Simbarashe Moyo (extreme left) with his co-volunteers at the Medyka border.
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How Ubuntu manifested in a time of turmoil

Zimbabwean PhD student Simbarashe Moyo is among those who were at the forefront of organising and assisting African students displaced by the Russia-Ukraine War. “The aim was to trace and coordinate the movement of African Students and also help them when they cross over to Poland.”

Like many languages in Africa, ChiShona, which is the most spoken language in Zimbabwe uses idioms and maxims to drive home the most salient of points. One of the most popular Shona idiom is “kutsva kwendebvu, varume tinodzimurana.” Literally translated it speaks to a commitment by men to help douse each other when beards catch fire, metaphorically, in times of need.

Lending a hand to a brother, sister or stranger is not just a philosophical but also a moral obligation, which speaks to the core principle of “I am because you are,” which forms the base of Ubuntu, a way of life which can be traced to precolonial Southern African society. Although seen as a dying concept, there are times when the selflessness of the age-old African philosophy shows its face.

One of such instances is the recent exploits of Zimbabwean PhD student Simbarashe Moyo who is studying Medical Physics at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Moyo is one of several Africans who helped and organised numerous rescue efforts, sharing information online, supporting displaced African students.

He dedicated his time towards coordinating and transporting African students from the Poland-Ukraine border to safe zones, the displaced Africans escaping the Russia-Ukraine war, which has been raging since February 24.

“When I first heard that there were African students trying to leave Ukraine using the Medyka border, which borders Poland and Ukraine. I immediately knew I had to spring to action,” he told This is Africa.

His decision to render assistance was informed by his own tough experiences in Poland from the time he arrived in the country. 

“My years in Poland have taught me that it is hard to navigate the country without knowledge of the language and the value system. 

“So I decided to drive to the border and assist Zimbabweans who would have crossed over from Ukraine, into Poland,” Moyo said.

Simbarashe Moyo at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in Poland.

Zimbabwe does not have an embassy in Poland, and the Berlin consulate oversees issues in the country including those in Romania and Ukraine. When the war broke out, the embassy told students to find their way to Poland, or Romania and they could be assisted from there.

However, for many displaced Africans, leaving Ukraine was expensive and emotionally taxing and those who managed to cross the border would do so with little resources. For many, the journey was traumatic, which left them with no willpower to make sense of a new country. There have been reports of racially charged hostilities at the borders.

“Our main purpose at first was to help and bring Zimbabweans to safety from the Medyka Border but when we got at the boarder we discovered that when Africans saw us they felt relieved that they had found their own.

“Even though some were speaking French and Portuguese we could only understand each other using Russian and Polish,” Moyo said.

The Zimbabwean alliance

Moyo contacted the Zimbabwean Ambassador to Germany, Alice Mashingaidze with whom they formed an alliance. 

Reading for doctorate is demanding, and Moyo could have opted to devote his time consolidating his research work but he decided to set aside time to drive to Medyka, which is about 472 kilometres from Warsaw.

The aim was to trace and coordinate the movement of African Students and also help them when they cross over to Poland

The 34-year-old would do round trips once a day, leaving Warsaw early in the morning arriving at the border just after daybreak and then depart the border late afternoon to arrive in Warsaw in the evening. Together with his team of five other volunteers, namely Leane Chinzara, Tinashe Bangira, Toniso Masuka, Debra Teterayi and Mike Kafirinyu, they became the bona fide contact people for many students who were crossing into Poland.

“The aim was to trace and coordinate the movement of African Students and also help them when they cross over to Poland as we had our team at the boarder and other team in Lublin and Warsaw,” Moyo told This Is Africa.

The students who on average had to travel for between 24 to 72 hours from their different cities to borders, had varying needs.

“At the border in Medyka, we were transferring them from the border to Warsaw. We also helped them with translation as they dealt with immigration officials. There were also arrangements for food, accommodation and pickups to other countries,” Moyo added.

At borders, most of the work the alliance did was funded from their own pockets. They would mobilise resources from the Zimbabwean community in Poland.

“Once in Warsaw, we helped them secure accommodation in Airbnbs and hotels. Sometimes all the housings were booked to capacity and we had to approach churches, families to accommodate the students,” said Moyo.

The Zimbabwean Embassy in Germany took over costs, once the students were safely in Warsaw.

“We assisted about 55 Zimbabweans who came through Poland and 200 others from different countries who passed through Medyka border post,” Moyo added.

“We were consulting with the embassy who were the sole owners of the evacuation program. We were just volunteers who were working under strict instructions.

“We appreciate the work and guidance we got from the embassy, especially from Ambassador Alice Mashingaidze,” Moyo added.

Social media was central to their dissemination of information, as most updates and tips were sent via Telegram and WhatsApp groups.

Moyo says the students that passed through his hands should be enrolled into therapy, as their experience in the war zone may have left permanent scars.

“When we received the students, some of them would try to flee at the sound of sirens. This had become a reflex from their time when the sound meant they had to run underground to bomb shelters for safety.

“Some are still terrified to date and there is need for psychosocial support,” Moyo said.

Blessing Mushipe, one of the displaced students assisted by Simbarashe Moyo.

Blessing Mushipe one of the students assisted by Moyo, who has since reunited with her parents in Zimbabwe described the assistance she received.

“When we got to Poland, everything was in place including our accommodation, food, even tickets were paid for.

We then travelled to Germany, from where we boarded our planes back home,” Mushipe told This Is Africa.

According to the Zimbabwean Embassy in German, there were about 212 students in Ukraine, and all of them were successfully evacuated from the war-torn country. They were given return tickets back to Ukraine, just in case the chaos subsides and they have to immediately report for school. However, there are others who refused to return home to Zimbabwe and they opted to remain in Europe.

For Moyo, where people decided to go after leaving Ukraine was not much of a concern. His main worry was to ensure that the students are safe to make that choice.

Moyo who was a Catholic Youth Leader for six years in Zimbabwe is no stranger to service. He speaks ChiShona, English, Polish and is also conversant in Russian and Ukrainian.

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