Helping the trapped: How two young Nigerians are helping others fleeing war in Ukraine

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, two young Nigerians in Ukraine defy danger to help other Nigerians and Africans trapped in the conflict.

They organize shuttle services, information services, accommodation arrangements and emergency exchange offices for Africans caught up in the conflict seeking safe passage to neighboring Poland.

Tolulope Osho, 31, a master’s degree holder, and her friend Akintunde Akinsanya, 32, live in Ternopil, a town in western Ukraine. Ternopil is about four hours from Budomierz Hruszow on the Ukraine-Poland border and six hours from Kiev.

Tolulope Osho

Despite 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 trader 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, someone has to take care of it. The people too, who will feed them. I’m also not good at listening to the news because I like to see it for myself and let people know the true state of things,” Mr. Osho said, giving reasons for staying 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 Kharkiv National University of Economics. When his program ended in December 2021, he moved to help his brother run his cosmetics business in Ternopil.

Mr. Akinsanya, his friend, lived in Ukraine for seven years to study medicine at Ternopil State Medical University. He started his transportation business, Phoenix Transportation Service, in his third year to earn money.

Now Phoenix has gone from a one-car to two-car business. The company targets Africans living in Ukraine. Mr. Akinsanya had recently returned to Nigeria to marry his idol. He returned to Ukraine to make plans for her to join him before the European country was invaded by Russia.

“My wife and my family call and panic all the time, but I’m fine and I try to calm them down. My bags are ready, I travel with my passport in case of need. The pressure from my family to leave is strong , but a lot of people need help.

Mr Akinsanya said he charged his passengers (mostly Nigerians) a small fee when taking them to the Polish border as they sought safety.

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“If the regular taxi charges $200 to the border, I charge $70,” he said.

MM. Osho and Akinsanya live in a town still untouched by Russian missiles, and their information service to their fellow Nigerians is partly a response to the appeal of the Ukrainian government “who asked for our help”.

“They called on bloggers, tiktokers to stand up and let the world know. Russia is stopping some flows and the world may not really know what is going on and that’s why I brought this up,” Osho said. He said people on the ground had to rise to the occasion and let others understand the true state of things amid what he called “Russia’s disinformation machinery”.

Mr. Osho said his job in this regard is to provide information on the ground about what is happening in Ukraine as well as financial support in whatever way he can. He said he also got financial support from two random people.

Mr Osho uses his Instagram account to help Nigerians unable to move around as they seek safe shelter. He said he was more concerned about new students who have just arrived in the country and do not understand the language spoken in Ukraine.

Akintunde Akinsanya
Akintunde Akinsanya

“I uploaded to my page; people write to me saying they’re stuck in Summy, how do I get out of here? I usually direct them to a website, but because it’s written in Ukrainian, they don’t know how to use it, so I help them to find out where they are and where they are going and I inform them about the means of transport available around them.

Mr. Osho also provides his brother’s store as a refuge for Nigerians coming from Kharkiv, about 12 hours from Ternopil. Kharkiv came under attack on Sunday morning during Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine.

As Mr Osho spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, more Nigerians moving to Ternopil from different war-torn locations arrived in Lviv (another relatively safe city near Ternopil), some on the road for three days.

“People coming in need a place to stay, so I’m 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 go to the Polish border.

Explaining how he found himself offering emergency currency exchange services, he said: “I was saving money for myself before all this happened so I help people change currency so they have money on them to navigate. Ukrainian taxis are not black, you have to pay for them. Despite the situation, they will drop you off if you have no money.

Speaking about his motivation, Mr. Akinsanya said, “I decided to join Osho to help people get as far away from the war situation as possible.”

“I’m scared for myself but I have a car so it’s easier for me to get around compared to people who don’t have a car,” he said, adding that if he leaves now “a lot of people will be blocked”.

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There is a division of labor in their departments. While Mr. Osho provides 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 shelter under my building. It is always safe in Ternopil.

In all efforts so far, Mr Osho is thwarted by the “racist response” at the Polish border, where some Africans are said to be subjected to racist treatment despite fleeing a war zone.

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