As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, two young Nigerians in Ukraine are defying the danger to assist other Nigerians and Africans trapped in the conflict.
They are organising commuter services, information services, accommodation arrangements and emergency currency exchange facilities for Africans caught in the conflict who seek safe passage to neighbouring Poland.
Tolulope Osho, 31, a master’s degree holder, and his friend, Akintunde Akinsanya, 32, live in Ternopil, a city in Western Ukraine. Ternopil is about four hours from Budomierz Hruszow on the Ukraine-Poland border and six hours from Kyiv.
Despite having their own challenges, Messrs Osho and Akinsanya have chosen to put their lives on the line for other Nigerians seeking safety, Mr Osho, who currently works as a cosmetics merchant and exporter, told PREMIUM TIMES early Sunday morning in a telephone interview.
“I wanted to cross (to Poland) but I thought about it, the property, the house, somebody needs to take care of it. The people as well, who will feed them. I am also not great at listening to the news because I like to see it by myself and let people know the true situation of things,” Mr Osho said, giving reasons for staying back in Ternopil.
Mr Osho, popularly known as Cowries King on Instagram, arrived in Ukraine in 2019 to study for a master’s degree in International Economics at the National University of Economics, Kharkiv. On completing his programme in December 2021, he moved to help his brother run his cosmetics business in Ternopil.
Mr Akinsanya, his friend, has lived in Ukraine for seven years studying medicine at Ternopil State Medical University. He started his transport business, Phoenix transport service, in his third year as a means of making money.
Now, Phoenix has grown from a one-car business to two cars. The business targets Africans living in Ukraine. Mr Akinsanya had recently returned to Nigeria to wed his heartthrob. He returned to Ukraine to make plans for her to join him before the European country was invaded by Russia.
“My wife and family are always calling and panicking but I am fine and try to calm them down. My bags are packed, I move with my passport in case of necessity. The pressure from my family to leave is high but a lot of people need help.”
Mr Akinsanya said he charges his passengers (mostly Nigerians) a little sum when he takes them to the Polish border as they seek safety.
“If the regular taxi is charging 200 dollars to the border, I charge 70 dollars,” he said.
Messrs Osho and Akinsanya live in a city still unaffected by Russian missiles, and their information service to fellow Nigerians is in part a response to the call from the government of Ukraine “that asked for our help.”
“They called on bloggers, tiktokers to rise up and let the world know. Russia is stopping some streams and the world might not actually know what is happening and that is why I took this up,” said Mr Osho. He said people on the ground need to rise to the occasion and let others get the true situation of things in the midst of what he called ‘Russia’s disinformation machinery.’
Mr Osho said his job in that regard is to provide on the ground information about what is happening in Ukraine and also monetary support in the way he can. He said he has also gotten some monetary support from two random persons.
Mr Osho uses his Instagram account to help Nigerians who are unable to navigate around as they seek safe shelter. He said he is more concerned about the fresh students who just came into the country and do not understand the language spoken in Ukraine.
“I have been uploading on my page; people write to me saying they are stuck in Summy, how do I get out of here? I usually direct them to a website but because it is written in Ukrainian, they do not know how to use it. So I help them search for where they are and where they are going to and notify them of available transportation around them.”
Mr Osho is also providing his brother’s store as a shelter for Nigerians coming from Kharkiv, about 12 hours from Ternopil. Kharkiv was attacked Sunday morning in the continued invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
As Mr Osho spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, more Nigerians moving to Ternopil from different war-torn locations arrived in Lviv (another relatively safe city close to Ternopil), some on the road for three days.
“The people coming in need a place to stay, so I am doing this for them and for my love for Nigeria,” he said.
He explained that when people arrive at his shelter, they then decide whether or not to proceed to the Polish border.
Explaining how he found himself offering emergency currency exchange services, he said, “I was saving some cash for myself before all this happened, so I help people with changing currency so they have money on them to navigate. Ukrainian taxis are not blacks, you have to pay them. Despite the situation, they will drop you off if you do not have cash.”
Speaking on his motivation, Mr Akinsanya said: “I decided to join Osho in helping people to move away as far as they can from the war situation.”
“I fear for myself but I have a car so it is easier for me to move compared to people who do not have cars,” he said, adding that if he leaves now, “a lot of people will be stranded.”
There is a division of labour in their services. While Mr Osho is providing shelter and emergency currency exchange services, Mr Akinsanya helps with navigation and transportation services.
Mr Akinsanya told PREMIUM TIMES that “I can move to the nearest borders if things get worse, I have a shelter under my building. It is still safe in Ternopil.”
In all the effort so far, Mr Osho is upset at the ‘racist response’ at the Polish border where some Africans are allegedly subjected to racist treatment despite fleeing a war zone.
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