Pomeranian Coast

Black refugees in Ukraine face racism and violence

for Grace Kass, Ukraine was at home. Sure, it might be unwelcome for a black woman, and she would never get used to the bitterly cold winters, but that’s where she’d lived for the last seven years. The 24-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv as an engineering student and stayed there to pursue a successful career as a make-up artist.

She knew its parks and fountains, she learned Russian and some Ukrainian, she made close friends – in a word, she belonged. “I didn’t just live here, I made something of my life here,” says Kass, fighting back tears in the train station in the Polish town of Przemysl on the border with Ukraine.

Continue reading: Here’s what you can do to help people in Ukraine now

It was Monday evening and she had fled Ukraine overnight on February 27, the fourth day of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. She made it just in time: a day after leaving Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, the city was bombed with Russian missiles, killing dozens of civilians. But when Kass reached Lviv in western Ukraine near Poland and joined the surging crowds desperately trying to board trains for safety reasons, she was met with hostility from the Ukrainian military, who divided the people into two groups: those who were white and those who weren’t.

Fatima Ezzahra shows TIME a message using Google Translate at the Medyka border.

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“We got on the train last,” says Kass, describing how she and other African women were forced to wait outside while snow fell, while white women and children were allowed to board before them. She believes that her gender is the only reason she was spared from beatings. Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somali men described to TIME how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards, who later reluctantly allowed them to cross the border on foot.

Later, when the train from Kass stopped at the Polish border for 17 hours, she says Ukrainian train guards distributed bread and sausages to the passengers. But they passed Kass and her African friends. “When it was our turn, they threw us the ends of stale bread,” she says. After spending more than a third of her life in Ukraine, she felt abandoned. “It was a traumatic experience.

Enock Tshimanga, a student from Congo, on March 1 at the Medyka crossing.

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The Crisis Media Center in Lviv did not respond to a request for comment. Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko denied preferential treatment to Ukrainians. “There is no fast track,” she tweeted on Monday, describing the reports of abuse as fake news.

According to the UN refugee agency, more than 660,000 people have left Ukraine for Europe since the Russian invasion began on February 24. (Ukrainian men of fighting age have been ordered to stay behind and fight Russia.) Up to 4 million more could flee if the situation continues to deteriorate, the United Nations says, sparking a migrant crisis that has raged in Europe since Second World War no longer existed. Poland, Ukraine’s second largest neighbor after Russia, has so far taken in about half of these refugees. Tents with food and medics have been erected along the border to cope with the massive outflow of people.

Refugees wait for their transport on the train platform in Przemysl, Poland, March 1.

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Continue reading: Despite decades of tension, Romanians are taking in Ukrainian refugees

Despite being a majority white country, Ukraine has a diverse, multi-ethnic population including Tatars, Jews and Roma, as well as small communities of black and Asian Ukrainians. The country has gained a solid reputation over the past few decades among mostly African and Asian nations, sending around 80,000 of its citizens to study there. And while Ukraine provided them with a relatively comfortable life, many now feel betrayed. TIME spoke to dozens of people on the border with Poland who spoke of discrimination from the country that once welcomed them with open arms.

Refugees sleep on the cold ground on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing on the morning of March 1

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The refugees of color, now safely across the border, were also dismayed at the continued preferential treatment of Ukrainians in the official Polish response and of ordinary Poles. On Tuesday evening, NGO Humanity First Germany said members of her team were attacked by a group of Polish men in front of Przemysl train station and told to “go back to their country,” Polish liberal news site OKO.press reported.

In recent years, Poland’s right-wing government has taken a hard line against asylum seekers trying to enter the EU country. This culminated in a winter showdown with neighboring Belarus, when the Polish army repeatedly pushed asylum seekers back into a forested area in freezing temperatures. More than 20 people have died, according to Doctors Without Borders.

Karen poses for a portrait at Medyka Crossing on March 1. Karen got her nails done for Valentine’s Day and couldn’t believe how much has changed since then.

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The benevolent response to fleeing Ukrainian citizens marks a clear departure. “It’s a difference to not only welcome Ukrainians for political reasons – you know, to counter Russia as an aggressor – but also because Ukrainians are mostly white, Christian Europeans and no people from the Middle East and Africa seeking safety,” Daphne Panayotatos, Europe Attorney at Refugees International, told TIME on February 23.

In the Polish border village of Medyka, where new arrivals from Ukraine threw polyester blankets on campfires to keep warm in the freezing cold, others reported discrimination at the border on their way out. “Ukrainians treated us well because they saw us as money,” said Ashraf Muslim, a 23-year-old from Morocco, sitting on the side of the road with his wife, dental student Lina Kuretta. Her pet pomeranian was searching for discarded pieces Kielbasa under the garbage. Muslim was in his final year of medical school in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, where tuition costs $10,000 a year. “The moment we became useless to them, they turned us into bums,” he said. Muslim and Kuretta spent 60 hours in their car at the border begging Ukrainian officials – in fluent Russian – to be allowed to join the meandering motorcade.

Refugees at the Przemysl railway station are waiting for their transport on March 1st.

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Nearby was 22-year-old medical student Ahmed Mohamoud Abdullahi, who tried unsuccessfully to call his parents in Somalia to tell them he was alive. The screen of his mobile phone was smashed, victim of the night skirmish with an armed Ukrainian border guard. He had arrived in Ukraine in December after a lengthy visa process and had just become familiar with the language when the invasion began.

Continue reading: “It is our duty to help.” Eastern Europe opens its doors and hearts to people fleeing Ukraine

Once in Poland, people with Ukrainian passports can benefit from Kiev’s visa-free access to neighboring EU countries, a policy that has been in place since 2017. Now supporting Poland since the invasion means Ukrainian nationals have free access to Polish trains. and some medical services. Solidarity between Slavic neighbors, who share a similar language and a border that stretches more than 300 miles, has extended to villagers lending their bedrooms and homes to complete strangers and volunteers rescuing stranded Ukrainians from the Bringing back and forth border towns to the larger cities.

Parvinder Singh of India said he spent three days waiting to cross the border with no food, water or sleep, while white Ukrainians got through much faster

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Under normal circumstances, people from African and Asian countries need to apply for a Schengen visa to enter most EU countries, but EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Monday the borders are open to people from third countries who stayed in Ukraine and want to go to their home countries.

Poland’s border guard has said it welcomes all refugees from Ukraine, regardless of their nationality. But at Przemysl train station, Africans and Afghans were forced back into queues for westbound trains. “Unfortunately, the Ukrainians have priority,” said Oscar Broz, a 30-year-old Polish volunteer. He said he advised foreign citizens to pretend they lost their passports to get on Polish intercity trains. Polish authorities are “aware of some issues” related to accessing official assistance for non-Ukrainian citizens, Marcin Sośniak, head of the human rights commissioner’s equality department, said in written responses to TIME’s questions.

Refugees at Przemysl railway station try to board a crowded train bound for Kraków on March 1.

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For Kass, the makeup artist who escaped with a small leather bag without “a single makeup brush,” the thought of returning to her hometown of Matadi on the Atlantic coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not an option. She will go to the Polish capital of Warsaw and from there try to move to a French-speaking country in Europe.

In Kharkiv, her customers were mainly African students. The elaborate make-up of women for weddings was her favorite pastime. “I wonder where they are now,” she said. “I hope they are still happy. I hope they are out.”

—With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera/New York

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