July 5, 2009 / 2:50 PM / in 9 years

Obama to visit Russia, where minorities live in fear

MOSCOW (Reuters) - When U.S. President Barack Obama flies into Russia on Monday for talks at the Kremlin, he will be visiting a country where anti-migrant sentiment means blacks and other minorities must live low-profile lives to avoid danger.

The advice to new African students in Moscow is simple.

“Don’t travel on the metro at night, avoid all travel on the metro during football matches and only go to nightclubs in groups,” said Barry Abdoulaye, the former head of the main African student union in the Russian capital.

The streets of Moscow are filled with white, ethnic Russian faces, with a smattering of darker-skinned people from ex-Soviet states in Central Asia and the Caucasus who mainly cook, clean and work on building sites.

Blacks are rare and stand out from the crowd.

Many of the Russian capital’s black population are students at the University of Peoples’ Friendship in a leafy suburb in southwest Moscow. There they can earn a well-regarded degree at a fraction of the price of a Western European university.

Ka Ndiaga, a computer engineering student from Senegal, sat and watched a group of Africans playing football. He said he was too nervous to venture far from the university campus.

“I’ve lived here for four years but only know the suburbs. I don’t know any other streets,” he said.

The cafes and streets around the university campus were full of students from Africa, the Middle East and east Asia relaxing and joking in a relatively safe environment.

Alexander Verkhovsky from the SOVA Center, a non-government organization that measures racist attacks in Russia, said the country had a serious problem.

“There is a higher level of racist violence here than in other parts of Europe,” he said. “The risk of arrest is much lower.”

Preliminary data from the SOVA Center showed 102 people died in racist attacks in Russia last year and 441 people were injured. Out of that figure, two blacks died and 22 were injured.

Most of the attacks are aimed at the thousands of people from Central Asia and the Caucasus working in Russia because they are far more numerous.

“But black people are a very high-risk group and they usually avoid using the metro,” Verkhovsky said.

Abdoulaye, the 29-year-old former student leader from Guinea in West Africa has lived in Moscow for eight years. He is married to a Russian and has a one-year-old daughter and he said that while the situation had improved, life in Moscow for Africans was still risky.

Ignorance has been as much of a problem as racism, he said, as a new generation of Russians has had far less exposure to Africa than during the Soviet Union when international Communist solidarity brought large numbers of students and visitors.

“When people find out you are from Africa, they ask if we have cars, if we have television sets,” Abdoulaye said.

But things are getting better and people’s attitude has softened, he said. There has not been a serious attack since the end of last year when two African students were seriously injured in a supermarket near the university.

Still, most of the African students head for home once they have completed their degree.

“It’s difficult for Africans to get jobs, the Russian people are just not ready for that yet,” he said.

One exception is Simon Ede from Nigeria. He stayed on after he finished his degree and is now a flamboyant DJ and rapper on Moscow radio station NRJ.

But after nearly 14 years in Moscow, Ede still has a fear of being attacked.

“Basically, I feel it at concerts and when I go into the metro,” he said.

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