Courtesy of Nassim Ashford

NoirUnited International, an organization founded by Yale School of Public Health student Nassim Ashford SPH ’23, joined forces with a coalition of Black-led organizations to raise $125,000 and advocate for humanitarian corridors for minority students in Ukraine.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine, some Black students claimed to face discrimination when trying to cross the borders into neighboring countries. Ashford joined forces with the co-founder of NoirUnited International Macire Aribot, a first-year master’s student at Columbia University studying international affairs, and the coalition to raise $125,000 to provide basic necessities, advocate for extensions for students’ refugee status and help them continue education. 

“People’s lives are at stake and being here has really shown us the power just having a helping hand can have on an entire community,” Ashford said. “The people that are here feel like no one cares about them. They feel like they’ve been left behind. And they feel like their life is almost over if they don’t have the type of support and help that they’re looking for.”

According to Ashford, in 2020 and 2021, there were approximately 10,000 African and other Black students studying in Ukraine. 

Black students in Ukraine are facing many challenges. For one, they face difficulties having stable access to food, housing, transportation and education. And, unlike Ukrainian citizens, international students can only stay in other European countries for 30 days as legal refugees –– and may be deported after that. 

“Much larger humanitarian organizations are not really … looking at the more marginalized communities of Ukraine, who are foreign nationals,” Ashford said. “So that is why we focused on Black students who were fleeing Ukraine…The biggest thing that we’re trying to do right now is fill this gap.”

Planning to work on the ground to connect with Black students, Ashford and Aribot arrived in Paris on March 20, and have since visited Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw. They plan to go to Switzerland soon. 

While in Europe, Ashford and Aribot are also shooting a documentary film highlighting Black students in the Ukraine crisis.

“We want to go to Europe ourselves and be there for them when they arrive,” Aribot said. “We need to be there, at least so that they see a friendly face and feel like they have someone there to support them.” 

Ashford told the News that the organization’s work prioritizes most basic needs. According to Ashford, they start off by assisting students leaving Ukraine, making sure there are transportation services available when they reach the border. Once the students leave the country, Ashford and Aribot also help them buy clothes and provide housing accommodations.

Aribot said that they have helped 56 students find a monastery to stay in for four weeks, and are now looking for alternative temporary housing. In addition, according to Aribot, they have partnered with Airbnb to provide students with vouchers to live in Airbnbs for 30 days.

Ashford said they also helped deliver food and water to students who were still in Ukraine.

Ashford told the News that he and Aribot have personally interacted with more than 400 students. Aribot said that they mainly got in touch with students by directly reaching out to people posting on social media for help on social media.

“It was really a grassroots effort,” Aribot said.

Beyond basic necessities, Ashford, Aribot and the coalition are also involved in advocacy work. Aribot told the News that their partner organization is advocating for Switzerland to prolong its refugee stay policy from 30 days to up to 90 days.

According to Aribot, the organization has been working with schools in the United States, Canada and Europe to resettle Black students in order for them to finish their education. They have recently secured a partnership with Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, which agreed to accept applications from Black refugees who were living in Ukraine.

In making the documentary on racism against minorities during this humanitarian crisis, Ashford and Aribot have talked to over 100 students about the racism they experienced during war.

Aribot said that she had met Nigerian students who told her that they had to leave their Airbnb the next day while they did not have a subsequent place to stay, and she interacted with many students who had difficulties continuing their education.

“They don’t have a notebook, they don’t have paper … they don’t have these essential tools and they’re doing school from shelters.” Aribot said. “So how do we fill in that technology gap?”

Ashford told the News that he and Aribot plan to go back to the United States later this week. After returning, they will go to Washington, D.C. to speak to members of Congress who oversee education programs about the problems that Black students are facing.

Ashford and Aribot also look forward to raising more funds. They estimated that NoirUnited International’s current funding is able to support more than 2000 students and 1000 of their family members. Moving forward, Ashford said their goal is to work with the media and explain the issues Black students are facing in Ukraine in order to raise more funds. Donations to NoirUnited International can be made on its official website.

Aribot stressed that there are many more Black refugees than they currently have funding to help.

“They’re essentially facing even harder challenges,” Aribot said. “You have the challenge of leaving your country to go pursue an education in Ukraine … the challenge of facing war … then you also have the issue of racism when trying to escape war.”

Kaveh Khoshnood, SPH associate professor of epidemiology and Faculty Director of the Humanitarian Research Lab, praised Ashford’s and Aribot’s work as “essential and timely.”

Khoshnood said he is concerned and angry that Ukraine and other neighboring countries were treating Black students differently than Ukrainian citizens.

“There needs to be equity in humanitarian response,” Khoshnood said. “If you are in a conflict situation, and you need to leave for your own safety and safety of your children and your family members, the countries should be open to that, regardless of who you are.”

Khoshnood also expressed concern about the media only focusing on the Ukraine crisis and overlooking other long-lasting problems in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.

NoirUnited International was founded in 2020 as a response to the police brutality against George Floyd.