Students in Ukraine and Transnational Solidarity: NoirUnited International

An Interview with Macire Aribot, co-founder of NoirUnited International

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

NoirUnited International is a 501(c)(3) committed to centering the lives of Black people and other marginalized groups in community development. The organization has played a pivotal role in supporting international students in Ukraine, particularly those from Africa, to continue their studies amidst displacement and racism. The Journal spoke with Macire Aribot, co-founder of NoirUnited International and 2023 graduate of Columbia SIPA, about the founding of the organization around the George Floyd protest movement in June 2020, the importance of leveraging networks across the world to address the legal and mental health needs of students in Ukraine, and the role of advocacy in raising awareness about and securing resources for overlooked and under-protected populations.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Start by providing us an overview of the organization and its founding.

Macire Aribot (MA): I co-founded NoirUnited International in 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd inspired all of the work that we’re doing now. Essentially, what we saw was that there’s this issue of racial justice, of Black people around the world not having the dignity that they need to thrive in the communities that they are working in and living in. And essentially what we are is a development and humanitarian organization that is focused on centering Black and other marginalized communities in our work. One of the biggest issues that we saw at the time was that there are organizations dedicated to development and humanitarian responses for underprivileged communities, but many of these organizations were White-led and having issues thinking about how their institutions were reinforcing neo-colonial ideas around development and humanitarian work.

We wanted to create this organization in order to address that, as well as to create a space for Black people who are also development practitioners and community members: people who are passionate about developing their communities, who need a space to come together to have their voices be centered around what they want to see. While we founded the organization in Atlanta, our work is global, since racism and how it affects development or under-development of Black and Brown communities is global. That’s the reason why we are focusing on the global impact of our work as well.

JIA: Global looks different as viewed from New York or from Washington, D.C. What is the specific international context in Atlanta? What does it mean to look globally from that particular city?

MA: The reason why Atlanta is so special is because Atlanta is a place where Black people are thriving. Black people have been able to develop themselves and their communities and really reinvest in the communities there. Reflecting on my own background and how it was for me growing up in Atlanta, my family is from the Republic of Guinea. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1990s, and they moved to Atlanta and found a community there surrounded by other Black people of different backgrounds from the continent of Africa or from the Caribbean and other places. We were all living in harmony and community with Black American people in Atlanta, too, and so I feel like Atlanta is very special because it’s a place where Black people feel comfortable. Black people find themselves being able to achieve a lot of things, the dreams and the goals that they want.

While there’s all these good things that happen in Atlanta, there is still so much work that needs to be done. I feel like there are also a lot of transnational movements that are emerging in Atlanta, so I’ll provide an example about what’s happening. Right now, there’s a movement called Stop Cop City, and it’s about the militarization of the Atlanta police. People are really trying to think about how this issue relates to other issues across the globe, other issues of militarization and Black communities around the world— and not only the Black community, but other people of color as well. It’s movements like these that make Atlanta a great place to be, and it’s not surprising that we feel this way given what we want to do for Black people, not only in the city of Atlanta, but globally as well.

JIA: NoirUnited International was founded at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that shape the organization’s early existence?

MA: It was a very empowering experience, because not only was there COVID-19, where we’re all confined in our homes, having to adjust and readjust our livelihoods, but it happened at a time where there’s this movement, the global Black Lives Matter movement, and the death of George Floyd, which made people choose. People had to choose between staying home and avoiding illness that could come from being around people and going out and protesting and advocating for themselves and their lives. Either way, Black people were at risk: you were either more likely to die from COVID-19 if you were living in a predominantly Black community or more likely to die from police action. There was this choice that Black people had to contend with, and I think that was something that I myself had to confront, as well as my family members, my peers, my community members, and my other co-founders.

One of our first actions within the organization was to start a Black-owned business support fund for businesses that were shut down by COVID-19 or also experienced vandalism after the protests. We raised money to provide micro-grants for Black-owned businesses in Atlanta. That was our way of trying to highlight, for instance, the significance of Black-owned businesses and communities and how we as the community should come together and support and uplift them during a time like this.

At the same time, we were there marching in Atlanta, Georgia, marching every day. We spent an entire week protesting, and I think that experience is what really galvanized us and confirmed that the work had to continue after protesting. Black Lives Matter is in the media, it’s in the Senate. But what do we do afterwards? How do we connect these movements? What we saw was that Black Lives Matter started in the United States but was spilling over into France, into Brazil, and inspiring other movements like the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria. Police violence is something that every Black person around the world can experience, as well as people of color and other racially-marginalized communities who understand how it feels to be oppressed in that way. Founding this organization was a way for us to take control of the destinies of our communities and utilize resources together to make the change that we really wanted to see.

It’s important not only because we are development professionals or humanitarian experts, but because we’re also everyday people, community leaders, community advocates, students. We’re regular people also living within this experience, and so it gives us a different lens, I would say a more comprehensive lens of the challenges that we ourselves grew up in and are facing as well as the tools that we’re being equipped with while we leave and go to these institutions to study. Then, we try to figure out what ways we can solve problems that are emerging every day.

JIA: Moving forward to February 2022, when did the organization become aware of the situation that was affecting people of color—in particular, students from the African continent—in Ukraine?

MA: Early on, there was a lot of conversation about mobilizing support for Ukraine and Ukrainians. I was researching and trying to get involved in that way, and I honestly think it was when my co-founder Nassim was watching the news one day. He called me and said, “Macire, did you know there were African people in Ukraine? I’m watching on the news right now, and they’re saying that they’re facing racism.” I was surprised to learn there were African people in Ukraine. I then went on social media and started researching different hashtags, asking about what was happening. At that point, we started amplifying advocacy around this issue. After realizing how tragic this was, and how the media was also portraying it, I think the challenge was in recognizing that while we can raise more awareness, at the end of the day, who is providing assistance to them?

We then reached out to people on social media, because at that time a lot of international students were studying there. We reached out to them, asking them what kind of support they needed and how we could help or be of assistance. Through those interactions, we also found other social media networks, including a Telegram group that had thousands of students and also volunteers who were talking to the students every day, sharing the best checkpoints to go to, the best border crossings to go to. People were sharing lots of information and lots of knowledge about the best course of action for those students. That’s really how we got involved. We reached out to people on social media because that was the only way that we were getting in contact with people for support.

JIA: What is important to know about these students, who come from across the African continent to better their own lives and their communities?

MA: The biggest issue right now is that many students can’t access legal temporary protection and consequently are not able to access education in Europe, as well as many of the social services and support that have been extended to people who are from Ukraine or people who are Ukrainian citizens.

It is also important to realize that many of these students have been displaced twice. There are students from the Congo, from western Cameroon, from Sierra Leone, from Liberia—who fled one war and now are experiencing another. The reason I say this is because many of the policies and decisions made around these people have not had the historical context or the historical lens needed to understand the situation that third-country nationals like themselves are in. Frequently, I hear this narrative that students can always go back to their home countries or to a place like Ghana, and while that may be technically true, the reality is that people made that decision to leave, not because they wanted to leave, but because they felt like they had to leave. There is one student we work with who left Nigeria because of gang violence, because he could no longer go to school without feeling like his life was in danger. There are also people leaving because they have many siblings and family members who depend on them. Now they’re here: they came to Europe and went to Ukraine to study and hopefully find income to support their family members who do not have the means to get an education. Now they’re here, and they’re stuck and don’t know what to do, because to go home would be as if they’ve thrown their entire life away.

Having that cultural understanding and historical understanding of why people from certain countries are not able to access education or resources also means recognizing that they don’t leave to go and disrupt another place or cause problems. They’re here to get an education and see how they can get back to their communities. I think that if more people have this understanding and perspective, then we might see more inclusion around policies regarding refugees and migrants.

JIA: When did the effort shift from more of an advocacy focus to actually providing substantive assistance?

MA: The first few days were focused on advocacy, but I think even by the second week we started working with other volunteers to fundraise support for these students in Ukraine, and this fundraising was going mainly towards transportation. At that time, trying to get a taxi or a bus or anything like that from your location to the border was extremely expensive. Many of those students, who would normally pay 10 USD for a ride, ended up having to pay 100 USD or as much as 500 USD. That was one of the greatest challenges. And not only were they facing challenges getting enough money for their departure, but they were also facing challenges getting someone to take them. Many were being denied because of their skin color. We were fundraising to support their transportation either to another country or back to their home country if they chose to, and then also helping them find housing and resettlement. That was the major, initial response. Almost from the beginning, we were doing advocacy alongside humanitarian assistance, immediate emergency assistance.

JIA: NoirUnited International did not have a presence in the country itself. How then was assistance provided?

MA: Much of it was happening electronically. We were connecting with people on the ground. For example, we were working with a Ukrainian and Russian translator, a professor at the University of Toronto, who had connections in the area to drivers and companies. She was working with them to assist people to get out of Ukraine.

We utilized our networks. As I mentioned before, my family is from Guinea, and my mother is the president of the Guinea Association in Atlanta. I told her that we had found some Guinean students who were there, and so she reached out to associations across the United States, one of which put me in contact with the Guinea Association in Ukraine. I had no idea this group even existed. There were many other people who had been working in Ukraine or been in the country before the war, so we were able to get in contact with them and with other volunteers. That was also our primary way of providing assistance.

In addition to that, I will say that it is very important to highlight how the students themselves, who have been affected by the war, took it upon themselves once they reached safety to help other people reach safety as well. Student leaders started organizing among themselves to provide assistance to the people that they knew. This was also helpful for us, as these students were presidents of student government associations or of the Nigerian Student Association, for example. They had these leadership skills, and they wanted to make sure that they utilized those skills to help other people, which allowed us to reach more people as well.

JIA: From the beginning, there was a lot of news, a lot of press coverage and energy, around the invasion. What strategies or platforms did NoirUnited International use for getting the message out?

MA: Social media was the most useful, because something as easy as a retweet can share someone’s story. Beyond our media advocacy, what we also tried to do was reach local communities in Atlanta and other parts of Georgia, as well as communities in New York City and even those communities in the diaspora. We connected with radio stations in the Caribbean, because people simply did not know. As major new cycles covered Ukraine, some may have mentioned what was happening, but then that was it. Many people may not have gained access to that information or knowledge about what was happening. We really took a lot of different routes to raise awareness about the situation.

JIA: You mentioned retweeting someone’s story, but social media is also a powerful amplifying force for the visual. How were you able to leverage the force of images and the videos in order to get the message across?

MA: In terms of the visuals, utilizing videos is very effective. I think one of the biggest things that most students were doing was showing what it was like. For example, we helped evacuate over 40 students from Kherson, a city that was taken over by Russia very early in the war. These students had been living in bunkers for about three weeks, and so for most of them, what they could do was take videos of themselves showing the conditions and asking for help. Utilizing these videos also showed other people, showed embassies and humanitarian organizations, that these people were there and were stuck and nothing was being done about it. Video and the visuals around it helped people outside see the reality of what people on the inside were saying and remember the humanity of all of the people affected by this.

I will say that sometimes people aren’t comfortable having their video shared. That was something that we have had to contend with. I think, at the time, people were also afraid of being exploited. When you’re going through a crisis like this, you become very vulnerable, and that’s something that we have had to be very mindful of as an organization. We don’t want to make other people feel even more uncomfortable than they already are. We only share videos and photos if the creator wanted us to do it. Mostly, these have been student leaders who created public service announcements to generate support. Others have been less comfortable, for what I believe are very honest reasons.

JIA: Where is the focus now? What has NoirUnited International worked on as the war enters its second year?

MA: After the emergency period, we began transitioning into resettlement and support for those who wanted to be resettled in neighboring countries. We were able to secure funding from Mercy Corps and the Open Society Foundation, which allowed us to expand our work. Through this funding, we have been able to support people with their basic necessities: food, housing, and other material needs including technology support. The majority of the population that we work with are students, who came to Ukraine as students and who have had to continue studying online. When we first traveled to Europe and saw what was happening, we also met with students directly, many of whom were taking online classes from their phones. That’s one of the most significant reasons why we decided that technology and access to technology was key.

We have also been connecting people to legal assistance and providing them with support if they have cases or immigration fees to cover. It has been a very comprehensive approach, trying to meet the needs of people where they are. We really try to respond to what people tell us, through a needs assessment and surveys to see where people are and what kind of needs they have and how those needs are changing over time.

Critically, we supply mental health support. At the same time that we saw students studying from their phones, we also met with students in France, in Krakow and Warsaw, Poland, others who went to Germany or Hungary, where many displaced students from Ukraine are located. One of our greatest learnings from those meetings was that these communities were experiencing a double trauma of racism and war. For many of them, this was their first time experiencing this. They never imagined walking miles and miles, seeing dead bodies on the ground or military machinery, and having to hide from those experiences. At the same time, they are also dealing with the racism that they experienced at the borders, being told that they had to go back or wait and fear for their lives. That is a trauma that I don’t believe most people would be able to understand. Consequently, we have been advocating for mental health and psychosocial support. We have been able to support them through art therapy, group community healing circles, and other similar interventions, as this is the culturally-responsive way to do it.

JIA: How did NoirUnited International source mental health professionals that have that cultural competency to address the double trauma of African people?

MA: I will say that it was a challenge. There are not many mental professionals that have a focus on that, especially in Europe. The route that we took was to work with the Association of Black Psychologists here in the U.S. Through them, we hosted healing circles, which are a way for students to come together and talk about their experiences in a place where there were professionals to help guide the conversation. This ensures that they receive some kind of support. Also, we connected them with African psychologists by working with Nigerian counselors and psychiatrists to hold therapy sessions on Zoom. This was a place for them to talk to someone who, they felt, reflected who they were and who could understand their trauma, their struggles, their culture. I think that that was a great way to address that problem: the experience of being a Black person in Europe or of experiencing racism in that way. Additionally, this process helped connect people within the diaspora who understand the same experiences, but from a different context.

Most of these professionals were providing services voluntarily. They were volunteering their services to help people who they knew would probably not have access to this in any other context. Outside of connecting them with professionals, we also hosted our own wellness activities with them. Through our programming, we’ve hosted art therapy and poetry workshops. We’ve also hosted our own healing circles. In February of this year, when we were in Europe to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the start of the war, we hosted in-person workshops around mental wellness and health. This made one year marking the day their lives changed, which was a time to reflect and to think about all of the good things that have come, despite the tragedy that they experienced.

Focusing on mental health, which is so important to us because it’s already stigmatized within the Black community, including the global Black community in general, required us to be creative in the response to address mental health needs. This made it a central priority for us and showed us how important it is to have people engage within humanitarian responses that understand you and understand your experiences.

JIA: NoirUnited International has devised explicit strategic objectives around its response. What was the process of developing these strategic objectives, and why was it something that was important for the organization?

MA: The first centers around education. One of the primary reasons many students were even in Ukraine was because of the need and a desire to seek higher education. The majority of students that we work with were medical students, because obtaining a medical degree in the country of origin was either not possible or the resources just weren’t there. Ukraine offered an affordable alternative, which is why you find a lot of students seeking to advance their education there. In addition to medical students, many are also studying engineering, science, and legal studies. Some are even pursuing maritime studies and psychology. It’s a wide variety of people studying these diverse topics, and after speaking with them, even in the beginning, it was clear that their number one goal was to continue school. Every one of those students gave us some variation of, “I can’t go back home. I have to finish school. I have to get my education. This is my dream. This is my only desire. And I’ve invested everything that I have, so there’s nothing for me if I do go home.” After hearing that multiple times, we decided that education would be the priority for us.

Initially, we started by trying to get students enrolled into other universities, specifically universities in the U.S. As we went that route, we spoke to different universities who were willing to accept them. However, the challenge of getting them here, navigating immigration policies and policies around displaced persons, proved too much. Technically, they are African students, African people, who are third-country nationals in Ukraine, meaning they are not extended or afforded that same right to temporary protection, or the same status as a refugee would have. Essentially, they nevertheless see themselves as refugees, because they had invested in a life in Ukraine and had a goal that they were there to achieve, after which they were displaced. As indicated by the quote above, many of them had no plans to go back home: they are in the middle of their degrees, and so they see themselves as someone who was displaced from Ukraine and who deserves to continue their education, whether that be in a European country that has extended educational opportunities to those who were displaced in Ukraine or to Ukrainian citizens. One of the greatest challenges that we faced was the fact that there are these legal technicalities that really hindered students from accessing resources and educational support outside of Ukraine. That’s why we decided to make that a strategic objective. We wanted to support them in any way that we could, and as a result we’ve launched a scholarship called the NoirUnited Vision Scholarship, which to date has been able to provide 50 displaced African students from Ukraine with scholarships from 500 to 1,000 USD to help pay the fees of those who have not been able to transfer to a European university. They have had to continue online school with their Ukrainian university, and so they’re doing online schooling while they continue to pay fees. They’re trying to pay their fees but also trying to find a way to live and sustain themselves while in Europe.

The next priority was providing an equable distribution of the billions of dollars that have been raised to support Ukrainian people. There are marginalized communities living in Ukraine, as well, that have been on the outskirts and not prioritized or centered within the humanitarian response. We wanted to take that intersectional lens and support the people who were probably going to be the ones that fell through the cracks, by providing them with humanitarian assistance and advocating on their behalf to get that assistance. This has been a priority for us: in the strategic objective, we indicate that this includes providing shelter and culturally-relevant foods, as well as ensuring that when aid is supplied, it is not something that people don’t feel comfortable using. For example, take a canned good, which some people may not know how to use. We aim to provide the population that we’re working with, who are mostly of African descent, with relevant foods that they and their children could eat. Our priority has always been to ensure that people have dignity in the aid they are receiving, including access to the kinds of resources that they need.

We have also connected people with direct cash assistance, working alongside Mercy Corps and enrolling them into a program so that they can have cash on hand to buy what it is that they need. This facilitates agency for people to support themselves and feel like they are not victims. Similarly, that was a main priority for us.

JIA: How has the work that NoirUnited International has been able to do over the past year built organizational capacity or institutional ability that will improve its response capabilities in the future?

MA: I feel that we have grown tremendously. We have been able to attract the attention of volunteers who have committed themselves to this work for over a year now. We have been able to bring on project assistance, including from Columbia SIPA and from Yale, where my co-founder Nassim has been pursuing a Master of Public Health degree. I have also been able to draw on my alma mater, Mercer University, which has assisted us on this project as well. While we have been able to grow our capacity, we’re still looking bring on more people who are experienced and who have the knowledge and skill-set to respond to issues like this.

Honestly, where we’re hoping to go is to show that there is this need for an intersectional approach to development and to humanitarian equity. This means making sure that Black people are not forgotten, and other people who are racially marginalized are not forgotten, when a crisis occurs. The reality is that this isn’t the last time—but then, it wasn’t the first time, either—where a crisis will happen and racism will come into play. Many of the issues that we see around the world are rooted in racism, and I think people often don’t want to acknowledge or address that. What we try to do is to look at the root of the problem and the issues that are happening around the world. For example, back in September 2022, we were raising funds for the water crisis in Mississippi, something that has been happening right here within our own borders in the U.S., rooted in systemic racism. This has led to a water crisis in which a community that is over 90 percent Black has been denied access to clean water. Issues like this are what we want to respond to. We want to raise awareness around this as well as provide assistance.

We are very excited about where we can go, and there is really no limit to what we hope to achieve. My goal is for us to become one of the largest Black-led organizations working in development and humanitarian assistance, especially as people who represent the Global South. We want to make sure that we’re talking about the history of how we’ve gotten to where we are, the history of colonialism, of slavery, of the under-development of communities. I feel that that is something that we have to address in order to solve problems.

Personally, I am happy to have this opportunity, because the Ukraine crisis is only one example of the issues that we’re trying to work on. We hope that people are able to see what we’re doing as a use-case for this kind of response. Otherwise, Black people and other people of color will continue to go on and not be seen or heard within the experiences that they’re having.