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Tens of thousands moved to the country to study, then were displaced by the Russian invasion. Will Europe let them stay?

By Alexis Okeowo, The New Yorker —

As the number of refugees leaving Ukraine has surpassed four million, tens of thousands have streamed into Central Station in Berlin. I recently visited the enormous, glass-panelled structure. Past escalators and fast-food restaurants, and on walkways over trains pulling in and out of platforms, came families, couples, groups, and lone travellers, holding suitcases and backpacks and the hands of small children. Most of those people were Ukrainian, but there were also Ghanaians, Nigerians, Indians, and Nepalis. At a nearby hostel that provided rooms and food, for every Ukrainian, I saw a Turkish or Moroccan or Pakistani person, waiting in line for lunch, on their phones, sitting around. Many of them looked dazed. Almost all the Ukrainians I spoke to told me that they had no real plans beyond their arrival at the hostel; they were waiting for their home to become safe again. They were mostly women; their husbands and brothers were still in Ukraine, going to fight or waiting to be drafted. “It’s shit,” a slight woman named Olga, whose parents, husband, and brother were still in Kyiv, told me. “Because I’m alone, and I’m scared for my family.” She had her young son with her. Olga was still working in sales for her employer remotely, and was thinking about going to another, cheaper city, somewhere outside Berlin, to make a temporary life.

But, for some of the other uprooted people whose first homes were not in Ukraine, Germany represented a different kind of challenge—and desire. According to the Ukrainian State Center for International Education, there were some eighty thousand foreign students in the country in 2019, the most recent year with available data. With Ukraine no longer an option, many of these students, who had planned on completing their degrees and spending part of their lives in Europe, felt that staying, even as refugees, would be better than returning to their native countries. As economic migrants fleeing a war, they had become part of Europe’s earlier migration crisis, and its new one.

When I first met Chioma Benjamin Egwim, a twenty-one-year-old Nigerian who had arrived in Berlin a few days before, after crossing into Hungary from Ukraine, he looked shell-shocked, and like he was recovering from a bad cold. Wearing a long cream-colored coat, he was watchful and spoke quietly. I asked if he was doing O.K.; he smiled and insisted he was fine. He had come to Ukraine for a cybersecurity program, and had been taking language lessons for the past several months in Kharkiv. “It was going well,” he recalled. “It wasn’t too expensive for we students. It was an easy life there, peaceful to study.” The conflict had caught him by surprise, but he quickly realized he had to make a plan. “I had made up my mind to survive in any way,” he said.

Egwim had chosen to study in Ukraine because university fees were much lower there than in countries such as the U.K. or France, but the quality of instruction was high.

Egwim had chosen to study in Ukraine because university fees were much lower there than in countries such as the U.K. or France, but the quality of instruction was high.

That afternoon, we walked from the hostel—which was still operating for regular customers, too—with some of his friends down the street to a café. In Ukraine, many of the African students knew each other. They already had a WhatsApp group, which they later used to help navigate humiliations and abuses as they fled the country. Egwim had heard rumors of war since last November, but didn’t believe them until he saw an explosion from his apartment in late February. Shaking, he put on his shoes, took his passport, and spent the next few days underground in a nearby metro station. “It was getting more serious every day,” he said. At one point, he tried to venture to his apartment to cook and bathe, but it felt too dangerous, and he went back underground. In the station, he stood among crowds of people. “I felt heartbroken seeing old men standing up,” he said. “I had pity for the old women who were there. I couldn’t sleep. That was it—I started running.”

Egwim called his brother in Turkey, who told him to keep going. “My family was so worried. They were calling, calling,” he said. He and his neighbors decided to go to the border. There were no cars on the road, so they had to take a train. “It was snowing that day,” he said. “I was so cold. I was standing outside for three to four hours.” The train conductor pushed the Black people away as the white people boarded, until she finally let everyone on. Egwim eventually crossed into Hungary. He received little help in Budapest, where he had to pay for his own hotel and meals. “You just had to find your way,” he said. As we talked, his phone rang; it was another friend, Elvis Chigaemezu, who joined us at the café with a bag of donated clothes. He had left Ukraine with only what he was wearing. Egwim brightened as the two greeted each other.

A cold wind swept through the plaza. We drank our coffees, and Egwim and Chigaemezu sent messages to friends, who were in various stages of transit. (African students are still being held in detention centers in Poland, Austria, and Estonia.) They talked about how reluctant they had been to leave Ukraine. It was an accomplishment to move there in the first place. The two Nigerians had chosen the country because university fees were much lower there than at schools in places such as the United Kingdom or France, but the quality of instruction in fields, including medicine, computer science, and international law, was high. They could take classes in English, and they were still attending college in Europe. They had each paid around four or five thousand dollars for the academic year, money they could not get back. In Berlin, they were already running out of the little they had left. “People are becoming stranded. They don’t have a place to sleep,” Chigaemezu said. “The volunteers said Berlin is full.” Nigeria, like many former colonies of the richest nations in Europe, is a country full of young, ambitious people looking to get out, for a better education, better jobs, a better start. The chance to do so is becoming increasingly rare for people from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and other parts of the world; in recent years, would-be migrants have faced rising hurdles to leave for immediate humanitarian reasons, and also for economic and educational ones. “My family said we should go to the nearest neighboring countries to look for a secure life,” Chigaemezu said. “Going back is not an option.”

Chigaemezu, pictured in Berlin—where thousands of university students, some as young as seventeen, have fled to during the war in Ukraine.

Chigaemezu, pictured in Berlin—where thousands of university students, some as young as seventeen, have fled to during the war in Ukraine.

In early March, the European Union approved a “temporary protection directive,” which gives Ukrainian citizens and permanent residents the chance to get temporary residence permits in the E.U. These permits allow them to work and use social services for one year with the possibility of extensions. But foreign students and temporary workers are excluded, unless they prove that they cannot return safely to their countries of origin. “For the countries where most of the students come from—from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Egypt—if you applied for asylum in Germany, your chance of winning the case is low,” Ruth Bellin, who volunteers at Refugee Law Clinic Berlin and has advised some students, told me. A few advocacy groups and politicians have pushed for the German government to include everyone escaping Ukraine in the temporary protection directive, but there is no indication that the policy will change. Legally, the students have to leave the country in late May. In the meantime, they can get a student permit by applying to schools in Germany, but they have to be accepted before the deadline, and then show that they have the funds to pay for a year of living costs—around ten thousand euros. “They just really, really want to finish their studies,” Bellin said. “That’s why they came to Ukraine. There is a lot of fear, which is of course understandable.”

In Berlin, Egwim and Chigaemezu were staying for a few days in the apartment of a volunteer. Many student refugees had been helped by Each One Teach One, which offers free meals, and, with other groups, organizes accommodations. “When you’re a young student, and your means of financial support is your student-aid job or your local job, and you suddenly have no means of income, no permit to work, no clear path of survival—the students are basically starving,” T. Vicky Germain, the group’s emergency response coordinator, told me. “We need laws to make paths to residency for third-country nationals.” Germain estimated that thousands of university students have come into Berlin, some as young as seventeen.

The night before, Egwim found out that his home in Kharkiv was destroyed. His school had been demolished, too. “I was crying,” he told me. To him, and to other foreign students, Ukraine had represented a promise for a different kind of life. Even after the horror of the past weeks, they were still hoping to continue their education. In a little while, Egwim and Chigaemezu would need to stop by another hostel to pick up donated food to take back to the apartment. They were almost out of money. Egwim wanted to become self-sufficient again, to ideally get some work at a restaurant or at a call center. “So we can buy a few things we need,” he said. “We lost many things: our books, our documents, even my phone. I’m still worried. I want to feel at peace.”

Source: The New Yorker 


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.