Op-Ed: A blatant double standard for refugees from Ukraine


I opened my computer to launch Zoom for my course on Indigenous Media in Latin America. As I got rolling, I noticed my voice starting to tremble and my eyes turning red as I looked at myself in the zoom camera.

As I called out each student’s name, tears began to stream down my cheeks. I noticed that the students looked nervous and stressed. I quickly apologized and told them I had to cancel classes for the day.

My students never knew that my father’s family is from Ukraine. They thought I was a queer Chicano professor because I identified myself that way in all my classes at UC Riverside.

The night before, on February 23, I watched a CNN reporter in Odessa talk about how Vladimir Putin’s army was bombing the outskirts of the city. My father’s family comes from Odessa. I grew up hearing stories about Odessa from my father, grandfather and great-aunt during their years in exile from the Soviet Union in Los Angeles. I was shocked and disgusted with Putin that evening when I heard the explosions on TV near Kyiv, a city I went to by train when I was teaching Spanish in Moscow for two years.

Over the course of this weekend, I have watched the Ukrainian refugee crisis grow bigger by the day. I read that Airbnb paid that thousands of refugees remain in their rooms. Thousands of Europeans in dozens of countries opened their doors to Ukrainians. I was encouraged but worried at the same time. Media around the world from left, right and center lauded the bravery of these refugees, and some reporters called them heroes.

An overwhelming majority of my students in my courses at UCR are Latinos. Some of them are refugees from Latin America and some are “dreamers”. I asked if any of them had noticed anything about this growing refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, and some were quick to point out the double standard.

A few weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, my class watched interviews about the forced sterilization of Latina refugees in an immigration detention center in Georgia. We talked about the Latino children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who are still being held in US Immigration and Customs detention centers to this day. The double standard in the media portrayal of Ukrainian refugees in Europe compared to the images of Haitian, Central American and Mexican migrants at the Mexican border was obvious to everyone in my class.

I thought of the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Ukraine and the tens of thousands of refugees who have had to flee their homes in Central America, Mexico and other parts of Latin America because of wars, dictatorships, gang wars and cartel terrorism. Refugees and migrants uprooted from their homes all experience trauma, whether they come from Latin America or Eastern Europe.

The images of people fleeing Ukraine shook me as I recalled my family’s stories of Ukraine and Mexico as both sides left their home countries for a better life.

My undocumented grandfather, Candelario Muñoz, changed his name to Benjamin García when he crossed the Mexican border. He had to assume the identity of a deceased relative in California when he brought my mother, then a teenager, to Compton.

My other grandfather, Sviatoslav, had a sister, Neda, who taught me my first Russian words as a child. She was full of energy and recited Pushkin with so much drama it made me laugh as a kid. Neda left Odessa when the Soviet Union became as oppressive as Russia is today under Putin. When she died of cancer, she said loudly in Russian: “Take me out of this hospital and throw my body into the Black Sea off Odessa. I want to go home.”

In the end, my Tiota Neda was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, surrounded by other Russian speakers and Armenians from the former Soviet Union. I cried more than once thinking about my grandfather Slava, grandmother Alya and Neda. Authorities in Moscow took their homes and opened the graves of their relatives in the Odessa cemetery, disrespecting their families. Throughout their years of exile in LA, they missed their old home.

Ukraine and Mexico came together to raise my family in the Los Angeles border area. My Chicano-Mexican-Russian-Ukrainian border-crossing identity aches as I watch Putin’s war unfold as further waves of Latin American and, more recently, Ukrainian refugees develop Arrive at the Tijuana-US border. My hope is that after this tragedy, future refugees arriving at the Mexican border, whether from Honduras or Ukraine, will be treated with the same dignity they all deserve.

Nikolái Ingistov-García is an Associate Professor of Spanish Language and Latin American Studies at UC Riverside. Op-Ed: A blatant double standard for refugees from Ukraine

Caroline Bleakley

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