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‘I left my breakfast on the table — it was a  split-second decision to go’

03 March 2022

Alexander Faludy reports from Záhony on how church relief agencies are helping Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Hungary


A train carrying approximately 800 refugees from Ukraine arrives in Záhony, Hungary, on Wednesday

A train carrying approximately 800 refugees from Ukraine arrives in Záhony, Hungary, on Wednesday

CHURCH relief agencies have taken a leading part in Hungary’s response to the unfolding refugee crisis on the country’s border with Ukraine, offering assistance on the other side of it.

Hungary’s border with Ukraine is not long (136.7km), but is presently the site of a heavy, and intensifying, refugee exodus: Hungary has become the second most-favoured destination after Poland — which has received the bulk of refugees (368,000) so far, owing to its long frontier on both sides of the Carpathian mountain range.

Staff and volunteers from the charity Hungarian Reformed Church Aid were first on the scene at the railway station at Záhony, on Hungary’s Ukrainian border: one of the principal entry points for arrivals fleeing the conflict. They were soon joined by the Red Cross and relief workers for Caritas-Hungary.

While the local government has set up a small overnight facility at Záhony, Hungarian Baptist Aid (Hungary’s largest relief agency) has also created a reception facility, with sleeping accommodation, in the Rákóczi Ferenc Reformed Church High School in the village of Tiszabecs, a road and foot crossing 90km away from Záhony. The senior co-ordinator is an experienced aid worker and Baptist pastor, the Revd Lajos Révész.

The formation of the centre, he says, was a “joint effort” between Hungarian Baptist Aid and the local Reformed Church congregation; they are working together as an “amazing warm partnership”. The national leaders of the different church agencies are in constant contact, he says: “We do not just agree on who goes where, but also on sending each other supplies where one has a surplus and another shortages.

“If one place has too much soap or blankets and another not enough, we send it, and vice versa. The relationship is very close. . . People are volunteering here not only from the local Reformed Church, but from no church at all — this matters to everyone.”

Most arrivals so far have proceeded on to Budapest, either by train or bus laid on by central government authorities. Reception facilities in the capital are, however, now reported becoming clogged, and alternatives are beginning to be arranged in or near significant provincial cities.

Aid is, however, also going across the border from church bodies. Caritas-Hungary is co-ordinating closely with its sister organisation Caritas-Ukraine. It has sent an aid package for use in west Ukraine, and is making deliveries of food and toiletry supplies.

The Hungarian Maltese Charity Service is also active in the relief effort. It is prioritising children, the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities, “as general measures to support people forced to leave their homes do not usually address the needs of more vulnerable groups”, Magyar Kurir, the news website of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, reports.

“The [Catholic] Diocese of Munkács Ukraine also receives internal refugees in Transcarpathia. In order to provide food and blankets, the Hungarian Catholic Caritas sent an assistance in cash and delivered durable food to the area.”

The Central Europe spokesman for the UNHCR, Zoran Stefanovic, said that, by 4 p.m. on Monday, Hungary had received 85,000 displaced persons: roughly treble the numbers crossing into Slovakia and Romania.

The agency has no reliable estimate of the numbers presently penned up in the small border region of Zakarpattia (Subcarpathia), which borders all four of Ukraine’s EU neighbours (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania). Vehicle lines of 25km have been reported, however. Travellers by train from Csap, in Ukraine, to Záhony, in Hungary, report waits of six hours to get a ticket for the 20-minute journey.

“I think there might have been as many as 10,000 people waiting at the train station at Csap,” one Moroccan medical student from central Ukraine told me, after a three-day journey to reach Hungary. “I left my breakfast on the table; it is still there. It was a split-second decision to go.”

At first, arrivals were mainly ethnic Hungarians and Hungarian-speaking Roma from the Zakarpattia border region of west Ukraine. There is no fighting there, and no missiles have struck. Most travelled as a precaution against possible further trouble, and were able to stay with relatives or friends on the other side of the frontier, many of whom collected them from the border posts by car.

But things are changing rapidly: arrivals are now coming from the east of the Carpathians. These are both Ukrainians and foreign residents of Ukraine. One whom I spoke to from the doorway of a train to Budapest which was paused at Záhony on Saturday was Alan Sutton, an independent accounts examiner for the Anglican chaplaincy St Margaret’s, Budapest.

He had had a 22-hour journey from Dnipro, as his blacked-out train was re-routed during the night to avoid bombing, and railway lines were rendered impassable by it.

“I have left a house, a garden, a son, an organ, a piano, and 24 years of my life behind,” Mr Sutton said. “My boy is Ukrainian: he knows no other home, and struggles with English. He’s determined to stay and fight in the Ukrainian militia; it is his country.”

Dominic Arbuthnot, the treasurer of St Margaret’s, Budapest, arrived in Záhony on Tuesday morning with a car full of food supplies for the arriving refugees, collected on his own initiative. “The chaplaincy is thinking about the right way to be of most help; the congregation has already donated to the diocese in Europe’s relief fund,” he told me.

To date, the refugee situation in Hungary appears to be challenging, but manageable. There are worries, however, about the future. A particular concern is how things may worsen should the present line of Russian advance cut off escape routes over the long Polish and Romanian frontiers east of the Carpathians. This would leave the Subcarpathian region as the only safe corridor, and risk extraordinary pressure on its crossing, creating a humanitarian bottleneck.

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