After suffering racism while fleeing the war in Ukraine, many Africans say they are now experiencing further discrimination in Germany.
“It is a very, very difficult situation but for my friend,” according to Chizzy, a 23 year-old Nigerian who not not long ago was studying economics in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He spoke to DW on May 18 — very frustrated and not wanting us to use his real name for saftey reasons.
Chizzy’s new friend is a German woman he met on the streets of Berlin when he was homeless after fleeing Ukraine following Russia’s bombing of his university in March. She took him in to help him.
“She’s a mother to me; she cares about me and harbors me. I don’t know how to thank her enough,” he told DW a week later, this time with a face full of smiles.
Equal in suffering, unequal in pain
No fewer than 80,000 students who are enrolled in Ukrainian universities are from the Global South and many of those are from African countries.
They had a life in Ukraine until February 24 when Russia invaded and hundreds of thousands of people — Ukrainians and foreigners — fled to other countries for safety.
Though everyone who fled the war suffered equally, unequal treatments were doled out at border crossings.
Some said that Ukrainian border guards prioritized Ukrainians and sent others, such as people from African countries, to the back of the queues, some of which stretched for kilometers.
Others reported discrimination in the countries to which they fled.
One of these countries is Germany.
Good times never last
Life in Ukraine was okay for Chizzy before the war. He lived in university accommodations and had integrated well — until the early hours of February 24 when he and his fellow students were woken by the unmistakable sound of bombs exploding.
“Before we could come down from our rooms, we discovered many people had left and others were finding a way to enter bunkers to be safe,” Chizzy remembered.
“That’s how we joined them and thought that in a week’s time, everything will calm down.”
But nothing changed for the better.
Rather, Chizzy recalled a chilling incident that happened when he went to collect a document from his university authority.
“In my school, I witnessed a live bomb explosion,” he told DW.
“When the bomb exploded, the school management took some of us that were at the office to the underground bunkers for us to be safe. After that day, I left Ukraine. I needed to find my way before this people will block the entrance I’m supposed to follow to leave.”
Chizzy spent five very difficult days fleeing Ukraine, traveling through Slovakia and to Germany. Border authorities made it difficult for foreigners to leave the country.
“Because of the way we struggled and told them we can’t stay; nobody knows what will happen because it’s not only government apartment that Russians are attacking, they are also attacking private buildings, nobody knows the next it may be,” Chizzy explained.
“So, after some consideration, they now allowed us to pass.”
The only way a traveler can cross the Slovakia border seamlessly and reasonably stress-free is on board a nonstop train.
But the Ukrainians on the train noticed that Chizzy and other students — fleeing the war just like them — were not Ukrainians.
When the train arrived at the Slovakian border, Chizzy and the non-Ukrainian students were told that it was the final destination and the train was not going any further.
“When we came down, they continued the journey which is the easiest way to pass the border without any disturbance. If you come down, you will spend some days before the immigration can listen to you before you can pass,” he told DW.
Chizzy and many others students stayed at the Slovakian train station for three days eating only biscuits and water because they had no money to buy food.
“We discuss for so long; before we know it, it would be another day. If you are tired, you sleep on top of your bag,” he told DW.
No one had taken a shower or bath during the three days spent at the train station.
The Slovakian immigration authorities then allowed them to begin an 8-hour journey to Hungary where they spent another night at a train station before leaving for Germany the next day.
“I don’t have anybody here in Germany or any family members. I just came to Germany so that the German government will help me to be safe and for me to continue my education here,” Chizzy told DW.
But the reality was the opposite of that he had expected.
He and others who fled Ukraine reported to a Berlin reception center for people seeking protection. They were kept in a hall for a month. Only Ukrainians were selected for onward sorting and integration.
“We stayed like a month in that camp. No communication, nothing. No further registration. So, some of us started complaining that we don’t know our fate here; nobody to attend to us, just that we were being given food to eat. Once it’s time to eat, you go and take your food. But other process, nobody was attending to us,” Chizzy said.
After a month, an announcement was made strictly for Ukrainians: They were placed in a bus and transferred to other cities.
Chizzy and other non-Ukrainians were later moved to Munich where he spent a month doing nothing.
“After some weeks after registering in the community, they brought us a letter that we should go back to our countries that we are not Ukrainians,” he said. “We contacted the German family we were living with, so they went through the letter and said it is not proper; that it is a threat letter, that we shouldn’t panic about the letter.”
But more such letters arrived.
“They brought us another letter that [there would be] no more social benefits [because] we are not Ukrainians,” Chizzy told DW, sounding really upset.
“The people I was staying with were tired of it — they got angry that the government is very stressful and it’s very tough for them. So, they advised me that if I can go to other states that their government is different. That is why I left Munich to Berlin.”
Chizzy told DW there were never any benefits because the people who assisted him in Munich were a German family who provided him with a room and fed him.
Groups of refugees, along with representatives from Berlin’s refugee council and other NGOs held a protest on May 17 in the German capital in front of the Bundesrat, demanding equal rights for third-country nationals fleeing Ukraine, as well as other refugees.
The refugee council’s website states that fleeing Ukrainians receive quick and unbureaucratic access to residence permits, work permits and social benefits in Germany.
But many third-country nationals without Ukrainian citizenship — who may have lived for years in Ukraine — are excluded from the right to temporary protection as war displaced persons.
The protesters said they want equal treatment for everybody fleeing Ukraine, including those who do not hold Ukrainian citizenship.
Claims of racism
“This protest was to raise again awareness for these issues. In this particular struggle, you can see again the discrimination and different treatments of different refugees depending on passport,” Julianne Gebel, co-founder of NGO Internationals from Ukraine and Friends, told DW.
“This war has shown that the treatment of refugees can be different and be better than what they have faced in the recent years in Germany,” Gebel continued.
“Easy access to work, to schooling, to housing, universities and all of that is certainly possible for Ukrainian citizens and this is the kind of treatment that refugees should always receive but unfortunately, not all of them are,” Gebel said
“So, we were demanding that these treatments [are] expanded to other refugees from other backgrounds, other countries as well.”
Tobore Ovuorie — a multiple award-winning investigative journalist and storyteller — is the 2021 Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award recipient.
Edited by Keith Walker