Ain’t I a woman? – First-hand experiences of a Sierra Leonean student staying in the Ukraine as the Russian aggression happened
Where will we go? How much money should I get from the ATM? Which things should I take with me? Those are the questions you might ask yourself when you are going out with your friends on a Saturday night for example. For others, those are crucial questions that decide between life and death. Rabi, a 23-year-old medicine student from Sierra Leone studying in the Ukraine, told “Kenne deine Rechte” her story.
After receiving her high school diploma, Rabi started looking for a university abroad offering medicine classes. She decided on the University of Ternopil in the Ukraine, knowing she would feel comfortable with the small community of African students on campus. However, due to the current events and rather suddenly, Rabi had to make the painful choice of leaving her dream of studying in the Ukraine behind.
The 23-year-old attended her classes normally and woke up to the news of the war on Thursday 24 February. The University of Ternopil only announced the next day that lessons would be held online after experiencing pressure from students and family members. While Rabi’s parents worried about her staying abroad with the news of late, predicting a situation of conflict, Rabi found herself in denial, responding to her mother’s worries by saying, “I’m fine, mom! Do not worry, everything is alright!”
Experiencing the outbreak of a war
The administration of the University wrote to the students offering them two weeks of leave from school. The prevailing insecure situation left her no other choice than to hide in a bomb shelter, in which other students were staying too. Uncertain of what was really going on, she was forced to think about her next steps – steps she previously had never considered taking.
One of many difficulties was getting money from the ATM because many people had planned to get cash before the banks shut down completely due to the risk of being attacked. Standing in the queue was stressful. Other people tried to skip the line ahead of Rabi, which left her quite hopeless. She had already attempted to get some money from the ATM the day before. Ultimately, she was only successful in picking up the much-needed cash a day later. On February 25, 2022, Rabi left Ternopil in hopes of continuing her medicine classes. At least she felt a slight sense of safety because her friends from university kept her company.
Deciding to leave the Ukraine
The journey out of the Ukraine proved to be more difficult than their decision to leave. Since all flights had been cancelled and fleeing over sea had not been an option either, there were not many possibilities left. Unsure of her legal situation, she suddenly found herself as a displaced person. Rabi and her friends bought train tickets for the City of Lviv as they anticipated to get to Poland as a first stop on their journey. The lady checking the tickets refused to let them board the train, saying that their actual train would arrive an hour later. Rabi felt like they were being fooled as this turned out not to be true. After they were refused to enter the train they had originally planned to, they tried the next door. Again, the second staff member told them that they could not enter. Only after trying for the third time, Rabi and her friends were allowed on the train leaving Ternopil at midday, even though the train was scheduled for 10am. These events caused the whole group a lot of frustration, since they had all purchased tickets and had the right to be there.
Having arrived in Lviv, there was a long queue of people trying to book tickets for public transportation to Poland. However, when Rabi and her group of friends heard that only women and children would be let through, they were appalled. They were a group of women and man, so this regulation would have meant having to split up. In that moment, Rabi realised that she was treated differently due to something she could not change about herself.
So, what now? They went from bus to bus, receiving one rejection after another. A friend of Rabi’s had her baby with her. Is she not considered to be a woman with child? One might think of the speech of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and human right’s activist, expressing the struggle women of colour face in the hands of neglect by a euro-centric society, that despises them.
They were running out of food and all they knew was that their future was uncertain. A male friend of Rabi’s approached a man standing at the station and asked him about possibilities of transportation to Poland. He agreed to help the group of 10 people, who promised to pay $100 each.
Fleeing from war
As the students sat on the bus, the border control inspected their documents very carefully. Rabi had the impression, that her group was being checked more thoroughly than other passengers on the bus. This treatment made Rabi feel like a criminal. All of them showed their Ukrainian student ID-cards, as they were no Ukrainian citizens.
Having arrived in Poland, Rabi wanted her friends and family to know that she was alright. She decided to post a Twitter statement saying: “Update. I’m alive. I’m on a bus trying to leave Ukraine. Ran out of water. Someone from the neighbouring village came with water and sweets for us. I am with 10 Sierra Leoneans. We paid for seats on one of these buses. This is the Budomierz – Hrushiv border. #Ukraine”
Shortly after the post was published, many people reached out to her to find out as much as possible about her whereabouts and how they could be of any help. Faika El-Nagashi from the Green Party in Austria offered Rabi to come to Vienna, which is where she stayed for a while. She was warmly welcomed by members of El-Nagashi’s entourage at events, such as the joint book launch of Faika El-Nagashi and Mireille Ngosso (Social Party Austria) “Für alle, die da sind”, which translates to “For everyone, who is here”. The book celebrates unity in diversity and serves as a love letter to anyone who might not feel like they belong.
Not everyone is treated the same – the unequal treatment of Non-Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Ukraine
Rabi’s experiences are common among non-Ukrainians leaving the Ukraine. Nonetheless, the situation of residents without a Ukrainian passport, attempting to escape from war, is hardly mentioned on social media platforms or the general public. These incidents brought to us by Rabi are happening on a regular basis. Choosing people with Ukrainian citizenship over non-Ukrainians in the outbreak of a war shows that racism goes beyond borders. The right to flee from an ongoing war is a human right. Therefore, actively preventing someone from leaving danger is a human rights violation.
Non-Ukrainians fleeing the Ukraine do not have the same opportunities regarding education, since Ukrainian citizens have been able to continue their education in several European countries because of policy changes by the European Commission. It pains the 23-year-old medical student to think about her future. She uses the term “tunnel vision” to explain her feelings towards looking into her future.
Whichever comforting words we choose, non-Ukrainians like Rabi won’t be able to get rid of their painful memory of rejection in light of the events of the Ukrainian crisis. Rabi from Sierra Leone is a human being and deserves to be treated as such!