A Pedacito Of Volunteering At A Ukrainian Refugee Shelter In Budapest
Somewhere in downtown Budapest, Hungary there is a makeshift refugee shelter housing over 100 Ukrainians and other nationalities who fled the war in Ukraine. Forgive the ambiguity, but this shelter isn’t technically “legal” so I must be careful with the information provided in this article.
The shelter basically began like this: a young British business owner, who has lived in Budapest for many years, saw a need to house the massive influx of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine to Hungary. He contacted some of his wealthy Hungarian friends and was able to secure an entire floor of rooms which he converted into dorms.
From there, he reached out, through various social media sites, asking for volunteers, and donations, and to let the Ukrainians know that there was a free place to stay if they needed it. Within days, the rooms were filled, and a full staff of volunteers was on-hand to help.
I found out about the shelter while looking for an apartment on Facebook. Like the other volunteers, I had felt hopeless about the terrible situation in Ukraine and desperately needed to focus my energy in a positive way, after several weeks of watching the tragedy unfold.
This temporary shelter isn’t meant to be a permanent solution for those fleeing war. It’s simply a place for people to come and catch their breath, while they figure out their next moves.
Through various charities, and donations, the shelter offers the refugees up to five nights of free lodging. It also offers basic necessities such as free food, toiletries, and help to find everything from pro-bono legal advice to free haircuts for refugees.
When I arrived at the shelter on my first day as a volunteer, I was surprised to find that not all of those seeking refuge were originally from Ukraine. Many of the inhabitants were African students, who had been studying in Ukraine when the war began.
Along with the students are Ukrainian families consisting of mothers and their children. The only Ukrainian men at the shelter are older since the husbands and fathers have stayed in Ukraine to fight.
The volunteers at the shelter are equally diverse. I have met students from Germany and France who were studying in Budapest when the shelter opened, as well as Australians and Americans who were simply on vacation in Europe when the war broke out and decided to come to Hungary to help in any way they could.
But among the refugees and volunteers alike, I have noticed the same solemn visage. These are people who have witnessed or heard stories that will fundamentally change them forever. Though they remain calm, there is a look of anxiety and unbearable sadness in their eyes.
Though none of them know what the future will bring, the consensus is that this is just the beginning of a long and desperate war. And this makes even the smallest of incidents seem more important.
For example, yesterday I noticed a young Ukrainian girl accidentally spill soup on her t-shirt. She frantically ran to the sink and began to scrub out the stain. It occurred to me, that she might have very few clothes with her, and a stain on one of her shirts, though seemingly unimportant in the grand scheme of things, soon takes on new meaning.
I had the opportunity to go out for a night on the town with several of the volunteers and a few Ukrainians. I began talking with a Ukrainian girl, who was in her early thirties. She told me that she was a successful party promoter from Odessa. She had been living at the shelter for three weeks because she simply had no idea where else to go. The rest of her family had stayed behind in Odessa.
Outside of the jazz club where we were talking, she pulled out her phone to show me that it had broken earlier that day. Although a broken phone is certainly annoying, I couldn’t understand the tears that were beginning to form in her eyes. Then she explained the phone’s significance.
“Without this phone, I have family and friends who I do not know how to contact to see where they are, and if they are alive and okay”, she told me. She then began to weep uncontrollably, while I and several other volunteers tried to console her.
As she gathered herself enough to speak, she looked up at the clear night sky and asked the questions that so many other Ukrainians are asking themselves all over Europe and the rest of the world. “What will happen to me, now? What will happen to my country?”