“WHEN THEY were segregating us they weren’t doing it on the basis of nationality they were doing it on the basis of colour”
Korrine Sky, 26, faced a traumatic and drawn-out ordeal as she tried to flee the Ukraine warzone as Russian troops advanced.
Facing barriers from racist soldiers and officials, she stared down the barrel of a gun and faced menacing vigilantes during her harrowing four-day escape to safety.
Now safe in England, she has made it her mission to help Africans still trapped in Ukraine.
They drove west from Dnipro, near Mariupol, the city where they were studying, in a beat-up old Mercedes with little more than hope and a prayer, picking up another African man along the route.
She told The Voice: “The Ukrainian government is just giving out guns to anybody. There are vigilantes everywhere. At one point we stopped on the road for a bathroom break and we were approached by men with guns who were not officials.
“We explained that we were students and were unarmed. It didn’t matter. They pointed their guns at us and said that if we didn’t leave in five minutes they would shoot us dead.
“After that we didn’t stop unless we had to. I really didn’t think we would make it out. I still can’t believe it. My mind is still there.”
As she made her long journey out of Ukraine, Korrine began to tweet about all the other African students trapped in the country or facing hostility at the border crossings.
Like thousands of black and non-white people, she experienced the Apartheid-like segregation in the midst of war.
Black people were the last to be allowed through the border, despite international law making clear that all refugees have an equal rite of passage to a safe country when fleeing a conflict zone.
Scenes caught on phone cameras and spread on social media include a black mum with a baby refused entry to board an evacuation bus, and officials in Ukraine pulling black people off trains.
As the war enters its second month many black and non-white people are still trapped in Ukraine, Korrine says. They are desperate, hungry and are struggling with physical and mental health.
With shelling happening around them, as the Russian missiles rain down, some are said to be suicidal. Korrine fears the experience will psychologically scar people for life.
And there’s another heart-breaking element to all of this. Some of those caught in the middle of Russia’s invasion already bear the scars of conflict from back home on the African continent. They made it to the relative safety of Europe only to find themselves living a new nightmare.
Korrine said: “There’s people who fled war back home and came to Ukraine for a better life. Now imagine the PTSD of being in a war zone.
“They are not trying to be too consumed about the situation they are in. Anything could happen to them at any point. Some people already have underlying mental health problems.”
And, just as was the case in Libya, the instability that war brings, creates extra vulnerabilities for black people.
“We’re having increasing concerns about trafficking,” Korrine explains. “We know how high risk black people are with people trafficking.
“You’ve got girls and women and children pretty well travelling on their own through the country. Anything can happen to them.
“Things like that can happen to people in the UK from someone just getting in a taxi. So imagine what it’s like in Ukraine”.
Despite this reality, she said support for those stuck in Ukraine is either minimal or non-existent.
Those left behind are at the mercy of both Russian soldiers and the ultra nationalist neo-Nazis, some of whom are in the official Ukraine defence force of the Azov Battalion.
No one is coming to save them. Even the pets of Ukrainians were able to cross to safety before they let Africans through.
She said: “Even during the evacuation in Sumy, organized by the Red Cross, the first people they took were the Asians.
“It took grassroots organisations like ours getting on the phone to get the Africans evacuated. It nearly didn’t happen. You could see Africans walking to the border for hours on foot ”
Korrine has now focused her energies on assisting those left to the mercy of war, founding Black Women for Black Lives, a non-profit which has helped thousands of Africans escape the country.
She’s exhausted and still feeling the trauma having narrowly escaped the bombs herself, abandoning her studies. But she keeps busy around the clock, organising and getting the word out.
The United Nations and the African Union have condemned the racism inflicted upon Africa, Caribbean and Indian students but Ukraine’s prime minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said nothing about the issue in addresses to the British parliament and MEPs in Brussels.
Speaking to British MPs, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko said that “problems arise” when foreigners appear to be prioritised for evacuation.
The British government tried to pretend that they had never heard of the problem. In answer to a question by Labour’s Abena Oppong-Asare, Tory Commons leader Mark Spencer said: “If that is true, it is shocking, and I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary hears of her comments and investigates the matter.”
Some of those potential future doctors may be among the students still holed up in places like Kherson, praying for a miracle and that they can evacuate to safety.
The situation is bleak and time is running out. According to Korrine they can’t access proper food. There are no charities or NGOs stepping in.
“Some of the younger students in Kherson have been in that situation for so long now, they just don’t think they are going to make it out. It’s that simple.
“They might laugh with you on the phone and make jokes. But they are in pure survival mode now” she says.
Born in Zimbabwe, Korrine’s dad was an activist and outspoken critic of the government in Harare.
When Korrine was five, the entire family fled to Leicester under threat from Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF enforcers.
She lives in the east Midlands city with her mother and has a one year old daughter.
It was Korrine’s journey to motherhood which ultimately pushed her to pursue her ambition of becoming a doctor, so that she could help others.
“I had to have an emergency C-section. Throughout my whole maternal journey I had so many instances where I felt that people weren’t listening to me.
“At the start I couldn’t even get a referral for a midwife. Things improved after I became part of the homebirth team but that was shattered when I became overdue.”
Like many black women, Korrine’s experience during labour and giving birth was not what it would have been had she been a white woman, and she knows it.
“Once we got to the hospital I didn’t want to be on Oxytocin but there were moments where I felt like I was being coerced into doing things I didn’t want to do as a first-time mum. I didn’t know that I had rights.”
“After I’d had the emergency C-section I was physically weak. I couldn’t move to get to my daughter. I’d be ringing the buzzer for help and no one would come or they would take hours to come.
“When my mum came to visit me the next day she was distraught. I hadn’t been changed since the operating room. The sheets were blood stained; nobody had assisted me to the toilet.”
Sadly, Korrine’s ordeal is not the exception to the rule. It’s a well-known fact that across the medical world the false racist myth persists that black women can endure more pain, one of the many examples of structural racism and bias that black women suffer when accessing health care.
“One person came and asked me if I’d like painkillers. I didn’t get them. I was explaining to them that I was in pain. They wouldn’t listen to me.
“A Nigerian doctor eventually came to see me. He understood me and I was able to get discharged. Even then I had to wait five hours before they let me go”
“Once I shared my experience with black mums I realised they had very similar experiences. I learned that black women are more likely to die during childbirth, and about the health disparities between black women and white women.
“I realised then, if I was a doctor I’d be able to implement change from the inside. Since then I’ve been working as a birth educator trying to educate black women about birth”.
Korrine also believes that a lack of black doctors is part of the problem and argues that better representation would improve healthcare services for black people.
For Korrine, this is the beginning of her journey, and not the end. She’s now back home safe with her daughter and husband and, like so many of the students who had their education interrupted, she hopes to resume hers.
She makes the point that thousands of potential black and brown doctors not being able to qualify because of war, will ultimately add to the existing lack of representation in the medical world.
Korrine’s already been through so much, making her all the more determined to reach her new destination. Something tells me that she will.