Olympic wrestler and first black member of Ukrainian parliament Zhan Beleniuk says Ukraine is ‘not a racist country’

Zhan Beleniuk of Ukraine celebrates after winning goldREUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

  • In 2019, Zhan Beleniuk made history as the first black member of Ukraine’s parliament.

  • The wrestler also received a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, giving Ukraine its first gold medal in over 25 years.

  • Beleniuk says Ukraine is “not a racist country”, but has problems that need to be solved.

In February, as Russian forces led a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, original resident Zhan Beleniuk was faced with the decision to stay in his hometown of Kyiv with the threat of war just around the corner. .

He made the choice to stay to help support his country.

Two months later, Beleniuk says the town is still quiet. Although small pockets of people are beginning to return to the empty city, he says Kyiv is still a far cry from the city it once was. “The situation seems [mostly] the same,” Beleniuk told Insider. “There are a few more people now; [before]the streets were very empty.”

Born of a Ukrainian mother and a Rwandan father, Beleniuk has always lived in Ukraine. He was born in 1991, the same year Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. For him, Ukraine has always been a free country. When he was young, his father died as a pilot in the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. His mother raised him as a single parent in Kyiv.

At the age of 9, Beleniuk took up wrestling, a sport that would eventually take him to the Olympics. Today, as his sport takes him around the world, he misses his hometown during his absence.

“It’s my favorite city,” Beleniuk said of Kyiv. “As a sportsman, I travel to many cities around the world, but every time I do, I want to go home. Ukraine gave me everything I have now.”

Beleniuk won his first gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, giving Ukraine not only its only gold medal that year, but also the country’s first gold medal in more than 25 years. . Beyond his career as an athlete, Beleniuk works to make a difference through politics. In 2019 he became the first black member of the Ukrainian Parliament.

Afro-Ukrainians are an underrepresented part of the country’s population.

Beleniuk represents a small community of Afro-Ukrainians who live in the country. There are also thousands of African students in Ukrainian universities. Many immigrants come from African countries like Nigeria or Morocco to attend quality medical and technical schools at lower cost.

Since the invasion, Beleniuk says he has seen propaganda created by Russia that casts a negative light on Ukraine. Much of the propaganda is presented as Russian forces saving Ukrainians from Nazi oppressors. Russian media has also capitalized on allegations of discrimination against people of color at the Ukrainian border.

After videos went viral of African migrants being denied entry on trains and borders as they fled Russian forces descending on Kyiv, social media outrage ensued. Beleniuk acknowledges that racism exists among some in the country, but he denies that it is a problem unique to Ukraine.

It’s not only [a] The Ukrainian problem is a problem in all countries,he said. “I think every country has idiots.” He said that while he cannot speak directly to the experiences of African students or immigrants, he believes these examples do not represent the country as a whole.

I am a man who has [lived] in Ukraine, who was born here, who studied here, went to university here and became an Olympic champion and a member of the Ukrainian parliament,” he said. “I can tell you about racism inside our country, and I know the real situation. I know we may have some problems. But this problem [is not unique to us].”

Despite the dangers of staying in her hometown, Beleniuk says leaving home is not an option. He plans to stay to help his fellow citizens and support those on the front line defending their home country. “We need the support of other partners because you cannot stand alone in this war.”

“Ukraine was good [to us] before the army arrived,” he said. “But now we must protect our freedom and independence and fight this war to fight for our future.

Read the original Insider article

Robert J. King