They escaped the war in Ukraine. Then they faced fresh trouble in Poland
Late last year, Ima left her native Nigeria for Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine where she enrolled in prerequisite language courses before transferring to medical school later this year. It was the next step toward fulfilling her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
Her plans were finally coming together until Feb 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
It was the same day a Russian missile hit the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk near her home in the western Ukrainian city.
“I would have stayed, but because all my Nigerian and my African friends, everyone just moved out, they were like, we have to go, we have to go, it’s not safe,” Ima says.
So she began her grueling two-day journey toward the Polish border on February 26.
“I broke down. Literally, I was crying. I was like, oh my god, I can’t make it,” she says.
When Ima finally made it to safety in Poland, she immediately began working on a Polish visa and plans to secure a path toward medical school.
“But it’s not possible,” she says. “Because I’m not Ukrainian.”
This is also what Shakira, another Nigerian student, heard when she arrived in Warsaw from Ukraine.
“So we were in Ukraine because we wanted to study,” Shakira says. “Now they are telling us to go back to Nigeria. Nigeria is not safe at the moment, they can’t see what is going on in the eastern part, western parts. Everywhere in Nigeria, it’s not safe.”
We’re only using the students’ first names because their status is uncertain.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Poland has welcomed a majority of them — providing work visas, social services, and cash to people who are escaping war with almost nothing. But not all of those who have left Ukraine are Ukrainian. And some citizens of African countries have found that the doors of Europe are much less open to them.
“There is no help from the government yet, I mean the Polish government yet,” says Tade Daniel Omotosho, a Nigerian who has lived in Poland for 15 years and is the chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Organization of Poland (NDOP).
In February, Omotosho heard Africans escaping Ukraine were being harassed on their way to Poland. His group mobilized, providing transportation, housing, food, and humanitarian relief for African students who were living in Ukraine.
He opened up a residence in the outskirts of Warsaw, where Ima, Shakira and 23 other African students currently live.
But he soon realized that what the students really needed was legal status in Poland, including the right to work and go to school.
“If they were Ukrainians, they would have access to free medical care, they would have access to the social security number. Those who have children would have access to a monthly sort of stipend,” Omotosho says.
The absence of access to legal status means African students like Shakira and Ima are in limbo. Many of them are living in the rented two-story house surrounded by forests on the outskirts of Warsaw provided by NDOP.
The students say the government in Poland does not see them as refugees, even if they fled Ukraine for the same reasons as their Ukrainian counterparts.
“I think there is both a moral argument, a legal argument, but also a geopolitical argument that this needs to be a learning moment for the way the world recognizes that a refugee is defined not by their nationality, but by their status,” says David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee. “And that’s what it says in law, and that’s what should be played out, especially by richer countries who have no excuse, frankly, for the discrimination that exists.”
The Polish government has not responded to NPR’s request for comment.
Ima and Shakira keep trying to rebuild their future, but there are a lot of unanswered questions.
“So how do we continue? How do we forge ahead?” says Shakira. “We want to pursue our education. We want to push our dreams.”
Shakira says they are not looking for handouts and they don’t want charity. What they want, she says, is for governments in the region to open up opportunities for people like her to resume their studies.
Right now, some African students say it feels like they are suspended in a legal limbo.
“You’re stuck in between. We can’t go forward, you can’t go backward. The law should factor us also. We are not Ukrainians, yes, but we were there when this war happened,” Shakira says. “We’ve been here for, like, two months. Nothing is happening. We are not working.”
Shakira and Ima met each other after they escaped the war. The experience has not only made them roommates in the NDOP residence they share, they have also become close.
“They are bonded. They live like brothers and sisters,” says Chizoba Joy Oche.
Officially, Oche is the General Secretary of the NDOP. Unofficially, she’s the house mother in a place that has become home for dozens of Africans.
“We’ve heard about Cameroonians, Togo, Ghana, Kenya, there are so many Zimbabweans. So many people have passed through our shelter,” she says.
The teenagers at the house do the kinds of things families would do together. They braid each other’s hair, spend hours on social media, they cook and celebrate birthdays; anything to create some sense of normalcy during this scary, uncertain time.
But that comradery is fleeting.
“We ourselves are tired of being here,” Shakira says. “Nothing is happening. Our life is, we are just, like, stuck in a cage.”
The shelter was a temporary solution to a war that triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Almost three months into the war in Ukraine, with uncertainty about their return to Ukraine, the students are already considering what their future might look like.
Ima left her official documents in Ukraine and although she is taking online language courses, she is afraid that her slot in medical school is at risk. She says medical school is much more expensive for her in Poland, even if she were able to get legal status. And going back to Nigeria is not a possibility. So her options are limited. And now, her dreams of going to medical school include the calculations of going back to a country at war.
“I actually want to go back to Ukraine,” Ima says. “That’s the only resort right now. It’s unsafe, but I really don’t have any better choice right now.”
Ina has always wanted to be a doctor. And for now, she is not letting a war get in her way.