09 January 2023
Once they played together,
now they pray together: how
USPG and Diocese in Europe
changes Ukrainian refugee lives
Amber Jackson from the diocese communications team in the Diocese of Europe and Patrick Comerford from USPG are visiting Anglican chaplaincies in Hungary and Finland to see how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees with funding from the joint Ukraine appeal.
Patrick Comerford visits the Jesuit Refugee Centre, First Steps and Saint Saint Columba’s Church in Budapest to hear how they are involved with Ukrainian refugees
Ukrainian refugees in Hungary are ‘praying together and playing together’ thanks to the support of the Anglican USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Anglican Diocese in Europe.
It is almost a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a major exodus of refugees from Ukraine into neighbouring countries, including Hungary, Poland and Romania.
Hungary, with a population of about 9.5 million, has 33,218 registered refugees from Ukraine. In contrast, the United Kingdom, with a population of about 66.5 million, has 152,200 refugees from Ukraine, while figures this month show the Republic of Ireland, with a population of 5 million, is accommodating over 73,490 refugees.
Many of the refugees arriving in Hungary from Ukraine are on the move, travelling on to third countries after receiving assistance and shelter, often from Church-based projects and volunteer-led groups.
Thanks to USPG and the Diocese in Europe, Church-based projects are ecumenical ventures, bringing together resources and people to respond to human needs with loving service.
In recent months, funds shared by USPG and the Diocese in Europe have helped the Jesuit Refugee Service of Hungarian Jesuits to provide accommodation for people on the move, furnish a chapel and develop community space in Uzhhorod inside Ukraine, close to the border with Hungary.
A student dormitory in Uzhhorod has also provided a base for the local community for more than 20 years. But, since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began a year ago, the dormitory has hosted 65 refugees, mostly elderly people, children and women.
When we met in Budapest, Father Szabolcs Sajgó of the Jesuit Refugee Service, recalled how the garden offered no few for refugees. With help from USPG and the Diocese in Europe, local people built a large garden pavilion as a space for community life. The roofed, open wooden pavilion was built in a day and a half.
The chapel was renovated by the end of July, but the local parish could not afford to buy the chairs, and the building needed a new heating and cooling system to replace an old gas-based system.
Grants from USPG and the Diocese in Europe also provided a new heating and cooling system for the chapel and 140 chairs for people in the chapel in the dorm and for the church in Palágykomoróc.
Working hands-on with Caritas in Ukraine, this has become significant ecumenical co-operation.
Evó Palkó describes in colourful and positive ways the cultural and religious diversity of the refugees who are being helped by projects like these. Many speak three languages, and their religious backgrounds include Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian.
As adults, they all share and talk together. As children, they all play together. Now, she agrees, thanks to funds channelled from the Diocese in Europe and USPG through the Jesuit Refugee Service and Caritas, they are praying together too.
Next Step Hungary is a refugee services agency in Budapest where Father Frank Hegedus of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church is a former board member. Next Step At weekends, the volunteers at Next Step can find themselves helping 500-600 people in the Hungarian capital, providing food, meals and clothing for refugees from Ukraine.
‘We were not prepared for this size of crisis,’ says James Peter, the director of Next Step. ‘The need is not going to stop.’
Francesca Cheruiyot is a volunteer distribution co-ordinator and Kiry Noémi Ambrus is Operations and Field Manager with Next Step. They introduced us to see a distribution centre run by Next Step.
Many refugees are unseen, living out in the countryside, in small towns and villages, and it is difficult for them to make their way into Budapest. Francesca Cheruiyot spoke of a mother with three young children who cannot make the journey by public transport into the city and queue for hours to access basic needs.
Rapidly rising inflation in Hungary and lengthy queues for basic foods make a harsh life even more difficult for refugees, particularly elderly people, mothers with young children and people with disabilities.
Next Step is also giving volunteers a ‘purpose in life.’ James Peter says: ‘We are seeing the sweet side of humanity.’
‘Everybody in the team wants to be there,’ he says. But he admits many volunteers are in danger of spreading themselves thinly. Some are working lengthy days, and James has not had a proper holiday for six years.
‘If we don’t do it, who else will do it?’ asks Francesca asks.
‘We love what we’re doing,’ Kiry Noémi Ambrus says.
Saint Columba’s is the Church of Scotland church in Budapest and Saint Margaret’s is the Anglican church in the Hungarian capital.
Saint Columba’s runs a Food Bank with hands-on support from people in both congregations.
‘Little did we know then how soon war would consume a neighbouring country,’ says the Revd Aaron Stevens of Saint Columba’s. In a joint venture with the Food Bank Aid Kft and the Scottish Mission Food Bank, Saint Columba’s Church is able to ‘respond to human need in loving service.’
The needs of refugee families have become more difficult in Hungary, where a recent report shows the country has the tenth highest rate of food Inflation in the world.
The Food Bank at Saint Columba’s reaches 100 households each week and feeds 300 people weekly. The project offers basic staples, fresh fruit and vegetables, and hygiene products. Gift cards allow people to buy items they choose themselves, such as meat.
Volunteers sort out the orders each Wednesday, and the bags are ready each Thursday. The distribution day has turned into a time to socialise, so Saint Columba’s has also set up a café. When they pick up their bags, people can now take a break, meet and chat with one another, and families enjoy the children’s corner before starting the long commute back home.
‘Through co-operation with other organisations, we’ve also been able to provide hygiene products, shoes, blankets, scripture booklets and more,’ says the Revd Aaron Stevens. ‘In December, children were able to receive just the presents they asked for, thanks to generous donations from individuals. The Christmas party was a festive occasion at the close of the year.’
‘It was also at the Christmas party that children received blankets, hats, gloves and more thanks to our neighbours at Saint Margaret’s Church, the Bishop’s Appeal and the Diocese of Europe.’
Support comes from other partners too, including the UN Migration agency IOM, Next Step, the Hungarian Bible Society, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, the British-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle, the Irish Embassy and Lions Club International.
The UNHCR continues to maintain Hungary as a ‘Level 3 Emergency’, the highest possible designation.
These three projects, helped by USPG and the Diocese in Europe, show how the church responses on the ground in the past year mean the churches are now in position to respond in the quickest manner in the event of a significant additional influx.