Tuesday, March 21

The double hardship of foreign refugees to leave Ukraine: “All the love I had for this country has disappeared”

It is barely dawn in Medyka, on the southeastern border between Poland and Ukraine, when it begins to snow. Next to the border crossing, waiting for a bus to take them to Przemysl, where the train station is, the dozens of people huddled next to the road no longer know what to do to shake off the cold. They could go to the supermarket 50 meters away, but they would risk losing their seat on the bus. So they hold on, still shivering. In this group of heterogeneous origin, from Africa to Central Asia, there are migrant students and workers, but hardly any Ukrainians. People who have lived on the fringes of political tensions until the war broke out on them. And those who escape the conflict are finding it especially painful.

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The group has been forming over the hours, after a drip from the funnel that the border crossing has become. The last room before the fenced road to Poland is packed with people. As they leave, they advance, crestfallen. A young woman tries to return, because she has left her suitcases behind. “She Walks, you can’t go back, now the luggage is not important,” the soldier with whom she tries to reason tells her, that she moves between understanding and annoyance.

A 25-year-old student from Yaoundé, Cameroon, who prefers not to give her name because she doesn’t want any trouble, describes a climate of racism in Ukraine, where she had been for five months and until a week ago felt welcome. The journey to the border has been an ordeal, especially the two nights in the open that she had to spend at a checkpoint before the border where the military prevented them from passing because the Ukrainians had priority, she denounces. “I don’t get it. It’s like the war is being blamed on us. I’m disappointed, overwhelmed, traumatized.”

This woman, who is finally going to get on one of the buses, recounts episodes such as entering a restaurant to warm up and being immediately expelled. “I assure you […] They told us they didn’t want to mix with blacks.”

A similar experience is reported by two medical students from a small country in southern Africa who ask not to point the finger, because there are few who go abroad to study and they do not want their complaint to cause them problems to rescue their university transcript. They left the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, 200 kilometers from the border, on Friday afternoon and did not manage to cross until Monday morning, after encountering a stopper at the border. “Advance 200 meters took three hours,” they say.

They walked 25 kilometers until they reached a checkpoint where they had to spend two nights. Outdoors, without food, without a toilet, burning stubble to endure the sub-zero temperatures of the Ukrainian winter. “All the love I had for this country [Ucrania] it has disappeared. She wouldn’t want to go back, she’s finished, “says one of them, the one who gets up from the ground to speak, because the other one’s legs hurt.

According to his testimony, which coincides with that of more than a dozen people at this and another border point, the queues at the first Ukrainian military checkpoint were so tight and lasted so long that people collapsed from exhaustion. “One guy had a panic attack and fell down. He looked like he was dead, and people ran over him,” he says. Meanwhile, they saw that the Ukrainians were allowed to pass.

Some students confronted the guards, who responded with violence. Several of these episodes reached social networks through videos recorded with mobile phones. The Nigerian Government protested for Ukraine’s treatment of its citizens. “It seemed that they took out their frustration on us, it has been one of the worst experiences of my life,” adds the woman.

The train to Lviv, like the Titanic

In the improvised reception center in a commercial ship after the passage of Korczowa, about 25 kilometers from Medyka, Eyad Hilal has spent two days, coming from Kharkov, where Russian attacks are intensifying today. Sitting on a cot, eating with appetite from a can of preserves, Hilal, 26 years old and originally from Sudan (“at home we speak Nubian, like the pharaohs”, he abounds), recounts his experience calmly, as if it were someone else’s story.

On the first day of the attacks, the shells began to fall before 5 a.m. and did not stop until 10 p.m., he recalls. Although he hesitated, because he had a job, he is studying physiotherapy and he had ambitions for the future, in the end he decided to leave. Getting on the train to Lviv was an adventure.

“It was like the Titanic,” he compares. He says that a man pulled a gun on him when he was trying to get into the car, because he wanted to get his family in, but he took a chance and snuck down the aisle. Arriving in Lviv he had to walk “40 kilometers” before waiting two cold nights at the border gates, while the queue of Ukrainians advanced.

“These are turbulent times, but the Ukrainian army and police should be more professional,” he criticizes. “Better to die sleeping from a bombshell than here from cold,” he came to think. Some gave up for fear of freezing, but he held on and managed to cross. “My plans have been destroyed”, he laments now, although the friendly treatment on the Polish side has made him “regain faith in humanity”.

Hilal will try to contact a cousin in Sudan, but will stay on Korczowa’s ship one more night.


The next day, the human landscape is very different. There are hardly any Ukrainians left, which seems to support the claims of favored treatment for crossing, and features of Central Asia abound. “Ratatatá”, he repeats, imitating the noise of a machine gun, a young Uzbek on the reasons for his flight. Akramjon, 19, and his friends Otabek and Abdultijan say it took them seven hours to cross the border and that he hopes to return to Ukraine to finish his studies.

On the contrary, Ala and Jalil, 22-year-old Tunisians, one a medical student, the other aspiring to enter the Odessa military academy, have no desire to return, both of whom were surprised by the war in the city of Dnipro, in the center of the country. “An obese woman fell unconscious, she passed an ambulance and did not stop,” she criticizes. The military “laughed,” he adds.

His group, in which there were also Syrian students, walked two nights and one day to reach the border, helped by neighbors who offered them food, avoiding the attack of some wild boar. Now they queue to receive a SIM card with which to make phone calls. Their families have not heard from them since their battery ran out. He no longer wants to know anything about the political situation that has led to the war. “I don’t care, I’m leaving.”