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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Voronezh Faces Students' Concerns

MTMohammed Khammal, left, speaking with Voronezh city officials Denis Petrov and Boris Skrynnikov on Thursday.
VORONEZH -- A representative of the Voronezh city administration, speaking Thursday at a forum dedicated to International Students' Day, said the city was powerless to protect foreign students -- just over a month after the latest murder of a foreign student in the city.

"Speaking of recent incidents of violence against foreign students, we are of course deeply sorry about them, we consider it a huge problem, and we are worried about every foreign student in the city," said Denis Petrov, head of the city administration for youth matters, at a forum titled "Youth, Demography, Modernity."

But as much as the city wanted to take responsibility for foreign students, "there is no federal law clarifying whether we or the regional administration have that responsibility. Until there is such a law, there is nothing we can do to protect them," Petrov said.

On the evening of Oct. 9, Peruvian student Enrique Arturo Angeles Hurtado, 18, became the second foreign student killed in two years in the city. Hurtado and two friends were attacked by 15 to 20 young men while leaving a sports center. Hurtado's friends, who survived the attack, said several of the attackers were skinheads.

The slaying of Hurtado drew a fierce outcry from Voronezh's community of 1,200 foreign students, as well as condemnation from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Education and Science Ministry said it was looking into whether the city should be removed from a list of recommended places for foreign students to study.

At Thursday's forum, however, Voronezh Mayor Boris Skrynnikov said the city welcomed foreign students.

"We have many foreign students who finish their studies, start families here and stay permanently. There are many, many such examples," Skrynnikov said.

A dramatically different portrayal of the situation came from Moroccan student Mohammed Khammal, head of a local association of foreign students. Khammal was one of three foreign students at Thursday's forum who received an award "for a significant contribution toward the realization of youth politics" -- the timing of which Khammal called "suspicious."

"For years, we haven't been invited to any events of this kind," he said.

"When a student was killed in 2004, we were invited for the first time. Now, after another murder, we've been invited again. I think they believe they can congratulate us for something and make the whole problem go away."

The 30-year-old, who has been married to a Russian woman for three years, said that racism in Voronezh ran deeper than had been acknowledged at any level of government and was getting worse.

"You can feel the hatred all around the city. You can see in people's eyes it that they don't want us here," Khammal said.

"Since 1996, we've been trying to get an official response. In 1998, they began to beat us, and in 2004, they started to kill us. If something had been done back in '96, it may have prevented people from dying."

In June 2004, Amaru Antonio Lima, a student from Guinea-Bissau, was stabbed to death by skinheads in broad daylight.

"You hear about students being afraid to go to discos at night. What do we do when we're being attacked in broad daylight?" Khammal said.

Lima's slaying was one of 45 attacks on foreigners in Voronezh in the first nine months of this year, according to Voronezh region prosecutor Alexander Ponomaryov. Human rights activists and student associations say the vast majority of such attacks are racially motivated, while police overwhelmingly refer to incidents of violence against foreigners as "hooliganism."

"What is 'hooliganism'? Khammal said. "Look in a dictionary in most languages and you won't even find the word."

Thursday's forum was focused on the role of young people in tackling the country's demographic crisis. The population has fallen from 149 million to 143 million in the last five years.

President Vladimir Putin and others have talked of the importance of migration in combating the crisis, even as anti-migrant sentiments have played an increasingly large role in national politics.

Khammal said that members of his organization traveled to local schools to meet schoolchildren, many of whom were seeing people of color for the first time.

International Students' Day, celebrated since 1941, itself has a little-known link to ethnic violence of a previous generation. On Nov. 17, 1939, the Nazi government in Czechoslovakia closed universities and colleges and put many students in detention camps. Two years later, the London-based International Student Assembly declared the day a holiday in a gesture of solidarity with the students.

"They ask to touch our skin," Khammal said. "It's not offensive -- the important thing is that they know afterward that Africa isn't a single country.

"We're not asking for Russians to love us," he said. "We're asking for respect."