Ukraine’s Refugees of Color Are Facing Racism, Violence

FGrace Kass was Ukrainian. Sure, it could be unwelcoming for a Black woman, and she would never get used to its bitterly cold winters, but it’s where she had lived for the past seven years. The 24-year-old, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had come to Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv as an engineering student and stayed on, forging a successful career as a make-up artist.

She knew its parks and fountains, she learned Russian and some Ukrainian, she made close friends—in a word, she belonged. “This was not just a place where I lived, I was making something of my life,” Kass says, fighting back tears in the train station of the Polish city of Przemysl on the border with Ukraine.

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She had fled Ukraine on Monday night, the fourth day after a Russian-led invasion. Just in time, she made it to the other side of Ukraine. A day later, Kharkiv was bombed by Russian rockets killing dozens. But when Kass reached Lviv in Ukraine’s west near Poland, joining the heaving crowds desperately trying to board trains for safety, she says she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups: those who were white, and those who were not.

“We entered the train last,” Kass says, describing how she and other African women were forced to wait outside as snow was falling, while white women and children were allowed to board before them. Kass believes that her gender was the reason why she wasn’t beaten. TIME heard from several groups of Nepalese and Somalian men that they had been kicked with batons and beat by Ukrainian guards. They later allowed them to walk over on their own.

Later, when Kass’s train stopped for 17 hours at the Polish border, she says Ukrainian train guards gave out bread and sausages to passengers. They passed Kass and her African friend. “By the time it was our turn, they threw us the ends of stale bread,” she says. She felt disappointed after spending over a third her life in Ukraine. “It was a traumatic experience.

A request to comment was not received by the Crisis Media Center, Lviv. Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko denied Ukrainians were being given preferential treatment. “There is no fast track,” she tweeted on Monday, describing the reports of maltreatment as fake news.

More than 660,000 people have left Ukraine for Europe since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N.’s refugee agency stated that fighting-age Ukrainian men were ordered to fight Russia. The U.N. estimates that up to 4 million people could leave if things get worse, creating an unprecedented migrant crisis in Europe. Poland, Ukraine’s largest neighbor after Russia, has received around half of those refugees so far. For the huge outflow of refugees, there have been tents set up at the border with medical supplies and food.

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Although Ukraine is a predominantly white country, it has an eclectic, multiethnic, diverse population that includes Tatars and Jews, Roma and small groups of Black and Asian Ukrainians. It has earned a reputation for being a safe country among mostly African- and Asian countries, which send around 80,000 citizens to Ukraine each year to study. While they enjoyed a comfortable existence, many feel abandoned. TIME interviewed several dozen Poles at the border to Poland, who spoke out against discrimination in a country that once welcomed them openly.

The continued preference for Ukrainians by ordinary Poles and the Polish official response has seen refugees of color move safely over the border. NGO Humanity First Germany said members of its team were attacked by a group of Polish men in front of the Przemysl train station and told to “go back to their country”, Polish liberal news site reported.

In recent years, Poland’s right-wing government has taken a hard line on asylum-seekers trying to enter the EU nation. The Polish army repeatedly pushed asylum seekers back into forested areas in the freezing cold, culminating in an argument with Belarus. Medecins Sans Frontieres reports that more than 20 have been killed.

This is a significant departure from the usual beneficent responses to refugees fleeing Ukraine. “There’s a difference in welcoming Ukrainians not just for the political reasons—you know, to counter Russia being the aggressor here—but also because Ukrainians are largely white, Christian Europeans rather than Middle Eastern and African individuals who are seeking safety,” Daphne Panayotatos, advocate for Europe at Refugees International, told TIME on Feb. 23.

The Polish border village Medyka was where new arrivals from Ukraine set up bonfires and tossed polyester blankets. Others complained of discrimination on the way out. “Ukrainians treated us alright as they saw us as money,” said Ashraf Muslim, a 23-year-old from Morocco, sitting on the curbside with his wife, dentistry student Lina Kuretta. The Pomeranian, their pet Pomeranian, searched for any discarded bits of kielbasaAmongst the garbage. Muslim was finishing his medical degree in the Ukrainian central city of Poltava. Tuition costs there are $10,000 per annum. “The moment we became useless to them, they turned us into bums,” he said. Muslim and Kuretta spent 60 hours in their car at the border pleading with Ukrainian officials—in fluent Russian—to allow them to join the column of vehicles snaking out.

Ahmed Mohamoud Abdullahi (22-year-old medical student) was standing nearby, trying to reach his Somalia parents to inform them he was still alive. His cell phone’s screen was smashed, the victim of the previous night’s skirmish with an armed Ukrainian border guard. The invasion occurred after he arrived in Ukraine from the Ukraine with a difficult visa process.

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Once in Poland, people with Ukrainian passports are able to take advantage of Kyiv’s visa-free access to neighboring E.U. This policy has been in effect since 2017. Since the invasion, Ukrainian citizens have been able to access Polish train services and receive free support from Poland. The Slav neighboring countries share a common language. There is a 300-mile border. Villagers have offered their homes and rooms to strangers. Volunteers also ferry stranded Ukrainians from the border to larger cities.

Normal circumstances require that people who are from Africa or Asia apply for Schengen visas to be allowed to travel to the majority of E.U. countries. Ylva Johansson (European commissioner for domestic affairs) said Monday that borders were open to third-country citizens who are in Ukraine and wish to return to their homeland countries.

Poland’s border guard has saidIt is open to all Ukrainian refugees, no matter their nationality. At the Przemysl train station, Afghans and Africans were forced to wait in line for westbound trains. “Unfortunately, Ukrainians are being given priority,” said Oscar Broz, a 30-year-old Polish volunteer. To allow foreigners to board intercity Polish trains, he said that he had advised them to fake losing their passports. Polish authorities are “aware of some problems” surrounding access to official help for non-Ukrainian citizens, Marcin Sośniak, head of the Equal Treatment Department of the Human Rights Commissioner, said in written responses to questions from TIME.

For Kass, the makeup artist who escaped with a small leather bag without “even a single make-up brush,” the thought of returning to her hometown of Matadi on the DRC’s Atlantic Coast is not an option. The Polish capital Warsaw will be her destination. From there she plans to try and move to France.

Her clients in Kharkiv were mostly African students. It was her favourite part of her job, Lavishly creating brides. “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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