“More than 10 buses came, and we were watching everyone leave. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses and told us to walk.” This is an account from Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian first-year medical student in Lviv, who told CNN she was left stranded at the Ukrainian border town of Shehyni. At that point, she said, she was numb from the cold and hadn’t slept in four days. What she experienced during the Ukrainian crisis mirrors that of many Africans and other people of color as they have tried to flee the war-torn nation.
The Twitter hashtag #AfricansInUkraine reveals the type of maltreatment, segregation and abuse that people of color have been experiencing at the hands of border guards. “As long as you are Black, no one likes you," Ethel Ansaeh Otto, a student from Ghana, told Sacramento’s ABC10.
An international coalition of activists and human rights attorneys has appealed the United Nations to support their call for equity from Ukraine and Poland. The coalition is requesting that state and local governments issue executive orders directing all governmental agencies to treat people of African descent and other racial minorities with humanity — including halting the use of violent means and admitting people of color at an equal rate to white counterparts as the Ukrainian crisis continues. Thus far, not much has changed at the borders.
It’s time to open up the conversation about humanity at our borders
Looking at the refugee situation unfolding in Europe, Kim Crowder isn’t necessarily surprised by the patterns of racism and brutality that people of color are experiencing and reporting. As a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant for global organizations, she told TriplePundit she’s seen similar gatekeeping in organizations — and, of course, we’ve seen similar behavior at our own southern border in the United States. Crowder noted how former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy led to thousands of children being separated from their parents.
"One of the things I always say is that what is happening out in the world is mirrored in the workplace,” Crowder said. “Because the workplace is built on social and societal norms.” In the office, Crowder has seen organizations struggle to understand the racism and discrimination that is often ingrained in their cultures. "If we think about the gatekeeping that happens when you are able to move up into the organization, it mirrors what we're seeing in Ukraine. The people who more resemble white European features come on through. And then you have access at a lower level to the rest of the folks,” she explained.
It’s perfectly normal to be shocked by the atrocities happening to refugees, but we must also understand that this sort of treatment and discrimination has been typical around the world. “And so, we need to start talking about preventative measures,” Crowder added.
Finding accountability for refugees of color during the Ukrainian crisis
In her work, Crowder said she has found that acknowledging the problem and finding accountability are keys to resolving workplace discrimination. She doesn’t imagine an international crisis would be entirely different. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, has acknowledged the racism on Twitter, but accountability remains unclear. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has spoken about the racist treatment people of color have been facing and reassured the public that authorities have told him they will stop discriminating based on skin color and turning people away as the Ukrainian crisis continues. Still, no practical details have been shared.
Crowder noted that besides accountability, these refugees need humanity. Much of the media and many European leaders have made it clear they see white Ukrainian refugees as superior to those from Syria or Africa. Crowder brought up a headline that may seem innocuous on first view: “Thousands of African students who went to Ukraine to train to become doctors and engineers scramble to escape the Russian offensive.” She stressed the subtle danger of attaching utility to refugees of color. The question arises: Do these people deserve safety because they are doctors and engineers, or simply because they are in harm’s way?
"I think this continuous conversation around borders has to be one that we are approaching from a place of humanity,” Crowder said. Humanity seems like a good first response as the Ukrainian crisis persists.
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.