A long and strange journey: 2 Nigerian students flee Ukraine and end up in Berlin Hillel
BERLIN (JTA) — Nigerian students Funke Oluwatosin and Deborah Ologbenla, both 16, have been given a crash course in German Jewish life — following a highly unexpected trip.
The friends were studying at Kyiv Medical University when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24. They left, fleeing the violence immediately, and headed for Warsaw, Poland, where they split up amid panicked and fast-moving transports leaving for other countries. .
Oluwatosin continued with a group of five fellow Nigerian students to Berlin, where a Jewish-American man from New Jersey spotted them at Berlin’s main train station and offered to help them find accommodation. He put their story on a Telegram chat for Jews across Germany who were helping to house displaced refugees from Ukraine.
Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, director of Jewish learning at Hillel Deutschland – a center for learning and community engagement for Jewish students and young professionals in Berlin – saw the message and offered to host the group. Oluwatosin at Hillel Headquarters which has become a temporary hostel.
Oluwatosin mentioned her friend in Warsaw and asked if she could join them. Borovitz enthusiastically approved, and Ologbenla arrived in Berlin a few days later.
Oluwatosin, Ologbenla and the rest of their group stayed with Hillel Deutschland for the next five weeks, learning about Jewish culture on the fly in their temporary home. Since then, members of the Hillel Deutschland community have taken them all to their private homes while their future is settled.
According to the country’s Interior Ministry, Germany has taken in 383,916 Ukrainian refugees since the start of the Russian invasion. An estimated 60,000 people remained and live in Berlin in volunteer houses and refugee centers.
The Telegram chat highlights how the German Jewish community in particular quickly mobilized to provide relief and housing to Jews and non-Jews fleeing the war.
“We helped them because they were the people ahead of us,” Borovitz said. “They were definitely in a particularly vulnerable place, because there was less interest in helping third nationals of color than helping Ukrainians.”
“And I always think it’s our responsibility to help those who are most vulnerable. The mark of a just society is how we treat those who are most vulnerable,” he said.
“But we also had Ukrainians who stayed in the hostel,” he added. “We helped anyone who came to us in need of help. And in the end, it was the people in front of us who needed help.
During their stay at the Hillel, Oluwatosin and Ologbenla are immersed in a new Jewish environment. For Purim, they joined Hillel’s Purim sort of street party, helping to serve burgers and hot dogs to passers-by, and they attended a few Shabbat dinners and havdalah (end of the prayer of Shabbat).
“I’ve never done anything like this before. This is new to me,” Ologbenla said of Jewish prayer services. “But I like it. We get together and everyone gets to know each other.
Although they continue to take online courses, it is clear that the two students will not be able to complete their studies in Ukraine. Both have family members in the United States, so they decided to apply to Temple University in Philadelphia to further their education.
Both have already been accepted and Hillel Deutschland has launched a fundraiser to help them secure finances – the aim is to fund the first year of education for Ologbenla and Oluwatosin. From there, they hope to obtain a combination of loans and family support to continue their studies. So far, the Hillels have raised $55,000 of their $80,000 goal, mostly with help from American Jewish donors.
Unfortunately for aspiring doctors, the US government recently rejected their first applications for student visas. The main problem was that they were unable to prove that they would return to Nigeria after graduation.
“These are two young women who dream of being doctors in their native Nigeria,” Borovitz said. “Temple University can see it, the 100 unique donors who have given to our campaign can already see it, and hopefully the US government can see it too.”
Borovitz believes that the burden of proof is much heavier for African students than for white Europeans. They have also not received instructions on how to prove that they will return to Nigeria after graduation. An immigration lawyer speaks with the students pro bono as they continue to gather as much evidence as possible of their family ties to Nigeria to prove they will return after graduation.
They will visit the US Embassy in Berlin again soon to continue to plead their case.
“My great-grandparents were immigrants and they had fled the countries they came from, which is now Ukraine and Poland, and people helped them along the way” , Borovitz said. “I think we have a responsibility as Jews and a moral responsibility as human beings to help the people in front of you. And those are the people that we found, and I’m also very grateful to have met them.