I have many memories from my childhood as a young immigrant to the United States and it was under the condition of immigration that I learned about the slipperiness of humanity. Displacement, voluntary or otherwise, is the psychosocial space of immigration that I began to understand as an identity. My mother was driven by a determination to ensure her children had access to education; at the time such access was not guaranteed in our home country of Jamaica. As a child of generations of farmers, my mother knew that education was a way out of limitations that agricultural life without professional degrees presented. She wanted a wider range of choices for her children; she immigrated and got them.
Three months ago today, when Russia invaded Ukraine, when student transcripts and demographic records were still accessible, the news reported that “more than 80,000 international students were registered for spring semester courses at Universities in the Ukraine. Of that reported 80,000 international students, approximately 40,000+ were identified as students of Africa/African Diaspora. I am trying to grasp the concept that now that records are lost/destroyed and/or otherwise compromised, the number of African/African Diaspora students in the Ukraine at the beginning of the war is being reported as a few thousand instead of tens of thousands. I am not really bad at math: I still remember core element of my honors class high school calculus (which I admit I completed with some difficulty) and university trigonometry. I even made some headway in advance algebra before withdrawing from the course, but kept course materials with which I dabble and played long after. I fell in love with math at a very young age, seduced by the sureness and the complexity of it. Assured by knowing that there was always a ‘right’, correct, answer, math gave me a sense of home, as sense of place in the vast ecology of displacement the constantly threatened to envelop me . During my elementary school years, I would sit for hours making up math problems that I would then spend hours solving. With the right formula and determination, in math there was always a solution to the problem I was given or created for myself.
Math taught me appreciation for nuance and complexity; to look deeply at details and that little and big things matter be it addition, subtraction, positive, negative, real, irrational, natural, and exponent, and more. Pay attention to the details. Math is a social justice practice and a practice of humanity. And, it is the math in the reporting on the Russia/Ukraine war that disturbs me because it disrupts notions of both justice and humanity.
According to the United Nation High Commission, there have been 3,942 civilian deaths in the Ukraine and 4,591 injuries. NPR reports that “Almost 6.6 million people fled Ukraine during the war” In a recent report Chepkorir Sambu a graduate student of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy reported in The New Humanitarian that at the beginning of the Russian attack there was an “estimated 16,000 African students. It is possible that the absent 24,000 are from the African Diaspora, a nuance that may have been missed in the initial reporting when records were available and the convenience of grouping Africa and the African Diaspora made contextual administrative sense. Nonetheless, somewhere along the way, if not before, reports seem to have lost track of the fact that these numbers represent actual human beings with human aspirations. In the early months of Russia’s attack on the Ukraine these aspirations coalesced into a concerted goal to protect one’s life by fleeing bombs and bullets. Whether 16,000 or 40,000, current report account for just above 1000 escaping the violence of the war, but most of the 1000 have not escaped the violence of Anti-Black racism. Many are struggling to find safety and humanity in the ‘host’ countries to which they escaped. And, assuming the arc of humanity bends toward justice, those of 40,000 or 16,000 left behind in the Ukraine, forced to endure bombs, bullets, and racial brutality, must eventually be accounted for. The thing about math is that one must account for what is left over or left behind. All the numbers are important and valued in the making and unmaking of a problem. I will not stop asking for an account of these students. And, as the war ritual of counting the dead and injured is well on its way with the horror of lives lost on both sides of the war becoming ever more apparent, justice and humanity mandate that the lives of these students also be accounted for. Those left over or left behind must be accounted for. It’s simple math. Their humanity is a non-negotiable.