British-Zimbabwean student Korrine Sky was studying in the eastern city of Dnipro when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. When the attacks began, people started feeling concerned about the number of Blacks and African students trapped in Ukraine.
Apart from many Africans and Black people traveling to Ukraine to work, there are those who go there to study thanks to the European country’s affordable tuition fees and its ties with Africa. In the early days of the conflict, Black students and families trapped in Ukraine said that they were being blocked from boarding trains or crossing borders to neighboring countries.
Many of them in Ukraine spoke on Twitter about their plight while creating group chats on Telegram and Whatsapp where they shared videos that appear to show Africans and Blacks being blocked from fleeing to safety. Ukrainian border officials were reportedly helping their fellow citizens cross over to safety first before foreigners. Sky was among hundreds of Black people who were reportedly being blocked from leaving war-torn Ukraine because of the color of their skin.
A year ago, Sky, who wants to be a doctor, had moved from Britain to Ukraine to study medicine. She opted to study in Ukraine because it was “way more affordable” to study there, she told Good Morning Britain. Sky and others heard reports that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, but they were told that those were fake news stories and that there was no war happening. Soon, the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was under bombardment. That was when Sky and others in Dnipro realized that they needed to leave because the war had started.
“Kharkiv is very close to Dnipro so we all knew that if Kharkiv was bombed Dnipro would be next,” Sky shared with Marie Claire magazine. As she made plans to leave with her partner, she observed that the large African community in Ukraine would not be given any information. “So we needed to start thinking about what we could do as a community to mobilise our way out of Ukraine,” she said.
“I created a Twitter thread which had resources that could help others in my situation and a census so that if you were an African or foreigner in Ukraine you could fill out and if anything happened there was a record of them being in Ukraine and an emergency contact number so your embassy could help,” Sky explained.
“The next day sirens started going off and they imposed a 9pm curfew. There were military everywhere, it looked like some sort of judgement day apocalypse movie,” she recalled.
The British-Zimbabwean woman was supposed to get married in a few days but she left everything except her wedding dress to flee the scene with her partner. Sky and others decided to drive to Lviv on the Polish border. It’s usually a nine-hour drive but this time it took them 24 hours as there was so much traffic and they kept getting stopped at military checkpoints where their documents and car were searched before finally reaching Lviv.
“There were vigilantes along the route, when we stopped to stretch our legs a man came up to us saying if you stop here I’m going to shoot you. We are civilians, we hadn’t done anything wrong,” Sky said.
On her journey from Dnipro to Lviv, she tried to organize financial aid for others in her situation while documenting her difficult journey to escape via social media. A 40-year-old Black social worker based in London known as Tokunbo Koiki got to know via Twitter the story of Sky. Koiki reached out to Sky via social media and the two, alongside a 29-year-old Black barrister in London, started a campaign to help other Black students leave Ukraine amid the chaos. The three Black women were able to raise about $60,000, which they used to check 12 people into hostels at the border.
But the queues to get into Poland were over 70 hours long so Sky and others decided to try to get into the Romanian border instead.
“At the same time I had started my period, I had no change of clothes and no way of showering. We had to ration how much we drank and think if I drink I’ll need to pee in a bush in a certain amount of time. It was horrific, it was like the kind of stuff you see in movies. We ended up spending two days in that queue, while it was raining and snowing, cooped up in this tiny little car,” she recalled.
When Sky and her group finally got to the front, that was when the racism started, she said. “This man saw us and knocked on the door and told us to get out of the queue,” she recounted. “The soldier told us to leave the queue to go stand in the pedestrian queue instead. I asked another soldier to assist me and he lunged at me, I was so scared and shaking. So I got back into the car and reported this to the British embassy.”
The British embassy was unable to help. At this moment, Sky realized that the pedestrian queue had only people of color; Black and Asian people. “In retrospect I think this man was telling us that the car queue was for white Ukrainians and the pedestrian queue was for foreigners, in other words people of colour. Ukrainian people were the only ones allowed to go through quickly, so we ended up spending another 10 hours waiting in the pedestrian queue.”
When Sky and her group finally got through the passport control checkpoint, she found what she described as “a completely different atmosphere”. Amid loads of volunteers providing aid, Romanian authorities took them to a hotel that had been turned into a refugee camp, with hundreds of mattresses on the floor where they could lay their heads.
A few days later, Sky and her group got a flight to Luton airport. But when they got there, an official at the border control had doubts that Sky and her group were from Ukraine.
“He kept asking if I was really British, despite the fact he had my British passport in front of him. He said my husband shouldn’t have been allowed into the country because he didn’t have a visa.”
Sky told the official that they had been given special dispensation because they hadn’t been able to pick up her partner’s visa from Kyiv. Despite asking the official to check as everything was on their records, the official did not budge.
“We got moved into a detention room, where I was able to contact my mum who contacted my MP to tell them what was happening. They called border force straight away and told them to start being more humane and treat us some dignity, we hadn’t done anything wrong and they were able to confirm that everything we were telling them was true,” Sky said.
The British-Zimbabwean medical student is back home in Britain now, trying to raise awareness for people who are still stuck in Ukraine while raising money for her organization Black Women for Black Lives to help other Black people flee Ukraine safely. Because of her campaign, she gets death threats on social media, she said.
Everything that has happened so far has left her in shock, as she never associated Ukraine with racism, she said.
“I always assumed that you know…Ukrainian people, they are very quiet. It’s a different kind of culture in Ukraine so I never attributed it to racism. I just thought that it’s a different culture. And also there is a language barrier as majority of people, they speak Ukrainian or Russian so I just assumed that, you know, they are not really going to speak to foreigners because there is that language barrier.”