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Donetsk Minorities Fear Intolerance from Increased Russian Influence

  • Patrick Wells

Donetsk - in eastern Ukraine - is a cosmopolitan city, home to Tatars, Jews, Turks, Greeks and international students who come from all over the world to study medicine. But some among the city's minorities fear that increased Russian influence will lead to intolerance of ethnic and religious diversity.

After six long years of study, a group of Jordanian students have finally qualified as medical doctors. But this is not a university in Amman, this is Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Thousands of students from around the world come here to take advantage of affordable tuition fees. But now the university is telling them to go home, fearing it cannot guarantee their safety in the current political climate.

“If I want to analyze the risk in Donetsk, now it's more tense. Before, there was risk, but now it’s more high. We have many risks we are now facing,” said Nigerian medical student Adiboayo Agboola.

Some students said they have faced increased suspicion and racist abuse since the pro-Russian separatist movement began.

Michael, a dentistry student from Botswana, said separatists recently shouted racial slurs at him and his friends in the street.

“I was in a situation recently where I was associated with Obama because we are of the same color and they hate that guy. So they thought we should just go back to our country. So it’s very difficult in that situation,” he said.

Donetsk is also home to Tatars, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks and Jews, many of whom say they have enjoyed increased freedom of identity and religion since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mufti Said Ismagilov heads the local Muslim community on the outskirts of Donetsk. He said Muslims In Ukraine enjoyed many more rights and freedoms than their co-religionists across the border in Russia.

“The most important reason why we support Ukraine is that there are many rights and freedoms for us here in Ukraine, which give us the opportunity to develop here. If we compare Ukraine and Russia, here it is much better,” he said.

Ismagilov also fears what separation from Ukraine and increased Russian influence here might mean for the region's many religious ethnic minorities.

“There was and there still is trust between people from different religions and cultures: Christians, Jews, and atheists. We can easily find a common language. There is no xenophobia fascism or racism here. There are no skinheads, like in Russia,” he said.

As preparations continue for this Sunday's presidential election, many hope the results will create a system of governance that will continue to protect the rights of minorities.

But election officials say they are facing intimidation and threats in parts of eastern Ukraine and it’s unclear whether the vote will go ahead in these areas.