African students fight for their Ukraine diplomas and question the EU’s ‘false promises’

By Ray Mwareya
Posted on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 16:42

One of the returnee student smiles as he embrace his mother after arrival at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja
A student returning from Ukraine embraces his mother after arriving at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, Nigeria, on 4 March 2022. Picture: REUTERS/ Afolabi Sotunde

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the EU trumpeted promises of generous new starts for uprooted students. Seven months on, African students who were studying in Ukraine say their exclusion from ‘solidarity’ programmes extends to the universities holding their academic transcripts ‘hostage’.

Korine Sky ‘Koko’ (who hides her real name after suffering doxing and harassment online) is in this predicament and has become a leader “on a mission to fight for equal access to higher education for African refugee students”.

She tells The Africa Report that she is a 26-year-old Zimbabwe-British medical student who was studying to be a doctor in the east Ukrainian city of Dnipro because “it costs around $3000 in Ukraine versus $30,000 in Britain”.

As rumours and news of Russia’s military mobilisation and threats to invade swirled in January, she says she and other African students were relaxed and unaware of the pending doom because “our university went out of their way to tell us that war rumours were false. They didn’t make plans until the war caught us unprepared”.

Terrifying escape

Koko and hundreds of other African students had to make a humiliating escape to Romania after their planned route via the Poland border was blocked “because of their skin colour”, she says.

Global reports have detailed disturbing scenes of African students being plucked out from trains at Lviv near the Polish border and turned back. “The Romania border was the last gasp of desperation. I abandoned my car at the border [because I was] banned from driving it out of Ukraine,” she says.

Adrian Biernacki, the spokesperson for Poland’s foreign affairs ministry, asked The Africa Report to furnish specific details of when, where, and who had been detained or imprisoned. He advised us to send the questions to the Ministry of Interior and Administration, but to date, no response has been received.

False promises

Now that Koko is back in England, the ghosts of her Ukraine university studies have not settled. She and hundreds — possibly even thousands — of African students who were studying in Ukraine have slipped between the cracks of politics and bureaucracy, they say. This is despite the EU announcing ‘solidarity’ education programmes to allow students and researchers who fled Ukraine to continue their studies in EU member states.

But for African students, the EU’s generous education packages are only good on paper.  “We are stuck at home [or] across the EU, doing nothing as if war didn’t hit black students,” Koko says.

In response to questions concerning African students being locked out, a spokesperson for the EU in Brussels told The Africa Report: “The commission has not developed a specific programme for African students. However, specific measures have been put in place under the Erasmus+ programme to allow higher education institutions in Europe to host students fleeing from Ukraine. These measures target all students enrolled in a Ukrainian university at the time of the start of the war, independently of their nationality or country of origin, so includes African students that were enrolled at an institution based in Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.

“It is up to the universities to take full advantage of these measures when defining their internal policies for admitting students fleeing from Ukraine,” one EU official told The Africa Report in an email response.

‘Not the whole truth’

This is not the whole truth, says Ambrose Musiyiwa, a Zimbabwe-British post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester and an outspoken refugee rights leader for Journeys in Translation.

When African students approach any of the universities to enquire about places on offer for students displaced from Ukraine, they are told that the slots are for Ukrainians only. Left in a ditch, many African students who were studying in Ukraine are now living like nomads, moving from country to country across Europe in a desperate search for places that will let them continue their education.

“Their immigration situation is now precarious,” says Masiyiwa, who works with displaced students like Koko and numerous others scattered from Poland to Portugal to ramp up publicity in Europe concerning the students’ fate.

European universities are using the war to purge the continent of [African] students who were studying in Ukraine.

European universities have not provided detailed explanations for rejections but reportedly tell African students that they are ‘third-world country nationals’ and must return to their countries to continue their studies, Musiyiwa says.

This is cruel, says Koko, alluding to the difficult backgrounds of some students from Nigeria, for whom she advocates.  She says many students’ parents used family savings and took bank loans to send their children to Ukraine. Additionally, their home countries can not accommodate them in domestic universities, adds Musiyiwa, who cites Nigeria where university lecturers have been on strike since February and there is no sign the protest will let up soon.

“European universities are using the war to purge the continent of [African] students who were studying in Ukraine,” she says.

Diplomas held ‘hostage’

There is an additional problem — universities not providing students with references and certificates for completed studies. Ukraine universities have failed to release transcripts and diplomas of African students so they can continue their studies elsewhere, says Koko and other student leaders.

“When you start university in Ukraine, they hold onto your original academic certificates from your country for years, and only give them back when you graduate. They’re saying if you want academic transcripts [for transferring to other varsities abroad] and your original high school statements, you must return to Ukraine and formally expel yourself from the university,” she says.

Even if a student takes the huge safety gamble of returning to Ukraine and formally expelling themselves from their university, academic progress reports won’t be given and transfer to varsities abroad won’t happen, she says. “It’ll mean I have to go back to first year of medical school, with $20,000 gone down the drain.”

The Africa Report asked Ukraine’s permanent mission to the EU and the Ukraine foreign affairs ministry to respond to the accusations that their universities are holding onto African students’ diplomas and academic transcripts. The Ukraine foreign affairs ministry acknowledged receiving our questions but remained silent afterwards.

It is an impasse, which Musiyiwa demands that the EU and EU universities talk to their counterparts in Ukraine and exert pressure on them to release the African student’s transcripts and renew their posvidka cards (temporary residence permits) to cover the periods the students would have been in Ukraine had it not been for the war.

“Ukraine universities need to stop recruiting international students,” warns Musiyiwa. “Bodies like the Nigeria Medical and Dental Council are not recognising Ukraine qualifications until they say normal studies there have resumed. Students have blown away years [of study] and family savings and are now stuck,” he said.

“The war has ruined their lives. It should not be allowed to ruin their futures.”

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