Two Mercer University alumni are traveling across Europe to help African college students who were studying in Ukraine evacuate the country as it defends itself against Russian attacks.
Nassim Ashford and Macire Aribot, who both earned undergraduate degrees from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2019, are principal founders of Atlanta-based NoirUnited International, a nongovernmental organization focused on putting Black and other marginalized people at the center of creating development solutions for their countries.
Over the last few weeks, NoirUnited International has joined forces with a coalition of Black-led organizations. So far, they’ve helped raise more than $125,000 to provide humanitarian aid and essential resources to African refugees. They’ve also secured housing for dozens of displaced college students and advocated for them at embassies.
“The situation in Ukraine right now is very, very traumatic, very sad and very difficult,” said Aribot, who double-majored in international affairs and global development studies at Mercer. “Many of these refugees have had very difficult experiences with trying to evacuate Ukraine. They were being pulled off trains. They were being pulled off buses. They were being forced to walk long hours in freezing cold weather.
“Some people said that they walked eight hours. Some people said they walked 12 hours. Some people said it took them two days to get to the border. And when they got to the border, they had to wait even longer in the cold just to cross over to safety.”
When these African students do finally cross the border out of Ukraine, their immigrant status means they’re treated differently than Ukrainian nationals, she said.
“Many students are third-country nationals, and at least some of them have permanent residency,” Aribot said. “However, now that there’s this crisis, basically when they leave Ukraine, they are not Ukrainian nationals, and they don’t fall under the same protection that is offered to Ukrainians.”
Aribot and Ashford have been in contact with African college students since the beginning of the war, communicating with them over social media and in group chats.
In March, they traveled from the United States to Paris to help provide humanitarian aid, including food, water, phone cards and housing, to 41 students fleeing from Kherson, the first major city in Ukraine to be captured by Russia.
Then, they went to Krakow, Poland, helping 56 students find housing at a local monastery, followed by Budapest, Hungary, where they met with refugee students from the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization to document their stories and provide funding and resources. They also met students in Berlin, where Aribot advocated for students at an embassy.
Now, they’re in Warsaw, Poland, where they’re connecting with other nongovernmental organizations and visiting refugee camps to assess the needs of those fleeing as well as provide food, clothing and transportation.
The students are “very receptive of us being there, and the only thing that they continue to let us know is like, ‘Hey, we need help. … Can you please find a way to assist us so that we can continue our education?’” said Ashford, who double-majored in global health studies and global development studies. “Almost every single student has the same message.”
To donate to NoirUnited’s work with refugees, go to noirunited.org/ukraine.
Both Ashford and Aribot credited Mercer On Mission and their professors in the International and Global Studies Department with instilling in them the value of engaging in the international community.
“I did Mercer On Mission in South Africa,” Aribot said. “That played a huge part in me figuring out what I wanted to do with my career and with my life.”
As a Black woman from the United States who is also from Guinean heritage, she said she saw similarities in the South African people’s stories of racism and discrimination. It gave her a new understanding of what it means to be Black.
“I think that’s what really hit home for me,” she said.
Aribot is now pursuing a Master of International Affairs in economic and political development, specializing in Africa studies, at Columbia University.
Ashford, who is of Jamaican heritage, went to Roatan, Honduras, for Mercer On Mission. There, he too connected with the people.
“I felt like it was important for me to really just insert myself into this space, especially after taking all the global development classes and the global health classes,” he said.
He is now pursuing a Master of Public Health at Yale University.
Ashford and Aribot founded NoirUnited International in 2020 to recenter Black and other marginalized people in creating development solutions for their countries.
“We focus on social, economic and political development,” Ashford said. “We really take a community-based approach in order to achieve these goals. Our belief is that we’re not the experts; the community itself is the expert.
“By partnering with the community and providing the necessary tools and resources, we can create new development solutions that are both sustainable and long-term.”