Sage Advocate Unites City's Foreign Pupils

One day at the Academy of Oil and Gas, a Russian student stopped Anicet Gabriel Kotchofa and asked him if he had any drugs to sell.

The 37-year-old African teacher of geology, who has lived in Moscow for 14 years, took the young man to a nearby cafeteria, bought him a soft drink and calmly explained that just because he's African doesn't mean he's selling drugs.

"The perception that we're all selling drugs is something all African students here are suffering from," said Kotchofa, who added that few African students want to risk an arrest or jail term with their studies at stake.

In part to counter such negative perceptions, Kotchofa formed the Association of Foreign Students of the Russian Federation, which was registered with the government last spring.

Although it is open to all foreign students, the association's mission is largely to help students from third world countries deal with three major issues: how to buy tickets to go back home, how to meet the cost of living and, most importantly, how to ensure their safety and security.

"Our world has been turned upside down," said Kotchofa, a native of Benin in west Africa. "If before we had no problems in the hostels, today it's the opposite. You can get accosted anywhere."

During the years of the Soviet Union, thousands of African students received scholarships to study in Moscow and other cities as part of the government's effort to promote socialism in third world countries.

These students received good stipends and were well-protected, along with the rest of the foreign community.

However, since democracy and economic reforms were ushered in five years ago, the government subsidies have been reduced, and many African students have become the targets of police and criminals alike.

"They say African students are selling drugs," Kotchofa said. "I can't say that no Africans are selling drugs, but most aren't students."

He added, "I don't want to focus on racism. Our aim is to unite everyone."

Kotchofa also served on the executive committee of the Foreign Student Association of the Soviet Union, the precursor to the current organization. After the group was disbanded following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, it took another two years to re-form it, he said.

The association's founding members include the 12 largest Russian universities, each of which has contributed 5 million rubles ($888) into the association's budget. And, so far, students have displayed an active interest in the organization that represents their needs, Kotchofa said. At the new group's first conference in February 1995, 100 foreign student delegates from 17 Russian cities and 28 Russian universities attended.

Today Kotchofa shuttles back and forth between meetings with university rectors and top government officials such as Education Minister Vladimir Kinelev, with whom he recently met to discuss issues that will face foreign students this year.

"We discussed security problems, medical insurance and money," Kotchofa said. "We told him what we wish and what we need, so he understands our problems."

One of the biggest problems these students face, Kotchofa said, is that -- with airline tickets costing hundreds or thousands of dollars -- the students often cannot afford to return home to their families and practice the professions for which they've been studying.

"Many still come to us and want to return home," Kotchofa said.

According to Russian law, the government was only obligated to purchase a ticket home for students who completed their studies. But many students have had to abandon their studies for work when they found they could no longer live on their monthly 75,000-ruble stipends.

But Kotchofa's work has shown some results. The Academy for Oil and Gas' dormitory for foreign students is being moved to a building with better security. And Russia, for the first time since 1991, has given 4,000 scholarships to foreign students, thanks in a large part to Kotchofa's association.

"We worked on that for two years," he said. "How can a big country like Russia not give scholarships to students from poor countries?"