Ukrainian refugees of color face racism and violence

For Grace Kass, Ukraine was home. Sure, it might be unwelcoming to a black woman, and she would never get used to its bitterly cold winters, but it’s where she’s lived for seven years. The 24-year-old, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had come to Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, as an engineering student and stayed there, forging a successful career as a makeup artist .

She knew her parks and fountains, she learned Russian and a little Ukrainian, she made close friends, in a word, she was in her place. “It wasn’t just a place where I lived, I was doing something with my life,” Kass says, fighting back tears at the train station in the Polish town of Przemysl, on the border with Ukraine.

Read more: Here’s what you can do to help people in Ukraine right now

It was Monday evening and she had fled Ukraine on the night of February 27, the fourth day of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. She got away just in time: a day after leaving Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, the city was bombarded by Russian rockets that killed dozens of civilians. But when Kass reached Lviv in western Ukraine near Poland, joining crowds desperate to board trains to safety, she says she was met with hostility from the military Ukrainian, which divided people into two groups: those who were white and those who were not.

“We got on the train last,” Kass says, describing how she and other African women were made to wait outside as the snow fell, while white women and children were allowed to board. before them. She believes her gender is the only reason she was spared being beaten. Groups of Nepali, Indian and Somali men described to TIME how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who then reluctantly allowed them to walk across.

Later, when Kass’ train stopped for 17 hours at the Polish border, she said Ukrainian guards handed out bread and sausages to passengers. But they went through Kass and his African friends. “When it was our turn, they threw the bits of stale bread at us,” she said. After spending more than a third of her life in Ukraine, she felt disappointed. “It was a traumatic experience.

Lviv’s Crisis Media Center did not respond to a request for comment. ukrainian deputy Lesia Vasylenko denied that Ukrainians received preferential treatment. “There is no fast track,” she tweeted on Monday, describing reports of abuse as fake news.

More than 660,000 people have left Ukraine for Europe since the Russian invasion began on February 24, according to the UN refugee agency. (Ukrainians of fighting age have been ordered to stay and fight Russia.) Up to 4 million more could flee if the situation deteriorates further, the UN says, creating an unprecedented migration crisis in Europe since World War II. Poland, Ukraine’s largest neighbor after Russia, has so far taken in around half of those refugees. Tents with food and doctors have sprung up along the border to cope with the mass exodus of people.

Read more: Despite decades of tension, Romanians welcome Ukrainian refugees

Although a predominantly white country, Ukraine has a diverse and multi-ethnic population, including Tatars, Jews and Roma, as well as small communities of black and Asian Ukrainians. Over the past few decades, the country has gained a good reputation among mainly African and Asian nations that send some 80,000 of their citizens there to study. And while Ukraine offered them a relatively comfortable life, many now feel betrayed. TIME spoke to several dozen people on the border with Poland who described discrimination by the country that once welcomed them with open arms.

Now safe across the border, refugees of color were also appalled at the continued preferential treatment given to Ukrainians in the official Polish response and from ordinary Poles. Tuesday evening, the NGO Humanity First Germany said members of his team were attacked by a group of Polish men outside Przemysl train station and ordered to “go back to their country”, the liberal Polish news site reported.

In recent years, Poland’s right-wing government has taken a hard line on asylum seekers trying to enter the European nation. This culminated in a confrontation with neighboring Belarus over the winter, when the Polish army continually pushed asylum seekers back into a forested area in freezing temperatures. More than 20 people have died, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

The benevolent response to fleeing Ukrainian citizens represents a marked departure. “There is a difference in welcoming Ukrainians, not only for political reasons – you know, to counter Russia being the aggressor here – but also because Ukrainians are largely white Christian Europeans rather than individuals from the Middle East and Africa seeking safety,” Daphne Panayotatos, Europe advocate at Refugees International, told TIME on February 23.

In the Polish border village of Medyka, where recent arrivals from Ukraine threw polyester blankets over bonfires to keep warm in the freezing cold, others reported border discrimination as they exited. “The Ukrainians treated us well because they considered us money,” said Ashraf Muslim, a 23-year-old Moroccan, sitting on the sidewalk with his wife, dental student Lina Kuretta. Their pet Pomeranian was looking for pieces of kielbasa among the trash cans. Muslim was in the final year of his medical degree in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, where tuition costs $10,000 a year. “As soon as we became useless to them, they turned us into tramps,” he said. Muslim and Kuretta spent 60 hours in their car at the border pleading with Ukrainian authorities – in fluent Russian – to allow them to join the moving column of vehicles.

Nearby stood 22-year-old medical student Ahmed Mohamoud Abdullahi, who was trying unsuccessfully to call his parents in Somalia to let them know he was alive. His mobile phone screen was smashed, a victim of the previous night’s skirmish with an armed Ukrainian border guard. He had arrived in Ukraine in December after an arduous visa procedure and was just beginning to get to grips with the language when the invasion began.

Read more: “It is our duty to help.” Eastern Europe opens its doors and its hearts to people fleeing Ukraine

Once in Poland, people with Ukrainian passports can take advantage of Kyiv’s visa-free access to neighboring EU countries, a policy in place since 2017. Now Poland’s support since the invasion means that Ukrainian nationals have free access to Polish trains, and certain medical services. Solidarity between Slavic neighbors, who share a similar language and a border that stretches over 300 miles, has extended to villagers lending their rooms and homes to complete strangers, and volunteers ferrying Ukrainians stranded between border towns and major cities. .

Under normal circumstances, people from African and Asian countries must apply for a Schengen visa to enter most EU countries, but EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Monday that the borders were open to foreigners. persons from third countries who were in Ukraine. , and wish to travel to their country of origin.

Polish border guard said it welcomes all refugees from Ukraine, whatever their nationality. But at Przemysl station, Africans and Afghans were forced back into queues for westbound trains. “Unfortunately, Ukrainians have priority,” said Oscar Broz, a 30-year-old volunteer from Poland. He said he advised foreign citizens to pretend to have lost their passports to be allowed to board Polish intercity trains. Polish authorities are “aware of some problems” regarding access to official assistance for non-Ukrainian citizens, said Marcin Sośniak, head of the equal treatment department of the human rights commissioner, in written responses to questions from TIME.

For Kass, the makeup artist who escaped with a small leather bag without “even a single makeup brush”, the idea of ​​returning to her hometown of Matadi on the DRC’s Atlantic coast is not an option . She will go to the Polish capital, Warsaw, and from there try to settle in a French-speaking country in Europe.

In Kharkiv, his clients were mostly African students. Lavishly makeup women for weddings was his favorite part of the job. “I wonder where they are now,” she said. “I hope they are still happy. I hope they are out.

—With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera/New York

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