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It Takes A Village

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It Takes A Village

How a small-town mayor led Hungary’s efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees.

A charity dinner for refugee families in Beregsurany. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I opened my eyes and looked out the window as the fields rolled by. I looked at my watch. My sleep had been almost 2 hours. We have three kilometers to go before we arrive at our destination, the tiny Hungarian village Beregsurany. It is just two km from the border of Hungary and Ukraine.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 10 million people have been displaced by the current war between Russia and Ukraine. About 3.6million of these displaced people have fled the country. The bulk of the Ukrainian refugees, about 2.2 million, have made their way northwest into Poland, but a sizable chunk, between 500 to 600 thousand, have exited the country via the narrow border Ukraine shares with Hungary.

Since the Russian invasion began, Beregsurany, a quiet, rural town with a population of just over 600, has been transformed from a place where nothing much happens to one of Hungary’s five major centers devoted to processing and transporting refugees.

I was anxious to get there. Outside my window, the expanse of the Pannonian plain, where the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is thought to have written part of his Meditations, flashed by. We would need only a few hours in order to travel the land where Aurelius, legionnaires and others spent approximately a decade. Virtue and mindfulness were heavy on my brain. It was clear that I had the ability to be patient.

The bus eventually pulled up to a wooden, Hungarian-style square archway and came to a stop. The other journalists, including a couple of Spaniards and two Poles on the trip, as well as two Germans and two Poles and two Americans, got out of the bus. A canvas sign covering part of the beautiful arch carvings was placed underneath. It said something in Hungarian that I could not understand. Underneath was some English: “Help Center.”

As we were snapping pictures of the arch, a burly man in military garb strode confidently down the gravel road towards us. He walked closer to us and I was beginning to think he was staring at me. But he then spoke in Hungarian, which revealed that what I believed was his scowl was actually just his mischievous smile. The mayor had sent him as an emissary to take us to the refugee processing facility just down the gravel road. After a brief exchange with the program coordinator who was mostly acting as a translator, he turned and started marching down the gravel roads.

We approached a pale yellow building that looked like some kind of villa, with a small portico with columns out front. Later, I learned that the building had been a large estate belonging to one of the local noble families before the Nazi occupations. This building is the current village hall. A portion of the driveway was lined with temporary structures measuring seven and ten feet in width as we approached the backside. One was for medical exams, the other was for a bathroom. The former villa was also home to other pop-up tents and trailers. These installations were created by the Bridge for Transcarpathia aid program (Hid Karpataljaert), a charity working with the Hungarian government for the safe transport and processing of Ukrainian refugees.

As we gathered in preparation to meet a few of the Hungarian officials heading up Beregsurany’s efforts, a Mercedes shuttle pulled around the opposite side of the building. A handful of middle-aged ladies jumped out carrying heavy over-shoulder bags as well as their rolling luggage. Two children aged ten and an elderly man climbed out from the back row of the shuttle. One of the coordinators for the program said that they had just arrived in the shuttle from the border. They are refugees.” As I watched, the refugees were greeted by Bridge for Transcarpathia members who offered them sandwiches and coffee. He lit up a cigarette, and he held the hot beverage in his hand. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with a biting wind and heavy cloud cover.

Eventually, the county representative, Andras Kiss, and Beregsurany’s mayor, Istvan Herka, met up with our group to discuss how they are managing the current crisis. Kiss, a short, slim man in his mid-30s, made his way towards the front, greeting our interpreter and program director. Kiss extended one of his long, straight arms towards the mayor. “The mayor since the first day, which was February 24, has been doing an outstanding job. He was next to the buses, he helped refugees first hand, and so he’s been fighting on the front lines.”

“I’ll never forget that after a week,” Kiss went on to say, “he [the mayor] said he was very happy to be able to sleep three hours, because for the whole first week he was only able to sleep one or two hours a day.”

He gave the floor over to the mayor. Herka, a tall but strong man of about 5’6 inches and carrying two bills, is short but solid. His face is round and reflects his physique. His snow white hair is a result of his long, well-trimmed mustache and dense beard. Deep bags that have developed over a period of more than a month are below his green eyes. His thick, calloused hands are of working class, and they sit comfortably on his stomach.

“There is a saying in Hungarian, ‘God welcomes you to this place,’ so welcome,” the mayor said. Herka stated that even though the population is small in Beregsurany, there are many people who ask about what the community can do and what to bring.

Herka explained that Beregsurany is a transit point for Ukrainian refugees. After crossing the border they will be brought to the shuttle station where they can complete all necessary paperwork and receive any supplies that they might need. The average refugee who passes through the border stays for four to five hours. A bus arrives and transports them to Hungary, usually to the residence of family members. Some refugees are also transported by buses to Germany and Czechia, although they’re less common, but no charge. The mayor assured us that all the refugees at Beregsurany were being closely monitored during their temporary stay in Hungary.

In the first days of the war, Herka told us, four to five thousand refugees were being processed daily through Beregsurany alone. The numbers of refugees arriving daily have dropped to between five and six hundred, according to Herka. “We were not expecting this many refugees when the war started,” Herka stated, “but as a man, and as a human being, I think this is one of our biggest duties–to help other human beings.”

About 22,000 of the refugees that have entered Hungary from Ukraine were Hungarians living abroad there. Herka stated that the Ukrainian government considers these Hungarian-speaking communities to be a kind of deserters. It would not be fair to call them unwanted, but we must also mention their “very difficult lives” in Ukraine.

“Most of them have dual citizenship, so this is part of the reason why the Ukrainian government doesn’t really care for them. Herka said that it is normal for people with dual citizenship to be able to speak English. They don’t want to be on the frontlines for Ukraine but consider Ukraine home. The mayor of Budapest and others also said that some Hungarians had their passports destroyed by the Ukrainian military in order to stop fighting-aged men from fleeing to join the conflict.

The Hungarian border guards have also had to allow luxury vehicles, filled with young Ukrainian men and expensive goods, into Hungary, the mayor claimed. I wonder how much they paid to cross the border. A Hungarian official told me of an incident that occurred a few weeks ago. The patrol found approximately 2 million dollars in the trunk and back seats of a Bentley that contained two young Ukrainian men.

After about twenty five minutes speaking with the mayor, Dr. Attila Tilki, a historian and the member of parliament responsible for the constituency that contains Beregsurany, arrived. Tilki would be reelected by a large margin on the next day. He stated that Prime Minister Viktor Orban had visited Beregsurany two times and Katalin Novak, the Hungarian president, once since war broke out. Tilki said that their presence lifted spirits among the local people as well as the workers of charity. On those occasions, “the whole country’s heart was here, pounding from this region.”

While morale in Beregsurany remains high, the crisis has brought its fair share of challenges beyond just processing and transporting migrants. People tried to take advantage of the crisis by exploiting the influx of migrants. Tilki stated that “Unfortunately there are people who would love to exploit the women coming here.” Tilki said that the women had been almost taken on a few occasions before authorities intervened and stopped them being abducted by human traffickers.

After Tilki spoke, we made our way inside the town hall to get out of the cold. This room was used to host weddings. It has been converted into refugee supply storage. The room was used for weddings but had been transformed into refugee supplies storage. Canned foods, clothing, diapers, and baby wipes were all arranged in stacks almost reaching the ceiling. Some middle-aged, elderly ladies from the village were looking through donations and creating care packages that were based on who they usually encounter: single mothers, women with children or seniors. In appreciation for our visit, the mayor offered us each small glasses of palinka. If this is how they receive Western journalists, then the refugees are in capable hands, I thought. The palinka was delicious and warmed us up. We then went back to the front of the building, in preparation for bidding Beregsurany goodbye.

But before we could depart, Tilki told us a story:

During the Second World War, a group of soldiers found a 10-month-old baby at the Polish border. This soldier said that they must shoot the infant because it is impossible to do any other thing with. The soldier who led the group said that he would not shoot the baby and brought it along. He also hid his baby in an outside house while the camp was under attack. The outhouse was the only building left standing at camp.

Tilki then encouraged Herka to tell the rest.

The mayor obliged. The soldier handed the baby to someone who could assist with the adoption. One husband who had already three children through his previous marriage told his second wife that he was happy with just three. It will not be difficult to have a fourth. This was the baby of my mother. She grew up in Transcarpathian and they had ten children together. “One of them was me,” a small smile broke through his mustachioed, stoic face.

After we said our goodbyes, we left Beregsurany and rode across the same plains we had traveled earlier in the day, this time under the cover of darkness, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of Marcus Aurelius’ observations: “You have power over your mind–not outside events. This is what you need to realize, because Beregsurany’s strength comes in abundance.

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