With Invasion, African Students in Ukraine, Russia Get Lesson in Anxiety

Mohamed Abdi Gutale woke Thursday morning in Ukraine’s capital to a state of heightened anxiety.

“We heard two huge explosions,” said Gutale, a 30-something Somali university student in Kyiv. “And according to government officials on the TV, the bombardment targeted government sites, not civilians.”

Within hours, Gutale was fleeing Kyiv aboard a train bound for a Ukrainian community near the western border with Poland, he told VOA’s Somali Service in a phone interview. He carried a backpack and books — and uncertainty about the future, including any further studies.

Thousands of foreign students like Gutale are caught up in the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia sent invading forces early Thursday. The country had more than 76,500 international students as of 2020, Nigeria’s Premium Times website reported, citing data from Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Sciences. VOA could not independently reach the ministry, its website or Ukraine’s embassy in Washington to verify information. But Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website said the country has more than 240 universities, drawing international students from more than 150 countries every year.

Africans account for at least a fifth of Ukraine’s international students, the German news organization DW, or Deutsche Welle, reported.

One of those students is Jovice Johnas, 22. She left north-central Tanzania’s Mwanza region to pursue an engineering degree at the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, in Ukraine’s second-largest city in the country’s northeast.

On Thursday, Johnas was hunkered down in the basement of an off-campus housing unit with roughly 70 other people — at the university’s instruction, she told VOA’s Swahili Service.

“It’s an empty space, with no place to sleep, no water, no bathroom,” Johnas said, noting that it has electricity, so she can charge her phone. She said she had just enough notice early Thursday to grab a change of clothing and some bottled water; friends have shared snacks of potato chips and chocolates.

“Pray for us. … We need peace,” Johnas said when asked what message she had for the international community. She said that while she has been getting a good education in Ukraine, “a good country,” she and other students “would like the government of Tanzania to help us, by any means, get out of the country.”

Leaving the conflict area has become difficult. Ukrainian authorities closed at least three of the country’s airports to commercial traffic as of late Wednesday. Major roads and highways have been clogged with vehicles fleeing major cities, according to local reports.

The National Union of Ghana Students on Wednesday issued a statement urging the federal government in Accra “to accelerate efforts in ensuring the safety of all Ghanaian students” in Ukraine and Russia.

The student union asked that students be evacuated from Ukraine’s eastern provinces, as well as from Russia, “as the country may pose an overall hostile environment to our students.”

On Thursday, Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a statement on social media that it would help facilitate Nigerians’ evacuation as soon as airports have reopened. More than 4,000 Nigerians are studying in Ukraine, according to local news sources.

The crisis in Ukraine also has gripped the attention of Augustin Vyukusenge, an African student in Russia.

“People in shopping centers and on public transportation are calm but are following very closely the news on their mobile phones, and on mounted TV screens in metro stations — but still very, very calm,” said Vyukusenge, a Burundi native and doctoral student in communications at the Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics.

Vyukusenge told VOA’s Central Africa Service that the few Russians with whom he had spoken lately “are very supportive of their government’s actions.” However, he added, Russians “are very worried of the possibility that NATO could bring war on Russian territory. … Not many of us believe that the war can reach up to Moscow. … But if war became very serious, and countries in Europe join it through NATO, we would be very worried. For now, we hope it will stay on [the] Ukraine side.”

This report originated in VOA’s Africa Division. It was compiled by Carol Guensburg, with contributions from Mohamed Olad Hassan of the Somali Service, Auriane Itangishaka of the Central Africa Service and Omary Kaseko of the Swahili Service.

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