'Fleeing the same war' in Ukraine but treated differently: Black doctor bemoans Swiss limbo

·6 min read
One of Switzerland's emergency shelters is in this arena in Bern. Some international students of colour have been housed in shelters like this for weeks without clear answers about whether they can stay, according to the Global Black Coalition. (Mike Evariste/Global Black Coalition - image credit)
One of Switzerland's emergency shelters is in this arena in Bern. Some international students of colour have been housed in shelters like this for weeks without clear answers about whether they can stay, according to the Global Black Coalition. (Mike Evariste/Global Black Coalition - image credit)

UPDATE | The doctor featured in this story told CBC Wednesday he received a letter stating his application to stay in Switzerland temporarily was approved.

Dr. Mustapha Abdul Mumin never really believed in racism. People can get used to being around members of their own race, sometimes they get uncomfortable around others, and to some degree that discomfort is normal and part of life, he said.

All of that is shattered for him now.

What the 27-year-old saw and felt trying to board trains out of Ukraine — his home of eight years, where he can practise general medicine and was months away from obtaining a specialization in orthopedic surgery — have made him understand for the first time that he is different.

That realization has been further driven home as he sits in an isolated Swiss emergency shelter on a mountain an hour and a half outside of Bern, Switzerland's capital.

He's been waiting in the former youth detention centre for a month to find out if he'll get a permit to stay temporarily, with still no word.

In an email, a spokesperson for Switzerland's State Secretariat of Migration wrote that most applications for these permits are processed in just a few days. But people working to help international students fleeing Ukraine, such as Abdul Mumin, say people of colour are often waiting much longer.

'I don't understand why'

In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Swiss government created a special protection status for fleeing Ukrainians — known as an S permit — allowing them to stay provisionally without having to apply for asylum.

The hitch? If you're not a Ukrainian citizen or a dependent of one, and your original home is considered safe, you don't qualify. You have to apply for asylum instead and prove you'd be seriously disadvantaged and specifically persecuted if you returned home.

Why is there differential treatment … Anybody fleeing this war should be considered a refugee. - Gwen Madiba, co-founder of the Global Black Coalition

That leaves people like Abdul Mumin in the lurch; his Ukrainian residency card doesn't afford him any rights.

He wouldn't face danger in his native Ghana, but said he doesn't know the country anymore. His family lived in Côte d'Ivoire before he moved to Ukraine as a young man.

He said Ukraine has shaped him into the man he is now; he doesn't want to abandon it.

"Unfortunately you are not Ukrainian, and it is only at this time that you understand that, yeah, you're different. And I appreciate the fact that I am different, but it doesn't mean that I should be treated the way I am," Abdul Mumin said Tuesday from a waiting area at the shelter.

"Throughout every single process you can see some level of discrimination, and I don't understand why. I mean, we're fleeing the same war."

Process results in racial disparity, advocates say

The system results in predominantly white Ukrainian families being greeted at the Swiss border with open arms and citizen offers of accommodation and many Ukrainian residents of colour being housed in sometimes highly isolated shelters with the threat of deportation looming over them, said Gwen Madiba in a recent interview.

She co-founded the Global Black Coalition to help students like Abdul Mumin.

"Many of them just don't want to go back to their country because it was already difficult for them to make it to Europe, to be able to continue their studies in Europe," Madiba said.

"And if they were to go back [home], coming back to Europe may be extremely difficult for them."

It made me feel like I was born in the wrong place. - Dr. Mustapha Abdul Mumin

For the first time in Abdul Mumin's life, he feels lost.

"Throughout the process [of fleeing], at every single [step], it made me feel like I was born in the wrong place," he said.

"I worked so hard my whole life to become who I am, to become educated as far as I can … but it doesn't matter what you have to offer. What matters … is you don't have a Ukrainian passport.

"I've lost my livelihood, I've lost my job, I've lost my plan. For the first time in my life I don't know my sense of direction, where I'm going to. I don't know what I'm doing … and to be educated to this level and then you get to a country and everyone's rejecting you … it's just too much to bear."

Mike Evariste/Global Black Coalition
Mike Evariste/Global Black Coalition

For now, Abdul Mumin plans to wait out the week in the Swiss shelter for word about his S permit application. But someone else there who had lived in Ukraine for 24 years was recently rejected, so he feels he doesn't have much of a chance.

If he's rejected or continues to hear nothing, he plans to cancel his application entirely so he can travel to Germany and try his luck there.

"You understand that throughout your life, you just need to keep fighting. There's no time that you get for yourself to rest … however good you are, you need to keep fighting, throughout everything you do. And it's just sad," he said.

'Anybody fleeing this war should be considered a refugee'

Madiba says she recently returned to the Ottawa area after spending about a month travelling six countries in Europe, including Switzerland, to meet with people fleeing the war and try to help.

In train stations, volunteers from aid organizations waved posters welcoming people who had escaped Ukraine, "and what's heartbreaking is that you know that [the welcome is] not for everybody, and everybody should have an equal right to safety," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning earlier this week.

"It's very hard to see, it's very hard to live, and when you're volunteering and trying to help them it's also difficult to understand why people are being treated like this. Why is there differential treatment, when they should all be considered refugees?" she said.

"Anybody fleeing this war should be considered a refugee."

WATCH | The struggle to access protected status:

The Global Black Coalition has been raising money to help some of these students. In Switzerland, they're working with Nadra Mao of Society Moko to provide assistance at emergency shelters.

Some students have been waiting for three weeks with no clear answers about what's going to happen to them, Mao said.

Some have had their passports and Ukraine residency cards withheld until they can prove they're going to leave the country, she added.

No response to question about racial disparities

In an email, a spokesperson for Switzerland's State Secretariat of Migration wrote that, as of last Thursday, the country had received 38,339 S permit applications and granted 31,413.

Eighty-six permits had been denied. Asked how many people are facing deportation so far, the spokesperson wrote only that people are allowed stay for 90 days.

The spokesperson had no response to a question about the racial disparities resulting from its system, and wrote only that any person can apply for asylum and will be admitted "depending on the threat they face."

As for housing S permit claimants in isolated rural areas, the State Secretariat of Migration had to "quickly open several emergency shelters to accommodate and care for the large number of refugees."

In some cases military infrastructure had to be used, which was available quickly and met requirements. Most of the centres are in urban areas, the spokesperson wrote.

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