Covering the Students Fleeing War and Racism: Global Citizen
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): When did you first become aware that there were African students in Ukraine experiencing difficulties?
Khanyi Mlaba (KM): We were reporting on the war from the beginning, from Russia’s invasion that very first day in February 2022. We had done some coverage on it, and then from there we wanted to look at how it affected other places and other things. As the editor for the Africa region at Global Citizen, one of the main things that I wanted to start looking at was how the war would impact the African continent. While I was looking into that, the reports started coming out that Black people and African students were facing discrimination and racism at borders. That’s when I initially jumped on that.
What we did at first was secondary reporting, telling the story of what other people were reporting, which we then published on the Global Citizen website. We shared what The Telegraph and The Guardian had been reporting. Within a day or two after that, mainly because we have a different audience, we started receiving a lot of emails and DMs and messages from people who themselves were experiencing racism and discrimination at the borders or who knew people who were experiencing that. That’s how we started the story. We first wanted to cover how everyone in the world could help the situation, Ukrainian citizens on the ground. That was the initial reporting, after which we moved into reporting on how it could impact the African region. But while doing that research, it came out that there was that racism and discrimination at the borders, and then we started digging into it and talking to people. The more the story started coming out—and it was a difficult one, because a lot of people didn’t want to go on the record—the more it became clear that people were really scared. It became a question of how we tell this story while also keeping people safe wherever they are, because they might still be in transit or still trying to figure out what their future is.
JIA: How did you think about balancing their requests for anonymity with their psychosocial needs? Students are simultaneously going through this incredibly difficult experience and providing you information for this story.
KM: I think it’s something that a lot of us journalists have to put first and foremost. What did help was that a lot of the time when I did have interviews with subjects, we tried to establish it as a safe place first. I let anyone who wanted an interview come with whoever they wanted to come with, so that they wouldn’t be alone. We also wanted to make sure that they knew that their story was going to be told right, because that’s as much as we can do from our side of things. In interviews, particularly the interviews through the Global Black Coalition, we made it more of a forum, in which there were a bunch of us having a discussion rather than me having a one-on-one discussion with one person and putting that person on the spot. Instead, there were four or five of us in in one Zoom discussion. I think that was important, because the last thing you want to do is be intimidating. We also had translation because one of the interviewees was French. Then, everyone just shared their stories, and I would come in with a prompt question. I opened by indicating that subjects could tell us if there was anything that they did not want us to cover and that they could jump out at any time. What I saw the most from everyone that I spoke to was that they just wanted to say something. For instance, in the interview I conducted with Dr. Jessica Orakpo, who had gone viral a few months before on BBC,[i] I just wanted to gauge what the situation was like.[ii] To her, the main thing was that she just wanted the story out there, and once it was out there, she just wanted to move on. For those who tell their stories, the release of that emotional toll on them, and on Dr. Orakpo particularly, is to ensure that people know that they’re not alone, by getting the story out there. But she doesn’t want to be known for that. She just wants to carry on being that woman who was interviewed for that event and bringing it into the spotlight.
As I said, it was a few things, wherever we could: having more than one person in the room, so that it didn’t feel like an interrogation, rather it felt like an interview. This was especially important since, from what I’ve heard, a lot of the interviews to stay in certain countries did feel like an interrogation process—a detention process, rather than a refugee process. We wanted to make sure that that was the main thing, that whoever you want to talk with, there was another witness in the room. I gave them the freedom to do the interview however they wanted to. If you want to write it, if you want to provide voice notes, if you want me to send you three questions and you only answer those three questions: I gave a lot of options on how to do those interviews and how to speak to people.
JIA: Did you reach out to institutions for comment, those cited by students as causing difficult during the process of leaving Ukraine? And did they respond to you or ignore those requests for comment?
KM: We reached out to the Ukrainian Press Office for comment and was a bit more direct. We wanted these answers. We then reached out to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for comment. When we’re talking to institutions, rather than to people, we would raise specific questions. We talked to the Swiss Government as well, mainly because there were a lot of claims going in their direction. That was also quite different.
With some, I felt very trailed along, as if we were about to get a response, and then nothing. But when I reached out to the IOM, particularly to find out what African countries were doing about the situation, and they were very responsive. I wanted to find out because these are African citizens abroad. What was the African continent doing? What are individual African countries doing? While we noticed a lot of direct response from our reports going out internationally, there was no actionable follow up. There was a whole lot of, “This is very bad and should not be happening.” But then, of course, what did these governments do about it? That’s the question I wanted to ask: What are we as the continent doing to either bring back our students or support our students abroad and make sure that they’re not experiencing something terrible? While I did quickly receive outreach from them initially, following my questions, I then received no response.
When it came to the Ukrainian Press Office, it was a lot of talking to one person and then the next person and the next person and not really getting a response. Unfortunately, as a journalist, I work on deadline, so I couldn’t wait forever. I also did not receive any response from any of the Swiss representatives. It was a lot of running around. The only people that actually responded to anything were actual organizations, such as the people who had provided me with students to speak to and the people who were also working towards something. Anyone in government relations and the like didn’t offer much response.
To reflect, I will say that potentially I could have tried a bit harder. Maybe I could have pushed. Yet there are always those kinds of questions, where you never know how to approach people, and you learn every time. The main mandate of my story was to at least get those students stories out and to cover it as best as I could. But I do recognize that maybe there could have been other things that I could have done to get those responses from people. It’s happening in the moment so fast and it’s a new situation.
JIA: Who are these African students studying in Ukraine? What level of degrees are they seeking? Do they gravitate towards particular fields?
KM: There are a lot of engineering students, a lot of medical students, and that’s mainly for furthering their studies to gain as much knowledge as possible. The primary reason why a lot of students from this continent go to Ukraine is to further their skills and their knowledge and then to come back and bring that knowledge here. Additionally, it’s a lot more affordable to go to Ukraine in comparison to the UK, for example. There are also a lot of scholarship opportunities in Ukraine for African students. From what I understand, there is a significant number of African as well as Indian students studying there mainly because some countries on the continent don’t have the same facilities to teach medicine or engineering in the same way. They can reach the peak of that in the education here. Ukraine has certain machinery and equipment that they can learn there that they can’t learn here. That’s the main purpose for them. Going to Ukraine is to get that knowledge that they can’t get here on the continent, because the infrastructure isn’t the same.
This is not to say that Africa is not rich in its own things. But for certain other things, we need to outsource that knowledge. It’s important to recognize that students go to Ukraine to learn those things and to break that knowledge back. One of the things that one student said to me was that it was kind of a slap in the face to be told to go back to their country, because the reason they were there was to be better for their country, to come back and bring their knowledge to their country. It was really difficult to leave and go back, because they wanted to finish their education first and then go back and make their countries better. But being kicked out, they can’t do that.
JIA: Do students “study abroad” for a semester or a year, or do they earn complete degrees? How long had these students been there?
KM: From the students that I have spoken to, some of them were in and out, completing part of this degree there and the rest of it somewhere else. But then some would come back for their PhD, as many of them were furthering their studies in Ukraine. Many are making sure that on top of their bachelor’s degree, they have something else. They do their first degree on the continent or somewhere else, and then they’ll apply for their masters and their PhD in the Ukraine. So, many students have been there for years.
JIA: What was the gender dimension of students’ experiences? What are some differences that female students encountered?
KM: Most students were all together, and I haven’t heard of significant discrepancies between the experiences of male students and female students. That said, I do know that some students are mothers from the continent, including of children with Ukrainian citizens, who experienced some terrible things. For example, they weren’t allowed formula for their babies, or something as simple as, at certain refugee camps, they weren’t allowed nappies. Unfortunately, I didn’t get enough of that storyline, because I think a lot of the people that I wanted to approach who had that story to tell were never available when I was available. Ultimately, we focused on students in general, though I can say that people who are mothers were discriminated against quite heavily, especially in the refugee camps and crossing borders to other countries.
I spoke to more woman than I did speak to men. What’s really fascinating is that a lot of the women were at the forefront of trying to call for change. Many of them were the ones who started a movement calling out the nonsense and saying something.
JIA: Before the invasion, what sort of support structures were there for students who were already there? Once they arrive on campuses, is there is an infrastructure to provide support, such as a student union or administrative entities?
KM: One of the universities I worked with was Sumy State University. The person that I spoke to the most was the head of the International Office. From that perspective, they do have a head of international students, and it was her job to make sure that all the students were okay but also that they had a plan. But there’s only so much that each person can do. There’s only so much that Dr. Tatiana herself could do. Many students from African countries relied on institutions from their home countries. For instance, Nigeria’s international office brought students back home. The office recognized that it was not safe for its students and so it sought to bring them back home. Students come from across the continent, so while there are many from Nigeria, I spoke with ones from all over, for example from South Africa.
Beyond that, let’s say a student wants to continue their studies internationally, which is quite common. That’s where the tricky part comes in: you can’t get the same level of education because some schools wouldn’t allow them to continue their education online. You have to be at the school to get your degree, which is impossible. You can’t do that from Nigeria or from Zambia or Eswatini. These facilities do exist, but there are always caveats. You can go back, but you can’t do this. Some other countries went quiet, taking only the required actions until things directly affected them. All in all, it’s quite a tricky situation.
JIA: Outside of university systems or countries of origin, what organizations have been working with students since February 2022?
KM: Many people started reaching out from organizations that were already working with us at Global Citizen. I think that’s something that helped me a lot—that we already had those relationships and could contact them for our story. Others reached out from outside of our network as well.
The first is an organization called Good Advice, which connects organizations to each other. They connected me to Sumy State University, where a few students were experiencing that discrimination against them. Once I was in touch with Sumy State University, I started working within the university itself. And then we spoke to Save Africans-Ukraine. I wanted to speak to them because they had put together a petition against the temporary legislation from the EU that granted temporary protective status to only Ukrainian citizens.[iii] The petition aimed to ensure that African students or African citizens more broadly would have a place to stay in the EU outside of the Ukraine and be protected. There were a few caveats in that legislation that didn’t accept African students, which is why they had put together this petition. It was also through them that I started hearing a lot more about the Swiss Government, as it was apparently terrible for anyone who tried to go to Switzerland.
We also spoke to the Global Black Coalition, which connected us with a few students who had actually experienced some of the worst of the detention process in some European countries. They also had a team helping students get out of the Ukraine. Many students felt trapped because they didn’t have money to exit or didn’t have a bridge. The Global Black Coalition would step in either to provide the funds for students to be able to exit Ukraine, to take whatever train the students needed, and then, if the students were experiencing any kind of racism or difficulty entering another country, they would step in and provide legal assistance.
The cool thing about Global Black Coalition is that in February of this year, they spoke at the UN in Geneva to raise awareness and speak about the work that they’re doing. I’m not sure what will come out of that, but I do know that they have brought the issue to the UN.
I worked primarily with these organizations, as well as expert individuals who experienced any kind of difficulty themselves, particularly Dr. Jessica Orakpo, who helped us with shaping the narrative and set the scene for what it looked like on the ground.
JIA: It’s ironic that Global Black Coalition addressed the UN in Geneva about the treatment of African students at the same time that the Swiss Government was making it more difficult than perhaps any other European government for African students to find safe haven there.
KM: I can’t imagine. I reached out to congratulate them on such a good job and for getting their points across. As I said, the main thing about Switzerland has been the treatment of African students. I know a lot of African students who were given no time to apply for a stay in Geneva. A lot of students that went to Switzerland were having difficulty even communicating, because a lot of people would just look at them and instantly be racist towards them. One student in particular was told to go back to their country. This is just my personal opinion, but I think it might be, with this systemic discrimination, that no one has had to deal with it before in Switzerland. No one has had to grapple with it. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense how quickly the Netherlands, for example, was very accepting, from what I understand, and happy to bring in whoever needed to be brought in. But then you have cases like Switzerland. If you’re not white, or if you for come from another country, particularly in the Global South, then you can’t be here. It’s quite interesting the different reactions and responses from different countries. I was really surprised that some countries were accepting to the point where they were running out of places to keep refugees, whereas other countries were the opposite.
Maybe what’s the most shocking is there is a statement from the EU Commission saying how terrible racism is and how it’s not accepted,[iv] and then there is no follow up for reports of this particular country or this particular place doing the racism. There was no follow up in that regard, and I think a lot of African students felt let down. They felt that openly, to the public, the EU commission wants everyone to go where they need to go and is very accepting, but then within each individual EU country, it’s a different story.
JIA: You’ve spoken about some of the kinds of discrimination that African students faced. But it seems that at every step of the way, there is an opportunity for something to happen. Were there incidents that surprised you, that you really didn’t expect students to encounter, or were there certain places where it seemed as though everybody was coming up against a wall?
KM: This is really sad to say, but I don’t think any of it surprised me. It wasn’t great to hear, but I don’t find any of it surprising, and no particular country surprised me either. Mainly, this is because, as African people— because I am obviously an African first before I am a journalist—African people often expect the worst. We often expect the world to see us the worst way, and that’s why it didn’t surprise me.
I will say that what was most shocking was the exiting out of Ukraine. It didn’t add up to me. One of the students said that her feet were shot at by the border patrol, while other students said that they weren’t even allowed to board trains. That was the most difficult to hear, because it’s a humanitarian issue. It’s not Africans versus Ukrainians. Everyone is trying to escape whatever violence is being brought into the country that they thought was safe. It’s something that has upended everyone’s lives.
But no, I don’t think any particular EU country surprised me, mainly because, historically, the Global North is not the biggest fan of the Global South, and that’s just something that is unfortunate to know. But it is a fact that you have to take with you for stories like this. You have to know that when you walk into a story like this, it’s something that I grapple with every day. Even with stories about the climate crisis or stories about gender equality, Africa, and the Global South generally, will be looked down at and discriminated against the most.
It’s just something you have to work with, but once you work on that basis, then you get it. Once you work on that basis, then you can get to the real work of calling people to account. You can get to the real work of making sure that people’s stories are heard. If you get stuck thinking about the fact that it’s bad that this happens—well, we know that this happens, and for us to be surprised that it’s happening, that potentially sets us back. We should know that it already happens, and we should now step up to the point where it’s been happening for a while, systematically, and there’s this discrimination within each organization, within each country. But the work now should be, how do we stop that? How do we change those perspectives? Because at the end of the day, people were just trying to exit. They were trying to leave.
I don’t think any country surprised me or any reaction surprised me. Some were more shocking than the others: people being held in detention, that was shocking. That was terrible. But we can’t act like we don’t know that’s part of the way things are. Once we acknowledge that there are some places that are heavily discriminatory, we’ll be able to work toward a peaceful future, a united future. How do we work together to get over this and make sure that we’re being seen as human beings?
JIA: How do you balance the needs of being true to the stories of the people that you’re interviewing with the expectations of your audience?
KM: It’s very fast-paced to work here. We’re doing things all the time. But we also have a very small team, and so covering the stories on Africans in Ukraine was quite difficult, because it became quite isolating in the sense that I was the main person who wanted to cover these stories. It’s not because no one else wanted the stories out there, rather there was so much happening in general that it was difficult for others to be involved. It also took a lot of time to tell the stories, because I didn’t want to just tell the stories: I wanted to tell them right, from a journalistic point of view. It was one of several discussions that I had to have with my editor, who is from the UK. She’s not on the continent. It was a story that needed to be told: a lot of people from the continent and also a lot of people from the Global North needed to hear it. And so we worked very carefully around the editing process, which was completely different than normal, to the extent where I worked on the story entirely alone. There was no part of the process where I brought in anyone else to come and see the story. I gave the full package, as it was, to my editor a week before we went to publish it, rather than having her weigh in, step by step. That’s mainly because I wanted to make sure that each person’s story was told right.
That was the hard part. We had translated one of the discussions, since my French is okay, but it’s not excellent. It was an interview with someone who is currently in Switzerland, and they’re French-speaking. There was a back and forth between myself and him to make sure that I was conveying his words correctly. What was also helpful was the open communication. I had everyone’s number on WhatsApp, and I wanted to make sure that everyone saw their parts of the interview before I continued. It was a very slow process, in the sense that I wanted to make sure that everyone was heard and that their emotions were being conveyed the right way. I did communicate with my editor that the piece wasn’t going to be for numbers. It wasn’t going to be for clicks. It was mainly for advocacy, and I was very happy with that.
The only thing with that is because it wasn’t for numbers, for a while it wasn’t prioritized, and I had to do other work. Here in South Africa, we have this practice where you can’t just leave the house, you have to do a chore in exchange. I couldn’t just leave the house: I had to do my chores first and also eat my vegetables. To continue to work on the piece, to have me fully dedicated to that piece, was going to slow down all of the other work that we had to do, because we have such a small team. But I would much rather work slowly and tell the story right then work quickly, just to get the piece out and get the clicks. By the time we got two stories out, on how the invasion would impact Africa and the reporting piece on racism from the students in Ukraine, everything was trending. Later, when I conducted interviews with two students from Sumy State University and completed the final big piece that I did at the end of last year, those were no longer trending news and not at the top of anyone’s agenda.
One of my biggest problems with the media in general, myself included, is how quickly we move on from things. You’ll tell someone’s story now, and then two months later, they’re still experiencing that issue, and you can’t do anything about it. I wanted to make sure that when I wrap up a piece, I’m not not just wrapping up the piece, I am wrapping up a piece. I’ve done it, and there’s not much else I can do; I’ve communicated to my sources that this is the best I can do, and this is how I’m going to try to make sure that your story is out there. If there’s a place where we can meet in the middle and continue telling your story, then I’m happy to do that. Another problem with media organizations is that lack of honesty: saying that we’re doing this and expect it will do well on the website. That happens when you are covering a big story, and within the organization, it’s celebrated how many clicks the piece gets, if it’s trending. But it’s also having great impact by getting a personal story out there. Shouldn’t that be the most important part? That’s why I think it’s important, as a journalist, or anyone who’s telling someone else’s story, to also set your intentions. Obviously, you want something out of that story, too. And that’s okay. We need to be honest about that. This is going to help us as well, but I know in helping us, it’s also going to help you. If you don’t do that, no one is going to trust you, because at the end of the day, you know that it’s just how things work.
When I did our first two pieces, we were jumping on to the story. But for the final two pieces, I wanted to do them without any concern of getting clicks or likes or views. I would have been happy if 12 of the right people saw it, as opposed to 20,000 people seeing it and doing nothing. When it comes to a story, knowing that is the most important part: we need to be honest with our sources before we start talking to them about what we need from them.
JIA: Beyond the numbers, what was the initial response? How did readers react?
KM: We are lucky, because our audience is quite vocal at Global Citizen. Many people started responding, and a lot of people hadn’t known. It was quite nice to be able to help educate people on an issue that they didn’t know existed. I think that was the main response, that a lot of people didn’t know, and then the second response was that the people that did know or did experience something in or outside of Ukraine thanked us for the story being out. I think what was helpful was publishing the pieces after everything happened: the story was published in December 2022 while everything had happened in March. It wasn’t calculated that we covered the story when we did. Then, we shared the story again in February 2023, and many responded by thanking us for continuing to keep this in the headlines. Interestingly, we got a few responses saying that we’re incorrect, none of this had happened, and everyone experiences some sort of terrible thing—even though no one is taking that from away from anyone. I am saying that this is a story that we wanted to focus on: a lot of African students experienced this. A majority had a positive reaction.
After these stories were published, I still didn’t get a response from any of the institutions or governments that I had reached out to. I hope it’s okay. We didn’t outright call out any government, but we did mention them. Otherwise, people continue to tag us in posts and repost the piece on social media, acknowledging that they’re quite thankful.
JIA: Have you been able to follow up, or stay in contact, with some of the students that you spoke with?
KM: A few of them. Some send me updates on themselves, especially if they’ve been doing really well. I am hearing from the organizations as well.
But many don’t. I think they just want to move on. For instance, Dr. Jessica Orakpo didn’t want anything to do with the story that she had contributed to afterwards. She wanted to repost the story and take credit, but she didn’t want that attention. She was happy for her name to be there on the piece, but she doesn’t want this to define her. This isn’t the end of her story. She’s very happy that she helped to build ours, but most want to start their futures. I keep up with them every now and then, though it is not a very frequent discussion. I do know that the people that I spoke to are doing well and where they are and that they are safe where they are. Many of them are focusing on finishing their degrees, because as I mentioned before, the main thing that I think everyone that I spoke wants is to focus now on their education, earn their degrees, and graduate.
JIA: Are there students still experiencing this, or has it mostly settled down, as those who needed to leave have left while those who stayed behind to continue their studies are secure?
KM: I haven’t heard anything recently, but I do know that for most of last year, it was still happening. Even by November, some students were still facing difficulties, some of whom were still being held in detention centers and needed legal assistance. By now, in 2023, there are organizations on the ground trying to provide that legal assistance, as legal assistance and funding continue to be students’ most significant needs.
I’ve heard that some schools have reopened, and many students were considering staying for affordability, because going to school in another country would be a lot more expensive. Some were looking for education in France but would have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to do so. Some were even considering going back to Ukraine in-person, because that’s what they could afford and thought that was something that was better for them. More people are aware of the situation now, including Ukraine itself, even though they have bigger battles to fight. My understanding is that Ukraine is not the primary difficulty anymore—rather, it’s some EU countries that people are struggling in.
JIA: What have you, personally, taken away from this experience? What did you learn, either about the journalistic process or about the nature of storytelling?
KM: I learned a few things. I think I learned a lot about building trust. Trust is actually a lot easier given than people think. But once you have that trust, you have to keep it. That’s all you have to work with. I think that’s the most important part in a story like this.
Also, making sure that your sources are safe. I somewhat learned this in journalism school, though I didn’t need to apply it until one of the first stories I reported on. I was reporting on women who didn’t care as much about their safety—they just wanted to make sure that their stories got out there. I was working with someone from Amnesty International at that time, and another organization called Omnibus, so I never had to speak to anyone directly. This time was different: I did have to speak to people directly, and that was a lot on me to be able to keep people’s stories safe and figure out ways to make sure that they were okay. I used encrypted emails and WhatsApp to make sure the recordings were safe. There was a whole lot of back and forth. Many people didn’t want their images used. In the end, it was a lot of active learning and trusting sources, building that trust, and then keeping that trust.
The second thing that I learned was that it will take us a very long time globally to move on from racial discrimination and from discrimination of the Global North toward the Global South. As much as you hear these positive stories and great things happening, when something like this happens, you see how much a lot of the good stuff is just the cherry on top of a massive, terrible iceberg. It really is difficult. It showed me the continued lack of respect for African citizens and the continued lack of respect for African students who are trying to make things better. And I think that that’s propelled a different kind of storytelling for myself at Global Citizen, where a lot of what I want to do now is tell under-reported stories, particularly from the Global South. As much as we think things are changing, they’re not changing fast enough—because that lack of respect that exists. That lack of understanding of where people are coming from still exists, and it’s something that needs changing if we really want to move towards an equitable future, any kind of future, where poverty doesn’t exist.
The question now is: how do we work around building that trust? How do we bring that lack of respect to an end?
[i] BBC News Africa, “Africans in Ukraine: Jessica’s story - BBC Africa,” March 1, 2022, https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=ldBKmPsST6A&t=101s.
[ii] Khanyi Mlaba, “African Students Faced Racism Fleeing Ukraine — But Where Are They Now?,” Global Citizen, December 19, 2022, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/africans-in-ukraine-does-the-world-still-care/.
[iv] Ursula von der Leyen, “Statement by President von der Leyen on the occasion of Anti-Racism and Diversity Week, via video message,” European Commission, March 22, 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/ commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_1828.