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African students who fled to Poland from Ukraine are waiting in limbo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 6 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded. Poland has welcomed a majority of them, providing work visas, social services and cash to people who are escaping war with almost nothing. But not all those who've left Ukraine are Ukrainian, and some citizens of African countries have found that the doors of Europe are much less open to them.

TADE DANIEL OMOTOSHO: We wanted to help people of color, so we were accommodating Guineans, Cameroonians, Gambians and, you know, people from everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Tade Daniel Omotosho moved to Poland from Nigeria 15 years ago for school. He has dual citizenship, and he's raising three daughters in Warsaw. Last year, he became chairman of Poland's Nigerians in Diaspora Organization, and he figured the job would mostly be community building.

OMOTOSHO: What we should be doing normally as an organization should be just bringing Nigerians together, organizing events, of course, business-related stuff, community development, not this thing we're doing here.

SHAPIRO: This thing we're doing here is a humanitarian relief effort for African students who were living in Ukraine when Russia attacked. In late February, Omotosho heard that Black people trying to flee the war were getting stopped, harassed and even detained at the border of Poland. So he made the five-hour drive east from Warsaw to help whoever he could find. Sometimes he'd see a Black person at the border and just pull over the car to ask if they needed anything. He posted his phone number online, saying Africans seeking help should give him a call.

OMOTOSHO: That went viral, like, viral. I mean, I got people sending me my own number, like, if you need help, these are the numbers to call. You know, so it was like, oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: He'd post on Twitter, I'll be at this border crossing at this time.

OMOTOSHO: You can't imagine. It was so difficult. So at some point, each time I get back home, I just drop my phone, give it to my wife, and then she helps me just replying every single of those messages.

SHAPIRO: His organization procured a bus and found volunteers to help shuttle people to Warsaw. They put African students in donated Polish hotel rooms and used vouchers from Airbnb. They got donations from a Go Fund Me campaign. And people sent money through PayPal. After a few weeks, the acute emergency started to transform into a more long-term challenge. And now it's been months.

OMOTOSHO: There is no help from the government yet, I mean, from the Polish government yet.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what Ukrainians in Poland have access to that the students here do not have access to because they're from African countries.

OMOTOSHO: Two words, white privilege (laughter) - White privilege. (Inaudible), you know. So in a way, Ukrainians, they would have access to free medical care. They would have access to the social security number. Those who have children would have access to monthly sort of stipends.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine somebody saying, well, Ukrainians have no country to go back to because there's a war. But if you're from Nigeria, you could go back to Nigeria. What would you say to that?

OMOTOSHO: Again, white privilege, because you do not have an idea of what it takes to leave Nigeria and go study in Ukraine. Some of them, their parents borrowed money. Some of them, their parents just say, OK, this is all I've got on me. I'm going to make sure I'm going to send you to school. So it's not just so easy to say, go back to Nigeria.

SHAPIRO: We asked the Polish government why they don't give Nigerians who fled Ukraine the same benefits as Ukrainians and they didn't respond. And so the African students who fled to Poland are in limbo. Many of them are living in a rented two-story house surrounded by forests on the outskirts of Warsaw.

CHIZOBA JOY OCHEI: This is a joyful home.

SHAPIRO: Chizoba Joy Ochei is officially the general secretary of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization of Poland. Unofficially, she's the housemother here.

OCHEI: Yeah. Happy people. Well, are you sad?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, ma. We're happy.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-five African students are staying at this house right now, many more have passed through since the war started.

OCHEI: We have somebody that arrived, like, 72 hours ago.

SHAPIRO: Most of the students here are in their late teens. They cram into bunk beds five or more to a room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is a makeshift bed. It's...

SHAPIRO: So you have squeezed beds into every corner you possibly can.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have to do that. Yeah, we have to do that.

SHAPIRO: The teenagers crowd around a stove, cooking noodles and beans. During the day, they play soccer in the yard or take courses online.

EMANUEL: You see all of my classes due. We're really trying our best.

SHAPIRO: Emanuel is 17. We're only using the students' first names since their legal status is uncertain.

EMANUEL: I was studying, like, wanted to be medical doctor. I was still in my first year. I had big plans, big dreams.

SHAPIRO: You're using the past tense. You say I had big plans, had big dreams.

EMANUEL: Well, thanks for an education, I still have the big dreams.

SHAPIRO: How long have you been here in this house?

EMANUEL: A month.

SHAPIRO: And you've made friends?

EMANUEL: Family.

SHAPIRO: Family?

EMANUEL: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Is this guy part of your family now?

DANIEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The two young men give each other a hug.

What's your name?

DANIEL: Yeah. I'm Daniel, 17 years old.

SHAPIRO: Are you also a medical student?

DANIEL: Yes, I'm studying medicine in Kyiv, where I live.

SHAPIRO: That's true of most of the students here.

IMA: When I was little, I was like, OK, I want to be a doctor.

SHAPIRO: Ima is 19, and she spent four months learning Ukrainian in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, preparing to start medical school. Then the war broke out before she could begin her graduate studies.

IMA: It's not easy because if I have to continue my studies, I have to apply fresh as a new student. And I don't have all my documents, all my high school certificates. They're all in Ukraine, the original copies.

SHAPIRO: So what does that mean for your plans, for your future?

IMA: I actually want to go back to Ukraine. That's the only resort right now - to go back to Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: The teenagers here at the house do the kinds of things families would do together - braiding hair, watching videos online, anything to create some sense of normalcy during this scary, uncertain time. Once a month, they have a celebration for everybody in the house who had a birthday. And a student named Shakira shows us this video on her phone of last month's celebration. She had been pursuing a graduate degree in philology, the study of languages, when she fled Ukraine. Now she feels like she's watching her life slip by as weeks turn into months.

SHAKIRA: We are tired of being here. Nothing is happening. Our life is - we're just like stuck in a cage.

SHAPIRO: In a refugee crisis, you often find a cross section of society. But at this shelter, nobody is average. There may be more people pursuing higher education crammed into this one house than in any other single family dwelling in Warsaw. All the students here are people with the skills, smarts and ambition to seek out a degree in a foreign country, in a foreign language. And so while being adrift would be frustrating for anyone, it chafes even more for type-A overachievers like Shakira.

SHAKIRA: We didn't committed any crime. We want to pursue our education. We want to pursue our dreams. Once it gets, you know, going, not post and then nothing is happening. OK. What are you doing now? We've been here for like going two months. You're stuck in between. You know, you can't go forward. You can't go backward. The law should favor us also. We are not Ukrainians, yes, but we should understand that we are there when this war happened.

SHAPIRO: The war has transformed millions of lives. And years from now, these young people may look back on their time at this house as a key moment when everything shifted. But it's impossible to know whether it will be a moment when their life was briefly on pause or one when their plans for the future were entirely derailed. Tomorrow, the scene at Poland's busiest border crossing, where the long lines are now going into Ukraine.

When you get home, what will be the first thing you do?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I am going to tell my - I love you, my husband (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.