Gifty Naana Mensah has been studying medicine at a university in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, for five years. She had never experienced any racism until she tried to escape the Russian invasion.
Ms. Mensah, who is from Ghana, managed to get from Ternopil to the Polish-Ukrainian border on Friday only to discover that Africans were being forced to wait while Ukrainians crossed first. She spent nearly two days in line, with little water and nothing to eat.
“To be honest, there was a lot of racism,” Ms. Mensah, 23, said Sunday shortly after arriving in Przemysl, a small city in eastern Poland that is close to the border. “Because the Ukrainians always came first, even though we Africans would be there for days and sometimes three days with no food. Everyone was just exhausted. Any time Ukrainians came, they told us to go back. They were shouting at us, ‘go back.’ It was really crazy.”
She is among the more than 150,000 people who have crossed into Poland since the Russian attack began last week. The country is bracing for up to one million refugees from Ukraine as the crisis unfolds. So far, most of the people arriving, including Africans, have moved on to other parts of the European Union. But aid agencies warn that future waves of asylum seekers may have no option but to remain in Przemysl after making the torturous journey to the frontier.
Ms. Mensah spent eight hours walking to the border. She became so dizzy while waiting that a guard finally let her into the immigration control area. But even then she was told she couldn’t cross until thousands of Ukrainian women had gone through.
At one point, she said, a border guard strangled a man who became unruly in a line of foreigners, and in another instance a man was hit repeatedly for trying to cross a barrier. “I was shocked. I was really shocked,” she said. “And they didn’t care. You tell them, ‘please, you know what you are doing is unfair’ and they tell you ‘go back.’
She had no problems on the Polish side of the border, where officials offered her food and water. “And I really appreciated that, because it saved my life. I was really weak,” she said.
While it’s not clear how many people pouring into Poland are from Africa or other parts of the world, tens of thousands of Africans are studying at Ukrainian universities, which many of them see as much more affordable than other foreign universities. There are more than 16,000 students in Ukraine from Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt alone, according to Ukrainian statistics.
Since the beginning of Russia’s attack, videos showing Africans being pushed back from trains and border crossings have gone viral on social media, causing an uproar and sparking statements of concern by African politicians and officials.
One video showed several armed Ukrainian police officers at a train station linking arms to prevent a group of Africans from reaching a train. Another showed a group of Africans near the Ukraine-Poland border being blocked by several Ukrainian border guards, who pointed guns at them. Other videos showed Africans stranded at a Ukrainian train station.
“South African students and other Africans have been badly treated at the Ukraine-Poland border,” said Clayson Monyela, a senior South African diplomat, in a tweet on Sunday. He described this as “racism.”
The South African ambassador in Warsaw has travelled to the Ukrainian border to help South Africans who are trying to enter Poland, Mr. Monyela said.
Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, said he spoke on Sunday to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and asked him to investigate the allegations of discrimination. “I expressed concern at the news of Ukrainian border guards hindering the exit of Nigerian citizens,” Mr. Onyeama said on Twitter.
Later on Sunday, he said the Ukrainian minister had investigated and informed him that there were no restrictions on foreign citizens leaving Ukraine, and that Ukrainian border guards had been instructed to allow all foreigners to leave.
If some African students have faced problems, it is “the result of chaos on the borders and checkpoints leading to them,” Mr. Onyeama said, quoting his Ukrainian counterpart.
On Sunday, many refugees arriving in Przemysl from Ukraine spoke about the harassment they had experienced at the hands of Ukrainian authorities.
Pranab das Gupta, a businessman from Bangladesh who fled Lviv, said that as he and other foreigners approached the Polish border they were pulled aside and told to buy tickets for a bus. Then, after just a few minutes on the bus, they were ordered off the vehicle and instructed to walk to the border control area.
Once there, they lined up in a separate section with thousands of other foreigners, while border officials let Ukrainians pass through. Mr. das Gupta said that after three days of waiting he finally dropped his luggage and jumped over a fence to get into the immigration area.
“There was no toilet and no food or water,” he said in Przemysl, as he sat on a different bus, this one bound for Warsaw, with a group of 20 men from Africa, Bangladesh and India. “There were some nearby shops but they were selling water or whatever only for Ukraine people. If you are a foreigner they said, ‘Sorry I cannot sell to you.’”
Also on the bus in Przemysl was Jemeal Jabateh, a 28-year-old student from Liberia who spent days finding a way out of Kyiv. He said an African woman who was in front of him at the border collapsed. When he called for help, no one responded until he finally managed to get the attention of a border official.
“I was broken down,” he said. “I love Ukraine. My friends in Ukraine are so kind to me and all my friends are white. But I dislike the violence of the police. They are angry and the anger is on us. It’s crazy. It’s hard.”
Sitting in front of him on the bus, Mohamed Diallo, 28, a student from Guinea who also left Kyiv, nodded in agreement. He too faced a lengthy wait at the border while Ukrainians headed across. “I was angry,” he said. “What they were doing was not right.”
Even though Polish officials were more welcoming than their Ukrainian counterparts to the foreigners at the border, the reception in Przemysl wasn’t entirely hospitable. It wasn’t clear why only men from non-European countries were on the bus to Warsaw, and they had no idea where in the city they were being taken.
Just before the bus left, three Polish police officers came on board. One spoke gruffly in Polish while a civilian official translated into English. “Listen guys and keep calm, okay,” the official said in English. “You understand? If you are not quiet, it’s a problem for driver. Okay?” But after he finished speaking, one of the policemen berated him in Polish for not translating everything he’d said, including that, if there were any problems, “you will come with me.”
John Okwuwa, a Nigerian, was just happy to be out of Ukraine. He had some sympathy for Ukrainian officials, even though he also faced a long wait.
“To be fair they have to look after their citizens,” he said shortly after arriving on Sunday in Przemysl with his daughter, Judy. “I don’t hold it against them. I’m just glad I’m here.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.