Alongside the Bad, the Good always appears – my experience as a volunteer in the Ukrainian refugee crisis

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It is absolute madness what is happening in the neighboring country. Millions of women, children and elderly people have fled Ukraine. Many of them are arriving in Hungary. I must admit that I personally was horrified when the news of the war reached me. Then, reading the news, I saw how quickly aid organizations, NGOs and volunteer everyday people sprang into action. For a long time, I only followed their work on the internet. I read about how the aid process was improving day by day, how they were becoming more organized, more effective – and how the need for them was growing.

I kept thinking that I should get involved myself. But to be honest, I was scared. Even though as a coach, I encounter many people in terribly difficult life situations every day, I was still hesitant in this situation. I feared that if I went out to help, my soul would not be able to cope with seeing all those tiny children, shocked people who don’t necessarily know where to go next or what to do with their lives. Then the thought arrived to my head and the feeling to my heart that the energy of helping would balance all these emotional burdens in me, so I should go and help.

What follows is my own personal experience, the things I have experienced so far as a helper at the two main railway stations in Budapest. (Update: since I wrote this article, the refugees are not arriving to these railway stations any more, but there is a centralized location for them, organized by the Hungarian Government, NGOs, aid organizations and civilian volunteers together.)

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I was able to go to the Nyugati railway station to help that very evening, when the extra trains from the Hungarian-Ukrainian boarder had stopped arriving there. So “only” the regularly scheduled trains from Záhony brought the people fleeing the Ukrainian war. But there were still people, many of them. And the help was still very much needed. There and then, I first followed a dear friend as a shadow, who had been helping out every night since the beginning. From her I learned the main information (in about half an hour), then I went to people myself and asked how I could help them.

It is important to note here that I do not speak neither Ukrainian, nor Russian. I do speak English, but my own personal experience is that most people don’t speak much English. Anyway, I could help with some basic things, through some English words, using Google translate or gestures. When that really didn’t work, somehow an interpreter who spoke Ukrainian/Russian always turned up to help out. Because a lot of these civilians come and help. They are always there; in their free time they go and translate. But one thing is for sure, there are never enough Ukrainian/Russian speaking interpreters. As I have seen, there are about an infinite number of interpreters who could help in any given location.

The Ukrainian refugees I spoke to had been on the road for many days, up to 4-5 days continuously. When they arrived in Budapest, they were already completely physically and mentally exhausted, for perfectly understandable reasons. And for most of them, Hungary is not their final destination. From here they go on to Poland, Germany, Italy or any other countries. For many of them, their whole life is a few nylon bags in which they can bring things from home. Because, as one of them told me, when Kiev was bombed, the suitcases in the shops ran out very quickly. And those who didn’t have one or couldn’t buy, packed their lives in bags… But you can imagine, when mothers, even with very small children in their arms, run off to save their lives, how much they can take with them… About nothing… That’s how they arrive here. Some people even without any money.

Alongside the Bad, the Good always appears.

And by that I mean it’s fantastic to see volunteer groups providing support to the refugees. The first time I was out in the Keleti railway station, there were a number of aid organizations and NGO groups waiting for the arriving people. They give them food, water, toiletries, diapers and toys for children, strollers for mothers, pet food and carriers for pets, etc. These things are donated by private, civilian individuals. People like you and me. Some people make lots and lots of sandwiches at home every day, some people donate their strollers that are no longer used, some people donate shelves to store these donations in each tent. And so much more, it’s hard to list. Civilian people offer accommodation in their own homes, for short or longer stays, civilian people volunteer all day every day to transport Ukrainian refugees to the shelters in their own cars. In addition to this, the Hungarian Railway provides free transport for refugees, and the Budapest Public Transport Company has provided free buses for them for transfers between the two railway stations and the airport, and there is also a special shelter bus and shelter train where arrivals can sit and rest. And a separate bus takes longer-stayers to their accommodation. There are police officers and officers of the emergency services constantly on the ground, with whom – as I observed in one case – the regular helpers are already on first name basis. After all, everyone who is out here now is working for one purpose, to help.

Seeing this, I must say that there is still hope for humanity. Even though there are so many bad things happening in the world, there are still many people who choose to help instead of hurting others or turning their heads away.

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Because yes, it breaks my heart when a mother with three children, teary-eyed with terror, just says on arrival at 10 o’clock at night that she just wants a coffee, to warm up and calm down a bit with her children. My soul really does crash when I see the 10-year-old child at the international ticket office, who in his exhaustion can only cry. I want to cry myself as well, when a little boy takes a white teddy bear from the toys offered to him and hugs it with great affection – because he probably had to leave all his toys at home. Or when I see an old man in his eighties, stumbling with a stick, holding a sandwich that someone has lovingly made in their home and taken out as a donation.

But in such a situation, there is no time to cry. We must go and help where we can. That is how we can give the most.

On another occasion I also went to the Nyugati railway station, late in the afternoon. I thought I’d stay for, like 3 hours, and do what I could until then. When I arrived, there were no trains coming in, so not many people to help. So, I went to the international ticket office to see what was going on, but there were already Ukrainian-speaking interpreters at all the ticket office windows, and my English would have been of little use to anyone there. So, I went to the Civilians’ tent to ask what I could do to help. Well, this 3-hour program turned out to be 5 hours of packing and sorting the many donations that civilian people had brought there. Then and there, that was I could do to help. To be involved in creating a relatively transparent system to make the operation more efficient. Oh, and by the way, the packing continued even after I went home.

I was in the Keleti railway station the other day. There, I also did things that I saw was needed. I brought coffee to a helper working in a tent, meanwhile, where I asked for coffee, I picked up trash on the counter for them. Sometimes I was supervising children in the children’s corner while the Ukrainian-speaking helper ran over to get something from elsewhere. Once we helped a mother, with the help of the officers of the emergency services, to find out where the medical emergency room was in the railway station, because her little son had a fever. I have helped people with the operation of the luggage lockers. Then I helped two young girls, together with a friend of mine, to book a bus ticket to Poland and we explained to them how to get from here to that certain bus station in Budapest. We also helped foreign reporters by translating from Hungarian to English. My attitude was that if the work didn’t find me, I would find it. I asked refugees, people working inside the tents, anyone really, what I could do to help. Sooner or later there was always something I could do to help someone.

As I wrote in the update above, since I wrote this article originally in Hungarian, the helping system has been centralized. But it doesn’t mean, that the civilians’ help is not needed any more. Either here in Hungary, or in any other part of the world. If you look for the opportunities, surely you will find the way how you can help all these people, who are now running away from their homes in Ukraine, running away from the war.

If you can, help these people. However small your own help may feel, believe me, it makes a big difference to the people who receive it from you!

Let’s strengthen the Good in the world together!

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