It’s 10am at Hauptbahnhof. Sunshine leaks through the glass panels that flank the train station. Volunteers in neon jackets dot the platforms. Some hold shreds of cardboard with a welcome message for people of colour scribbled across them. Two trains arrive in quick succession bearing hundreds of refugees. Ukrainian women and children are shuttled downstairs, lugging heavy suitcases behind them. Non-Ukrainian students clamber down onto the platform, eyes wide with confusion.
Tens of thousands of African, Asian and Middle-Eastern refugees who studied in Ukraine have fled the country. Government data quoted by the BBC puts the figure at 76,000. The situation at the Ukrainian-Polish Medyka border two weeks ago was desperate, with many third-country nationals subject to racism and aggression by border guards. “All the foreigners have left Kharkiv,” says Talib, a Sudanese aerospace engineering student. Those still arriving at Hauptbahnhof this week don’t have anywhere else to go. Ukraine was their home.
Talib cannot return to Sudan as he fears persecution. Nigerian student Hannah has financial problems: she was in her final year studying international economics in Dnipro. “As a student in Ukraine I had to work part-time to cover my fees. How would my parents cope with my return?” she asks. “Life may not have been luxurious, but I’d say Ukraine gave us the opportunity to be educated.” She’s angry with Putin: “I am not a Ukrainian, but I’m affected too. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
The Instagram account ‘Black People in Ukraine’ documents the plight of Black people fleeing the country. One post quotes a stranded Kherson student describing the lack of food or drinking water, adding that this “is not our war”. Videos appear to show a Congolese student being abused and held down by Ukrainian guards and Black students being denied entry onto trains.
Between the lines
About 150 international students remain stranded in the port city of Kherson, currently choked by Russia’s stranglehold. A travel ban prevents them from leaving. Reports have emerged that food and medication are scarce. The Nigerian embassy is waiting for a green corridor to evacuate them.
British second-year medical student Korrine Sky, studying in Dnipro, has set up a support group for African students stranded in Ukraine. She has helped thousands of students leave the war zones. For many students, returning to their country of origin is not an option, Korrine says, for reasons including war, poverty or a general lack of democratic structures. She was told those with dual nationality are not covered under refugee status because they are not Ukrainian, and “have the option of returning to their country”.
Returning is also problematic for students who came to Ukraine intending to support families back home. Having uprooted their lives once, they feel that moving back would be a return to square one. Korrine has applied to finish her medical studies back in the UK, and was told by the university that they required transcripts, references and a resit of the entrance exam: it’s demotivating, she says, for someone who wants to learn and work.
After their difficult journey, some of the non-white refugees say they struggled to find accommodation after their arrival in Berlin, with offers at the train station primarily targeting Ukrainian women and children. One architecture student from Morocco, who did not want to be named, said he could not find anything for him and his three male friends, all aged about 20, who wanted to stay together.
Each One Teach One (EOTO) is an association that seeks to “promote the interests of Black, African and Afro-diasporic people in Germany”. Since the war broke out, hundreds of volunteers have signed up for unpaid shifts, actively seeking out non-white refugees arriving from Ukraine at Hauptbahnhof. Adorned in neon yellow and orange high-vis vests, they guide the refugees to ticket counters which issue transportation tickets to other cities or countries, free of charge – if they have their Ukrainian ID card or residency permit – courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.
BIPOC refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine don’t have the same rights as their white Ukrainian counterparts.
Most refugees arriving in Berlin know where they want to go. Those who don’t have the option of being driven to the EOTO shelter in Wedding. To access accommodation, refugees need to be in possession of a negative Covid test. At the shelter, volunteers match refugees with residents who have offered up space in their homes. Many residents are only able to shelter refugees for a few days. But refugees are generally looking for longer term placement.
Rachel has been volunteering for the last three weeks. She points out that the BIPOC refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine don’t have the same rights as their white Ukrainian counterparts.
“I think it’s very obvious that racist structures don’t disappear when there’s a war. There will always be people who are more vulnerable and need more help and more support. It’s awful what’s happening, but it’s not surprising,” she says.
Fleeing the war has been a long and arduous journey. It is not yet over for many refugees. A lot of students have been forced to abandon their studies just months away from graduation. They are unsure if they’ll need to restart degrees or finish them long-distance. Mustafa, a medical student, says that although he graduated a few months ago, his certificate has been left in Ukraine, forgotten in a moment of frenzied packing. “I do not have the certificate, just a photo of it on my phone,” he says.
Obiri Mokini has been working with African refugees for years, focusing now on volunteering with students who were forced to flee Ukraine after the war broke out. He says the students are not choosing to leave, that they were forced to. He urges the government not to separate refugees with unclear status from Ukrainian national refugees or those with permanent residency, because the “situation that brought them here, forced them to leave and to break-off their studies. It’s not their war.”
Those who fail to register will not have access to governmental support. Obiri worries that if they go underground, they will face difficulties with legal status later. Renting flats and finding work is extremely tricky and precarious for migrants who live in Germany illegally.
Despite the ongoing horrors, it is clear that a lot of good is happening in Europe. Many of the BIPOC refugees who did not arrive via the notorious Medyka border crossing say they have been treated well. Some of the students at the Wedding shelter are clearly grateful to the German government and the volunteers.
“The accommodation and hospitality of the people in Romania was amazing – the way they treated you, they literally gave you anything you needed,” Talib says. “They even asked some people if they needed money. It was not just in Romania, it was the same in Budapest, Lviv and Vienna, even here. When we reached Berlin, we received the same hospitality,” he continues.
Mustafa says, “I am very thankful to the German people, for the hospitality. They hosted us [well].” A smile flickers across his face before he and a friend stroll off down the road, curious to find out what Berlin has to offer.