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When Duty Turns to Grace

Hungarians answer call to be Good Samaritans

After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, Ildiko Kovacsne Tamas was hopeful the 2022 tourist season would give her guesthouse in Mariapocs, a small town in eastern Hungary, the boost it needed.

Then, she received a phone call.

Officials from Hungary’s disaster recovery service informed her that, as part of a national plan for emergency humanitarian aid, she was obliged to open her family-owned guesthouse to Ukrainian refugees for an indefinite period of time.

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, leading to a mass exodus of Ukrainians to neighboring nations. Mariapocs, known for its basilica dedicated to a weeping icon of the Virgin Mary, is located only 40 miles from the Ukrainian border.

“The government effectively seized our guesthouse,” says Ildiko, “and we were mandated to provide housing and three meals a day to the refugees they would send our way.”

The guesthouse quickly filled to capacity with 38 refugees, mostly women, children and elderly. By autumn, 14 remained, as some had moved on to join friends or family farther west.

Halyna and Andriy Khavana, both 68 years old, were among those who stayed.

They fled Volnovakha, Ukraine, about 40 miles north of Mariupol, in Donetsk Oblast, on 2 March, after their 10-story apartment building crumbled under the force of Russian missiles.

The couple took a train to Chop, the last stop on the line in Ukraine, where the Tisza River creates a natural border with Hungary. There, a chartered bus picked up those escaping the war and drove them across the border to facilities converted into temporary shelters.

Halyna and Andriy arrived at a hotel in the town of Nyirbator on 5 March. When the couple were told they had to leave after Easter, an aid worker contacted Ildiko to ask if she had any room to spare.

Months later, taking cover under a gazebo from a hot September sun, Halyna and Andriy express gratitude for Ildiko’s hospitality.

Andriy and Halyna Khavana, seated, chat with Ildiko Kovacsne Tamas, who has provided free accommodations to Ukrainian refugees at her guesthouse since March. (photo: David Bratnick)

They have everything they need at the guesthouse, says Andriy, good food and a safe place to sleep. They are hopeful to return to Ukraine once the war has ended, but they face the stark reality of having to start from nothing.

“We have nothing left,” says Andriy. “We will need to start from the beginning, from nothing and begin life again.”

Yulia, 32, sits with the elderly couple. She fled from Dnipro, central Ukraine, with her 6-year-old daughter, Viktoria, on 11 March, after Russian fire hit a target close to their home.

“I feared for our lives, and I didn’t want to take any chances,” she says. She and her husband decided it was best for her to leave with Viktoria. They, too, took the train to Chop, but were driven to the Mariapocs guesthouse straightaway, arriving on 15 March.

Yulia is in touch daily with her husband, who continues to work at a supermarket in Dnipro; she expects he will be called to the front before long.

“My daughter understands the situation,” says Yulia. “She misses her father dearly, but she is also afraid of the war, and she prefers to stay in Mariapocs.”

“The difficulty of this situation is that these people are waiting. Everyone is waiting, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Yulia enrolled her daughter in a kindergarten in town, despite her concern that Viktoria does not speak Hungarian. She hopes they will be back in Dnipro in time for Viktoria to start grade 1.

The three refugees sometimes pray at the Greek Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Mariapocs in town, offering their petitions for peace and their family’s safety at the shrine. The local faith community, Greek Catholics mostly, has been welcoming — all three refugees are Orthodox Christians. They also stopped short of commenting on the war, preferring to reiterate their gratitude instead.

“We thank God we met Ildiko,” says Andriy, “because she accepted us like family and literally gives us everything we need.”

Yulia Ponomarenko and her daughter, Viktoria, fled Ukraine in March and have been living at a guesthouse in Mariapocs, Hungary, ever since. (photo: David Bratnick)

Ildiko and Andriy smile at each other with mutual appreciation — although neither understands the other without a translator or the aid of the Google Translate app — but Ildiko admits it was hard going at first.

“We were overwhelmed. It was really difficult for us financially at the beginning,” she says, adding that it took more than four months for the Hungarian government to send her the promised daily stipend of 4,000 Hungarian forint ($10) per person.

The amount barely covers the cost of housing and food, not to mention diapers and personal hygiene products, she says. The guesthouse receives assistance from Caritas Nyiregyhaza, the local branch of Caritas Hungary that services Mariapocs. Ildiko receives no compensation for lost business revenue.

Still, she and her family have gone beyond the government mandate, helping the refugees with legal papers, taking them to the Ukrainian embassy, clothing them and driving their children to a local afterschool program run by the Greek Catholic Church. When one of the refugee families had a baby, Ildiko organized a large celebration and her daughter was the godmother.

“We grew to like and love these people,” she adds. “With my husband we were thinking that, even if we wouldn’t have gotten the financial help promised by the government, we still would have done it, because we gained a lot from them.”

Then she shares her heartbreak: The refugee family with the new baby left for Germany soon after the baptism without saying goodbye. 

“We were like a huge family and we really took care of them,” she says.

Humanitarian aid organizations in Hungary serving in areas close to Ukraine’s border were among the first to respond to the needs created by the rush of Ukrainians fleeing the shelling.

Caritas Nyiregyhaza is one of 16 diocesan offices of the national Caritas Hungary, which is the social service charity of the Catholic community in Hungary. It operates in the Hungarian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Nyiregyhaza, whose territory includes the northeastern tip of the country extending east to the Ukrainian border and is among the poorest regions in Hungary.

Within 24 hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the eparchy’s Caritas staff rushed food, water, blankets and other supplies to the border. They also drove supplies into Ukraine’s westernmost region, Transcarpathia, upon the appeal of some priests in the area, and made use of the return trip to transport refugees to Hungary.

Tamas Olah, right, director of Caritas Nyiregyhaza, loads supplies for a parish in western Ukraine that is assisting those internally displaced by the war. (photo: David Bratnick)

“There were such huge lines of cars waiting to cross the border, so the people just piled up in those towns and villages of Transcarpathia,” says Tamas Olah, director of Caritas Nyiregyhaza.

The war has caused the largest refugee crisis and humanitarian relief effort in Europe since World War II. The UNHCR reports, as of 15 November, 7.8 million Ukrainians were registered as refugees across the continent. Of these, an estimated 3 million people had moved on from countries neighboring Ukraine to other countries in Europe or to the United States. An additional 7 million people were displaced within Ukraine.

While only 32,000 Ukrainians were registered officially with Hungarian authorities for temporary protection status by mid-November — among the fewest in all European countries — 1.75 million people fled Ukraine through Hungary.

Caritas Nyiregyhaza was among the five major aid organizations selected by the Hungarian government on 27 February to run a refugee welcome center at a border crossing. Operating out of a cultural center in Barabas, a town of 800 people less than one mile from Ukraine, Caritas staff and volunteers registered 600 refugees per day for the first two weeks. 

“This was only the number of people who stopped in to see us,” says Tamas. “Hundreds more were entering at this border crossing every day.”

The number of registrations at the center decreased to 300 daily in the two weeks that followed, before dropping to about 100 a day for the next month. That daily rate halved after Easter. By September, Caritas had registered 6,500 people total and daily registrations dropped to five per week.

Jozsef Trescsula, from the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine and of Hungarian origin, was among the seminarians sent to volunteer at the Caritas center in Barabas for its first 45 days of operation. In formation for the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo, Ukraine, he was studying in Nyiregyhaza when the war began. 

The seminarians worked long days — and overnight in the first few weeks of the war — sorting and distributing the masses of food and other supplies donated by the European community. Fluently bilingual in Hungarian and Ukrainian, Jozsef also provided much-needed help with translation.

Greek Catholic Bishop Abel Szocska, O.S.B.M., of Nyiregyhaza says the seminarians were a reassuring presence at the center. The bishop spent as much time as possible at the border in the first weeks of the war, speaking with refugees and encouraging his staff and seminarians. He, too, was born and raised in Transcarpathia, parts of which prior to World War II were either in Hungary or present-day Slovakia.

“When war broke out, we immediately organized centers and places throughout our eparchy to accept refugees and donation centers,” he reports.

“We can imagine the experiences of these people and their fear,” he continues. “At first, they didn’t trust the Caritas center, but we had seminarians who could speak Ukrainian. They were wearing cassocks, and the people said, ‘Okay, he’s a man of the church. We can trust him.’ ”

“We have nothing left. We will need to start from the beginning, from nothing and begin life again.”

In addition to recording the people’s names and basic demographics, the Caritas center provided refugees with food, showers, hygiene products and a place to sleep for a few hours — or a few days — until family or friends in Hungary or abroad could pick them up. Some people showed up unexpectedly to volunteer to take refugees to their countries. 

“Unfortunately, we heard news of people with bad intentions taking women and children away,” says Tamas, referring to reports of an increase in abductions and human trafficking amid the refugee crisis. “We registered the names, license numbers and license plates of those who picked up the refugees, so if anything happened, we could at least offer some help to the authorities,” he adds.

In cases when refugees did not have family to pick them up or the means to continue on from Barabas, Caritas staff drove them to major cities for long-term accommodations. In Nyiregyhaza, for instance, Caritas provided more than 70 refugees with housing, food, clothing, bedding and medicine. It collaborated with the Greek Catholic elementary schools in Nyiregyhaza and Mariapocs to open Ukrainian-language classrooms for refugee children. Caritas Hungary also established a special fund to provide refugee families with food vouchers and to cover 80 percent of their rent.

“The difficulty of this situation is that these people are waiting,” says Tamas. “Everyone is waiting, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. With an earthquake, a flood, a catastrophe, we can tell when it’s going to end, but no one knows when this war is going to end.”

The Reverends Ferenc Demko and Sandor Posze of Mukachevo drive 140 miles round trip weekly to fill up on supplies that Tamas at Caritas Nyiregyhaza prepares for them — water, baby formula, toilet paper, canned goods, blankets, pet food, hygiene products — depending on the need.

Caritas Nyiregyhaza continues to staff the center at Barabas, but it stopped delivery into Transcarpathia in recent months and priests seeking assistance must pick up supplies in Nyiregyhaza.

Father Sandor Posze, left, and Father Ferenc Demko unload a van of supplies at a storehouse in Petrovo, western Ukraine, on 2 September. The two priests of the Eparchy of Mukachevo, Ukraine, pick up supplies weekly from Caritas Nyiregyhaza in Hungary, used to assist people in their parishes who have been internally displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (photo: David Bratnick)

At the border crossing with Ukraine, a border agent asks to inspect some paperwork and the minivan’s cargo. Father Sandor jumps out from the driver’s side to open the hatch. It is a 15-minute wait. A few boxes are shuffled and the guard gives the priests permission to proceed to the next check point a few yards ahead, where a young border agent asks a few more questions before the priests can continue on their way. 

They unload the supplies at a storehouse situated in what looks like an industrial park in Petrovo, Ukraine. Both priests serve Hungarian-language Greek Catholic parishes nearby. The grounds are littered with strewn artifacts and vehicles reminiscent of the communist era.

The van unloaded, Father Ferenc recounts the first days and weeks of the war, when priests and parishioners sprang quickly into action, offering sandwiches, hot tea and blankets to those waiting in the bitter cold in long lines at the border crossing. The priests were in constant touch with the Caritas center in Barabas during that time, receiving supply deliveries as needed. 

With the escalation of the war, the local church began to organize and Greek Catholic Bishop Nil Luschak, O.F.M., who administers the Eparchy of Mukachevo, asked all priests to open the parish rectories, schools and church buildings to accommodate the internally displaced.

While a large number of Ukrainians who traveled to Transcarpathia in the first weeks of the war left for another country, says Father Ferenc, those without the means to continue westward have remained.

“Many of them still live in properties of the Greek Catholic Church and many of them work in shops or as day laborers because they don’t want to live off of others,” he says. 

As well, not all of the school-aged children displaced within his deanery are in school. “Some villages don’t have schools and some parents are afraid to send their children to school in a strange environment,” he explains. 

Pastoral work has increased, but pastoral assistance has not, he continues.

“The people come not just with huge physical burdens, but spiritual burdens,” he says, adding that many displaced families have had their homes destroyed and have nothing to go back to. 

He has baptized some of the babies born to these families, and a handful of families attend liturgy at his church, even though they do not understand Hungarian. 

Father Ferenc shares how he was profoundly affected by the serious needs he saw among displaced families when he distributed 1,500 hams at Easter.

“St. Paul said it’s a much better thing to give than to receive and I experienced how little things we give can make such a difference,” he says. 

“I realized just how good-hearted God is toward us,” he adds, expressing gratitude for the safety and health of his own family.

“We should be grateful we are not the ones who receive, but the ones who can give.”

Award-winning journalist Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE.

The CNEWA Connection

Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, forcing 7.8 million Ukrainians to flee. To date, CNEWA has distributed more than $5.7 million in aid to those who have remained within Ukraine as well as to those seeking refuge outside its borders, including funds to Caritas Hungary and the Greek Catholic Church in Hungary, whose work is profiled in this article.

To help CNEWA continue its work to support those displaced by the war on Ukraine, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit

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