Refugee Roulette – How Ethnicity Influences Your Survival Chances in the Ukraine War

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By Madeline Kalu

The Lord commands us to stand up for injustice in Isaiah 1:17:

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

We hope that the following words will encourage you to seek justice and defend the oppressed in your corner of the world. One person can make a difference.

I want to thank my husband Solomon for his invaluable advice and encouragement in writing this article and for always supporting me in my pursuit to promote racial justice and equality.

The world doesn’t mean well to ethnic minorities. Growing up in Australia as a child of Sri Lankan parents, l can personally vouch for that. My father used to spend hours lecturing me on how l would be treated differently in life on account of my skin color. His favorite example of this was the theoretical job application: If l was going for an interview for a job, and a Caucasian was applying for the same position, odds were that the Caucasian would be chosen over me. If l wanted that position, he advised me, then l had to make sure that l was the most qualified person sitting in that waiting room. Just imagine hearing that on repeat for 18 years.

Admittedly, my father did overplay the racist card on occasion. Having said that, when l left Australia and moved to Germany over 20 years ago, l quickly realized that what he taught me about racial injustice wasn’t as overblown as l had always thought it was when l was a kid.

Take, for example, the war that broke out in Ukraine this February. Public opinion, support, and solidarity towards the plight of Ukrainians have indeed been astounding, especially from Europe. It’s the way we should react when confronted with a humanitarian crisis, right?

Now, just to clarify: By “our fellow man”, l mean our fellow “white” man. For the measures being taken to help the people of Ukraine in their hour of need are intended to help the country’s native citizens. Not the Africans, Asians, Arabs, who are also living in Ukraine, or even refugees from Syria and Yemen, who are desperately trying to evacuate what is for them a second war zone – but white refugees. Ukrainians, to be precise.

As if their situation isn’t already precarious enough, ethnic minorities have to contend with deliberate acts of racism by police, border officials, and civilians – both in Ukraine and neighboring countries – in their attempts to find safety and political immunity.

Racism is a serious issue in Europe. Foreigners like myself are racially profiled and discriminated against frequently on both institutional and personal levels: Heck, it happened to me just today in a supermarket queue. The plus side is that at least in Germany you can live a relatively peaceful life as an immigrant. However, in a country that is being subjected to war such as Ukraine – how criminal is it then to persecute the persecuted based on the color of their skin?

Contrary to your initial impression of me (and the opinion you’ll form after reading this article), l have no ill feelings towards Ukraine. What is happening there is wrong, and the Ukrainian people do not deserve to suffer as they do. However, racism is also wrong, as is the double standard of treatment that people of color in Ukraine are being subjected to. In this situation, “Ukraine” and “racism” are not mutually exclusive terms.

Also, for me to be anti-Ukraine would be counterintuitive, for my stepson is Ukrainian. He was born and raised in Kyiv, the country’s capital; however, since the Russians invaded the city four months ago, he and his mother are trying to seek asylum in England. What’s more, he is of mixed race: His father, who is my husband, is Nigerian. Considering the current acts of racial prejudice being directed at non-Caucasian refugees in and around the borders of Ukraine, you can imagine how his dad and l are concerned for his welfare.

Therefore, regardless of whether you have a personal stake in this war such as myself, or you are objectively watching the events unfold from the comfort of your living room on the other side of the world; the truth is, in the midst of the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, people are finding justification in dehumanizing others, and this is an issue which (should) affect(s) us all.

When Flight Turns into a Lethal Game of Chance

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol define a refugee as “a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him – or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.”

Under these global instruments, all refugees are assured protection, a recognition of their status as persecuted individuals, and fair and equal treatment. However, refugees of color are not experiencing these rights currently in Ukraine and its surrounding areas.

Flight opportunities out of Ukraine have turned into a competitive field of survival, where favor and help are only guaranteed to native Ukrainians. Contrarily, Third Country Nationals are being blocked in their attempts to leave the country. Videos filmed on phones and posted on Facebook reveal footage of black individuals being physically forced off city trains and buses by Ukrainian police to make room for Ukrainian citizens, being held at gunpoint by the army, or being attacked with pepper spray. I’m not just talking about men, but also women and children, who are being manhandled and pushed around like rag dolls by gun-toting officials, whose job is essentially to ensure order and safety for all refugees, not prioritize evacuation for Ukrainian nationals. As access to public transport is being denied to non-white refugees, they are forced to go on foot to reach the Ukrainian border, which can take days.

Acts of discrimination continue at the border outposts, where many foreign nationals are denied access into neighboring countries without explanation. However, the most alarming reports of racial prejudice are coming from the Ukraine/Polish border controls. Ukrainian nationals are freely being offered exit stamps and are passing into Poland in droves: As one foreign student observed, “It’s Ukrainians first, Indians second, and Africans last”.

In comparison, ethnic minority refugees are either turned away at border controls or are segregated into foreigner-only queues, where they are made to wait for days for their exit documentation without food, shelter, or access to hygiene facilities. Those requiring medical assistance must endure until the paramedics have first attended to the Ukrainians. Additionally, they are kicked and beaten by officials.

And yet, the dehumanizing treatment of foreign refugees doesn’t end once they have crossed over into Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Border towns refuse to provide them with water, food, and blankets, and shops are only willing to sell supplies to Ukrainian nationals. In Romania, Africans have given accounts of being held up at gunpoint by armed civilians and told to leave. In Poland, Africans and Indians are being attacked by right-wing groups, or they’re being rounded up by police and sent to detention centers in Estonia, Austria, and Poland.

Am l the only one who is dumbfounded at the kind of world we live in, where it’s apparently ok to hunt down people as if they’re the tributes of Panem – all for being darker-skinned?

Recent Racial Discrimination in Ukraine Has Systemic Roots

What people may not know is that even prior to the war, Ukraine has had a long history of institutionalized racism toward non-white foreigners.

My husband Solomon was subjected to multiple acts of racial injustice during his sojourn in Kyiv from 2002 to 2004. He and other black people were frequently arrested by police for no reason and placed in holding cells for hours at a time. Solomon once said that he never knew if a short walk to the supermarket would end up with him getting a free ride in the back of a divvy van. Similarly, the police would patrol the markets, where Solomon owned two shops, and intimidate him and other black sellers with a regular and thorough inspection of their papers. On one occasion, Solomon narrowly avoided being sent to prison by a policeman, who tried to claim that his passport was fake. One such kinsmen was not so fortunate and Solomon later found out that the young man had died whilst incarcerated. A particularly painful memory for Solomon was finding out that one of his closest African friends had been stabbed to death by right-wing extremists at a bus stop.

I too, bore witness to racist acts when l visited Kyiv with my husband in 2017. We were detained at Boryspil airport by the Ukrainian military, who aggressively refused Solomon entry into Kyiv because he had a Nigerian passport. They then confiscated said passport and disappeared into a back room with it. Although l too, am black, my British passport was grudgingly accepted after much deliberation and a lightning round of brusque questioning. However, l was gruffly commanded to pass through into the next control area without my husband, which was illustrated by a soldier pointing an AK-47 rifle in the direction l was to go. Since that was a bad idea in my opinion, l stood my ground and argued back – guns and threats be da**ed – until the soldiers handed Solomon back his passport and let us pass through.

We had the pleasure of repeating the same procedure on our departure out of Ukraine, only this time we had to endure a tirade of passengers throwing insults at us in Ukrainian and Russian for holding them up.

The fact that the Russian invasion doesn’t cancel racist culture comes as no surprise to my husband, nor the many Africans, Asians, and Arabs who still live in Ukraine. However, it is saddening, as a person from Congo admitted in an interview.

“Good” vs “Bad” Refugees

During the European Migrant Crisis of 2015, my husband and I visited a church in Cologne, Germany. It was around this time that former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had declared an open-door policy for Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees. Public opinion was skeptical about receiving and integrating them, which was reflected in the church service on this particular Sunday morning.

Instead of the expected ecclesiastical program of worship, prayer, and teaching, the floor was opened up to the congregants to give them the opportunity to voice their concerns about the impending influx of asylum seekers – and these concerns were many. It made me uncomfortable to hear church-going folks gripe about people who had experienced the horrors of war being labeled as “different”, “poor”, and “uneducated”.

Well, who said they were?

Fast forward to 2022, and this time around, not only Germany, but many countries in Europe, and even Canada and the U.S are going out of their way to enable Ukrainian refugees asylum. In fact, the European Commission has activated the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive, which offers Ukrainian nationals immediate and temporary protection within the European Union for up to three years without applying for formal asylum. Additionally, Ukrainians will be able to work, receive education, and be eligible for healthcare during this period.

However, this directive does not apply to Third Country nationals. Instead, they are given a 15-day visa, before being pressured to return to their own countries. This is a direct violation of the principle of “non-refoulement” in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, where a return to the refugee’s home country poses a serious threat to his or her life or freedom. Khaled Beydoun, a law professor, author, and leading scholar in Islamophobia observed, “Let’s not lose sight of how religion, race, and namely, whiteness, figures heavily into refugee settlement.”

So, why are Ukrainian nationals being welcomed with open arms around the world, and non-Ukrainians aren’t? What qualifies Ukrainians as “good” refugees, and Africans, Arabs, Asians, and other ethnic minorities as “bad”?

When most people hear the word “refugee”, they conjure up an image of brown-skinned men, women, and children dressed in dirty kaftans trekking across war-torn arid wastelands or living in squalor in makeshift refugee camps. This profile is often associated with Syrian, Afghan, and Yemeni refugees and has been extended over time to include Africans and Asians. Add a foreign culture, a non-Christian religion, and a non-English language to the mix and the definition of a “bad” refugee is complete. In fact, since the outbreak of the war, foreign refugees have also been referred to as “aliens” – a further proof of their apparent subhuman status.

What’s ironic is that there were 80 000 international students living in Ukraine at the time of the outbreak of the Ukraine war. 4 355 of these students were enrolled at Kharkiv National Medical University alone. What’s more, these 80 000 students were each paying about 8000 USD yearly for their tuition – not a bad financial injection into Ukraine’s economy.

So, what was that again about people of African, Asian, and Arab descent being poor, uneducated, and “bad”?

Despite these undeniable facts, a new kind of “good” refugee has emerged out of the current crisis. These refugees are “European”, “educated,” and “middle-class”. Most importantly, they’re “white” and “civilized”.

They’re Ukrainians.

How Western Media Influences Public Opinion On Refugees

It’s no secret that media influence is a real thing. Where the reporting of information should be done in a way that evokes awareness of the truth, informs, and educates, it is instead being used as a modification tool to influence our thoughts, sway our opinions, and ultimately, control our behavior.

That may sound a bit extreme, l don’t disagree. However, consider your reaction to the following comments from Western journalists: NBC correspondent Kelly Cobiella explaining how Ukrainians are not “refugees from Syria”, rather they are “Christian” and “white”, or Daniel Hannan from the Daily Telegraph stating that “this time, war is wrong because the people look like us and have Instagram and Netflix accounts.”

It gets worse. The following is the comparison that anchor man Peter Dobbie from Al Jazeera English makes between Ukrainians and foreign refugees; “What’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous… I’m loath to use the expression… middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” I guess Peter has failed to notice that his payslips are signed by the Qatar government.

However, the most appalling example of racist journalism is from the BBC, which allowed the following comment from David Sakvarelidze, a Ukrainian politician, to be broadcast, “It is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed by Putin’s missiles and rockets. It’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”

What are Western media trying to achieve with such blatant, biased reporting? Well, they’re definitely trying to win sympathy from their First World audiences by drawing similarities between themselves and Ukrainian refugees. Increased interest in their news ensures loyal audiences, which results in more coins making their way into the media big wig’s coffers. All it takes is for consumers to be told, “Ukrainians are white, like you. They’re European, i.e they’re Christian and not pesky troublemakers like those Muslims from the Middle East. They’re well-dressed and have Netflix accounts – hey, you do too! Continue buying our papers and tuning into our news and radio channels to see how our Ukrainian cousins-in-arms overcome!”

On the flip side, negative journalism that constantly refers to people of African, Asian, and Arab descent as being “Third World”, “non-European”, and “not like us”, only pushes their audiences into believing such rubbish.

What’s particularly infuriating is that these bad reports simply aren’t true. The Middle East is not the only area in the world to experience war and chaos: First World countries have been home to some of the worst humanitarian tragedies in world history. Remember genocide under Hitler’s regime, fascism under Mussolini, or the more current murders of Rodney King, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police brutality in the United States, just to name a few?

Also, If you have ever been to Ukraine like l have, you will know that it is a poor country. In fact, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe by nominal GDP per capita. When l was in Kyiv, I was shocked at the level of general poverty. Where we stayed didn’t have hot water and our Ukrainian acquaintances were more concerned about living in buildings that wouldn’t pass health and safety standards than having a Netflix account. In fact, the only Ukrainians we met who were “middle class” were the African pastors of the church we visited, who lived in a fenced and guarded compound (rather unconventional for clergymen, but hey, what do l know).

Speak Up Against Racism

If you’re like me and racial injustice is a topic that moves you, l thank you for caring.

That being said, our sympathy and even empathy for the marginalized is not enough. We need to go that extra mile and speak up against racism.

Is anyone talking about the Syrian and Egyptian refugees who were beaten and whipped by police at the border to Romania and Serbia in 2020, or the border wall that Poland is currently building on its frontier to Belarus to keep Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees out? No, the world is only reporting on Romania’s and especially Poland’s charitable reception of Ukrainian refugees. However, by applauding these countries for their pick-and-choose benevolence, we allow the unspoken dehumanizing acts they carry out to become commonplace and worst of all, accepted. (Also, if the border wall didn’t work for Trump in Mexico, what genius thought it would be a hit in Poland?)

History has shown us what happens when we don’t speak up against racism. A prime example is the Holocaust in Germany, where from 1933-1945 approximately 6 million Jews and 5 million Romany, physical and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, and other victims were persecuted and murdered in an act of ethnic cleansing. And yet throughout this entire period, the Germans claimed ignorance of what was occurring right under their noses.

l get it: We have many reasons for not speaking up against acts of racism, or any type of conflict for that matter. We’re uncomfortable and embarrassed, and we don’t think that our intervention can make a difference. Or are we just telling ourselves these things as an excuse to walk away and continue on with our privileged lives?

All it takes is one voice to start a wave of awareness. Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr, whose peaceful approach to advocating civil rights helped Black Americans rally together and end entrenched segregation. Or Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, who used non-violent methods to protest institutionalized racism, which brought about an end to apartheid and earned him a Nobel Prize. Then there’s Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who inadvertently created the Black Lives Matter movement through a hashtag on a Facebook post, which went viral.

Therefore, let us use our voices to promote racial justice in our little corners of the world. We don’t have to have a huge social media following to make a difference or be a person of public interest. Rosa Parks was an African American seamstress, who in 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. This action instigated the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott with the result that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.

If Rosa Parks could make such a forceful impact by staying seated, what can supporting human rights look to you? It could mean encouraging objectivity and diversity at your workplace or university, seeking friendships with people from cultures and backgrounds that are different from yours, or even talking to your children about kindness and equality.

As for me? Well, l write. I write to support people like myself who know what it’s like to be judged and trodden on because we have a different skin color, or we don’t have the “right” passport. I write because what l witness being done to people of color over the world can just as easily be inflicted on myself and my loved ones, given the uncertain state of this world.

Finally, it’s my wish that my 18 year-old-stepson will have the chance of experiencing a future where his skin pigment will not be matched up to a color scale to determine his relevance as a human being.

I don’t think that’s an unreasonable wish, do you?

Let’s Start A Conversation…

In order to raise awareness of social injustice, and to make a change, we need to talk about it.

Do you have a story to tell about a personal experience that you have had with systemic racial prejudice? How do you feel about the maltreatment of non-Caucasian refugees in Ukraine and other parts of the world? Add your voice to ours and write down your thoughts and comments below. Let us start a conversation on this important issue together.

Madeline Kalu is a Christian writer and the co-founder of Jacob’s Ladder Blog. She was born in England, was raised in Australia, and currently lives in Germany with her husband Solomon. Madeline is in recovery from burnout, chronic depression, and anxiety. She believes that God can take life’s adversities and work them out for His good; hence, she uses her writing voice to raise awareness of mental illness, as well as to spread the light of God’s love to those who are mentally trapped in the dark, and provide them with hope and encouragement.

Sources:, “Ukraine Refugee Crisis Exposes Racism and Contradictions in the Definition of Human”., “Ukraine: The Good, Bad and Ideal Refugees”, “The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol”, The UN Refugee Agency., “Is the welcome to Ukrainian refugees unusually generous — or overtly racist?”, “Fleeing War, Facing Racism: Refugees from Ukraine Meet Challenges at Europe’s Borders”, Margot Hinry., “People of Color Fleeing Ukraine Attacked by Polish Nationalists”,” Life as a Black Ukrainian: How Some Natives Are Treated Like Foreigners”, Amy Shannon Liedy., “No Refuge: Why Refugees Have Shrinking Options“, “Black Ukraine Refugees Allege Discrimination While Trying to Escape Russian Invasion”, “First Ukrainian, Second Indians, And Last Africans: There Is War, But There Is Racism Too”, Gursimran Kaur Bakshi., “The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis and the Pathology of Racism”, Simar S. Bajaj and Fatima Cody Stanford., “EU Countries Set to Drop Barriers for Ukraine Refugees”, Julia Dahm and Oliver Noyan.

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