Afro-Ukrainian champion athlete and politician Zhan Beleniuk was born January 24, 1991 in the capital city of Kyiv (a.k.a. Kiev) to Svitlana Beleniuk, a Ukrainian dressmaker. His father, Vincent Ndagijimana, an ethnic Hutu and former student at Ukraine’s National Aviation University, was killed in a “politically motivated car accident” in his native Rwanda in 1994 during that nation’s genocidal civil war. Beleniuk never saw his father who left the Ukraine prior to his birth. The only child of his mother, he was raised with the help of his grandmother in a one-room apartment in Kyiv. He began working at an early age to earn income for the family. Growing up he suffered the trauma of racist taunts by neighborhood children and had fistfights with his tormentors, all of which plunged him into depression.
Fortunately, Beleniuk’s physical talents were recognized at age nine when he took up the sport of Greco-Roman style wrestling. He earned medals in international junior competitions and in 2014 won gold at the European Wrestling Championships and bronze at the World Championships. The following year he captured gold in his weight class at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships then gold at the 2016 European Wrestling Championships. He capped 2016 with a silver medal at the Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2018 in Bucharest, Romania, Beleniuk placed first in the European Championships; first place in 2019 at the European Games in Minsk, Belarus and at the World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. The crowning achievement of his athletic career was his defeat of Hungary’s Viktor Lorincz to win gold at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. It was the only gold medal won by Ukraine at that world competition and the only gold brought back to the motherland in 25 years.
Beleniuk’s victories on the mat translated to victory in the voting booth. Encouraged by members of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s emerging Servant of the People party, in 2019 he successfully ran for a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament becoming the first person of sub-Saharan African descent to occupy such high political office in that nation. But his accomplishments as a Ukrainian-born citizen were not universally welcomed. Strolling down a street in the Pechersk district of his hometown in August 2021 Beleniuk, a recognized Olympic gold medalist and member of Parliament, was verbally assaulted by youths who called him “a black monkey” and told him to “go the Africa.” President Zelensky condemned his assailants. Repeatedly asked about acts of blatant racism and discrimination Beleniuk once responded: “This is not only [a] Ukrainian problem, it’s a problem in every country. I think every country has some idiots.”
The start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 brought attention to Beleniuk who was interviewed by American media outlets because of racially-inspired mistreatment of foreign students of color struggling flee across borders to safety. He was asked to comment on how he hoped to defend his country against Russian aggression. Though lacking military training he armed himself and told one reporter: “We’ve heard that the Russians have targeted the president and certain members of Parliament, because they want to bring in a puppet who will follow their orders. But I am from Kyiv. I am not going anywhere, and nor is the president.”