‘There’s Poland, now walk’: Arab students’ ordeal out of Ukraine

Moroccan students recount their experience of discrimination at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens as they fled the Russian war.

A woman with two children.
African, Asian and Arab students describe harrowing journeys and discrimination as they fled Ukraine [File: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP]

When Amani al-Attar left Dnipro in southeast Ukraine on the second day of the Russian invasion, she thought it would be a matter of hours before she crossed into the safety of neighbouring Poland.

Instead, the 25-year-old Moroccan student described a harrowing, days-long journey that was riddled with discrimination from Ukrainian soldiers, military volunteers, and ordinary citizens along the way.

More than a million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war on February 24, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. Thousands of Arab nationals, mostly students based in Ukraine, have sought refuge in Poland as their governments scramble to evacuate them.

Al-Attar and a group of nine friends – all Arab students at the University of Dnipro – each paid $150 to a bus driver who promised to take them to the Polish border.

The nine-hour trip to Horodok, a small city just outside of Lviv in the west of Ukraine, was largely uneventful apart from frequent stops at army checkpoints.

But about 40km (18 miles) from Poland, everything changed.

Ukrainian army soldiers stopped their bus of 50-something foreign passengers and forced them to alight.

“They just pointed in a direction and said: ‘That’s where Poland is. Now walk,” recounted al-Attar, adding the soldiers said foreigners would not be permitted to continue further in a vehicle.

“Then they packed our bus with Ukrainians, and it carried on to the border,” said the dental student.

Al-Attar and her friends were baffled but they had no choice other than to continue on foot.

Along the way, an endless stream of vehicles filled with Ukrainians queued on the road to Poland. Cars were moving at a snail’s-pace and so people opened their homes to fellow Ukrainians, Meryem Saber, also part of the group, told Al Jazeera by phone from Warsaw.

“They offered them [Ukrainians] food, water, and a place to rest,” said the 21-year-old Moroccan pharmacy student. “But when they saw us, they’d just turn their faces.”

A man and woman holding coffee cups.
Meryem Saber, 21, and her cousin are two Moroccan students who fled with thousands of other Arabs in Ukraine when the Russian invasion began on February 24 [Courtesy of Meryem Saber/Al Jazeera]

‘Pushed back’

“They [Ukrainians] kept coming from the comfort of their cars, while we were left shivering in -10 degrees Celsius. They had no qualms seeing us walk in the snow and through woods with our luggage. It was so unkind and condescending,” al-Attar said as her voice shook.

After several hours of walking in sub-zero temperatures, the group of young students was cold, hungry, and exhausted. They approached a service station to buy food and use the toilet, but again they were “pushed back for not being Ukrainian”, said Saber.

“When we tried to queue, shop owners told us to wait until all Ukrainians had been served. When they were done, we found nothing but crisps on the shelves,” said Saber.

INTERACTIVE Russia-Ukraine map Who controls what in Ukraine DAY 10 map

Hours later, they were 6km (2.7 miles) from the border. At that point, they were rounded up by Ukrainian soldiers along with thousands of other Arabs, Indians, and Africans trying to flee the war.

“The soldiers and volunteers drew rectangles on the asphalt and lined us up inside them,” said al-Attar. “Anyone who moved out of line was beaten with a baton or the butt of a rifle.

“When we asked to use the toilets at a service station metres away, the soldiers refused, telling us to help ourselves in the woods. When we complained about the freezing cold, they laughed and recommended we dance to keep warm. The only thing that kept us going was that we didn’t want to die.”

After being moved between three campsites and left to wait for 12 hours, the group was finally allowed to proceed, only to find another endless queue.

It was now three days since the group had left Dnipro. Their final obstacle was to walk a few kilometres to the Polish border police. While that final step took Ukrainians about 20 minutes to complete, the women said it took some as long as several days.

“The army differentiated between people depending on their skin colour and gender,” said al-Attar. “Women were allowed to proceed within hours, while men could wait for four or five days.

“Also, the darker your skin the worse and longer the wait,” al-Attar told Al Jazeera, adding Black people and Asians were beaten and sent to the back of the queues.

“At this point, people were splayed on the ground with hypothermia. Others were collapsing from exhaustion. But that was just us Arabs, Black people and Asians. Ukrainians got through in minutes,” she said.

Queues of people standing on a road.
Ukrainian army soldiers stopped buses carrying foreign passengers and forced them walk to the borders [Courtesy of Meryem Saber/Al Jazeera]

‘Priority to Ukrainians’

Al-Attar and Saber eventually found respite in Poland. The male members of their group took several more days to cross the border. One man made it across in an ambulance after he collapsed, while the last person crossed after five days of waiting.

Both women said the reason for their plight was an unofficial daily quota by neighbouring states on the number of refugees allowed to cross from Ukraine.

“That’s why the soldiers gave priority to Ukrainians and did everything to hold us back,” said Saber.

It was not possible for Al Jazeera to confirm their claims.

Speaking from the warmth of her family home in Morocco, al-Attar said she hopes to one day overcome the trauma of her experience. But for now, “all I can say is the war showed us Ukrainians’ true colours.”

Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter: arwaib

Source: Al Jazeera