Isha Sesay: African students in Ukraine need media attention

Given the emotional toll that comes with covering world affairs, a part of me has long wished for that, too. But my reality couldn’t be any more different.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s punishing bombardment of Ukraine has once again reminded me of that truth. In the month since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve been both shocked and deeply saddened by what I’ve seen and heard. But the darkness of this moment has managed to illuminate something else to me: the incredible power of ordinary individuals across the world to not only take control of the telling of a story, but also to come together with a mission to profoundly impact how that story ends.

During the first week of the Russian siege, more than 1 million people fled their homes in Ukraine. Among them were thousands of young African students who’d gone to study in universities in the country because of their relatively low tuition costs. Now, propelled by fear, these students fled alongside Ukrainian civilians.

Almost immediately, major U.S. news networks were flooded with heartbreaking reports of Ukrainian families seeking refuge in crowded bomb shelters or further afield in neighboring countries. Telling the stories of these men, women and children caught in the crosshairs of a dictator’s deranged power game was and continues to be the right and essential thing for news organizations to do.

But another important feature of this war has wrongly received far less attention: the unique plight of the African students. This unexpected crisis found them far from home and their loved ones, without much money and with little or no community to turn to. As they tried to escape from Ukraine, many of them were met with resistance at various bus and train stations. Officials have reportedly refused to let them get on while allowing White passengers to push past and board.

Recently, I connected with 23-year-old Rabiatu Bah via Twitter. The fourth-year medical student who is from Sierra Leone is now safely in Germany but told me of her ordeal trying to leave Ternopil, Ukraine.

“We were running from one train attendant to another, and they kept refusing to let us on,” Bah told me over the phone. “The first one tried to convince us there was something wrong with our tickets, the second one said there were too many of us (it was a group of 10), and finally the third one let us on.”

Her takeaway from it all? “Money means nothing to your skin color.”

She isn’t alone: Black and Brown students have shared stories of being subjected to racist language, open hostility and, in some instances, violence while trying to flee.

Indeed, the framing of this conflict across a host of international news networks has been infused with racial bias. Charlie D’Agata, a senior CBS News correspondent, who was reporting from Kyiv, said: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” D’Agata has since apologized for those comments.

And Lucy Watson from Britain’s ITV News said, “Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe.”

This type of commentary showed up in various other outlets, leading the U.S.-based Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) to condemn the coverage. “This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America,” the organization said in a statement.

With all of this in mind, I was more disheartened than surprised when I saw that the stories of struggling African students trapped in Ukraine only briefly made U.S. headlines. The real story is being told on social media.

I met Korrine Sky on Twitter. The 26-year-old medical student escaped from Ukraine on Feb. 25. From her home in the United Kingdom, she explained how Black people are using social media to seize control of the narrative.

“It reminds me of the rise” of Black Lives Matter, Sky told me. “It seems like Black people have found our voices on social media. #AfricansinUkraine has grown into a movement, and it started on social media.”

Before fleeing Ukraine, Sky set up multiple chat groups and launched a fundraising appeal for the students she was leaving behind. Once home, she felt compelled to do more, she said: “I am willing and confident to use my voice, and I thought it would be irresponsible to go home and carry on with my life. It’s not right.”

Sky joined forces with Tokunbo Koiki and Patricia Daley on social media, and together they formed Black Women for Black Lives (BW4BL). The group has played a major role in keeping this story in the public eye.

It was through their efforts that I first learned about the hundreds of African students trapped in Sumy, a city in northeastern Ukraine. Sky connected me with Gabriel Salick, a Zimbabwean medical student who was trapped there. He described the deteriorating conditions, dwindling food supplies and mounting desperation among the students. Eventually, the students of Sumy were evacuated via a humanitarian corridor, thanks to the efforts of the International Red Cross.

The group is also raising funds to help. So far, it says it has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and dispersed a little over $171,000 to more than 1,200 people. (I donated via GoFundMe to support its efforts.)

For now, a spotlight must remain on the plight of the African students. Many of those who wanted to get out of Ukraine have managed to do so, only to find themselves in limbo as refugees in other European countries. Unable to access the generous provisions made by European Union lawmakers for Ukrainian passport holders, these young people are growing increasingly frightened and despondent.

Meanwhile, there are still dozens of Africans who are unable to safely get out of Kherson, a southern Ukrainian city that is under complete Russian control. Over the phone, Oche King Onu, a 29-year-old nautical sciences student, recounted to me how for weeks he stayed in his room during the day before heading downstairs to sleep in the school’s bomb shelter; these days he prefers to sleep in his own bed. He is desperate to leave and continue his studies elsewhere. But given the unpredictability of Russian forces, his best chance of a safe evacuation is through another humanitarian corridor.

The Kherson students need continued global attention — only that will create the pressure that ensures a safe route is established in a timely manner.

Millions of lives have been upended by the chaos of this war. Thanks to the bravery of many journalists, we’re able to bear witness to the terrible human cost of this siege. But as long as some voices are prioritized over others, our understanding of this tragedy will remain incomplete. Worse still, a warped picture may lead to some groups of people being considered more deserving of humanitarian assistance than others.

Sadly, the struggles of Ukraine’s African students have been framed as a footnote to the suffering of others, even though Putin’s bombs shattered their hopes and dreams, too. The time has come for U.S. news organizations to right that wrong. The full story is what we all deserve.

Isha Sesay is a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNFPA and the host of the Wonder Media Network-produced podcast, “The Accidental Activist,” where she explores how celebrities were thrust into the world of activism and what motivates them to use their platforms for good.

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