times during our conversation. Her academic records were in the lost baggage, and she fears years of work have been wasted.

Sell their house

"Vladimir Putin is a very selfish man," says Alma Iimpinge (22), from Namibia. She was in her fourth year of medical school at Kropynvnystyi, and says Putin has crushed her and her parents' dream of her becoming a doctor. Her father, a school principal, sold his car to pay her €3,500 annual university fees, and her parents were planning to sell their house too.

Iimpinge never had the heart to tell her father the truth about her life in Ukraine before the war. “Our university was originally in Donetsk. It was reputedly the best medical school in the country. Putin destroyed that too, in the 2014-15 war.

My dad found the university on the internet and it all looked good. But when I came to Ukraine it was to a different city, to a different school, and the dormitory was a pig sty. The water came out of the taps brown and gave me a skin condition. We had to buy drinking water. The whole experience was bad from the beginning.”

A Ukrainian source told me earlier that corruption in his country extended even to university professors.

Iimpinge and her friends have not slept in a bed or been able to shower for five days. Poland has waived visa and Covid vaccine requirements for refugees. Contrary to press reports of rough treatment by Polish security forces, the refugees I spoke to told me they were treated better by the Poles than by the Ukrainians.

"The Polish border police were quite easy-going," said Peter Ighato (21), from Nigeria. "You could see it in their facial expressions, the way they attend to issues. Maybe they are more developed, more open to people of different races."

Exhaustion

Despite the Polish reputation for tolerance and hospitality, police intervened twice on Tuesday night when small groups of young Polish skinheads chased refugees from Africa and Asia outside the train station.

Ighato was a third-year medical student at Vinnytsia, central Ukraine, and arrived in Przemysl on Tuesday in a state of exhaustion after queueing for four days at the border. Like the African women from Kropyvnytskyi, he confirmed reports of separate queues for Africans and Europeans on the Ukrainian side of the border. While they waited refugees built bonfires to warm themselves in sub-zero temperatures.

The Organisation of African Unity and the Nigerian and South African governments have complained of what they say is racist treatment of African student refugees. “There are racists in every country, and there are good people as well,” Ighato said. “I had racist moments in Ukraine before the war too. At the same time I met kind people.”

The African students were not able to board trains in Lviv, so they took buses which dropped them off many kilometres from the frontier and they then followed the endless queue of cars to the border. Along the way Ukrainian volunteers gave them food, water and blankets.

At least three Irish students are stuck in Sumy, east Ukraine, 80km from the Russian border, with a group of more than 500 international students. They have hidden in bunkers from explosions and street fighting.

At least two of the students are Nigerian-Irish. One qualified as a nurse in Ireland. Her sister has appealed to the Irish Government for help. "They haven't been able to safely leave for the border as there are no trains or buses," the sister told The Irish Times through a messaging app from Dublin.

- Additional reporting: Sally Hayden