Date: 14-04-2022

Partners Hungary: supporting Ukrainian refugee children and families

Erzsi Nagy is the Coordinator of the ROMA Mediator Network at ISSA Member, Partners Hungary Alapítvány, and is also the founder of an NGO, Működők Egyesülete, which is located near the Eastern border of Hungary. At Partners Hungary, she leads the social integration activities, paying special attention to the education and healthcare of the Romani population. She is supported in this by a network of Romani mediators. In addition to these activities, she is currently focusing much time and energy on supporting Ukrainian refugees.

Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine she has spent two weeks volunteering at the Hungarian border. She also volunteered at a train station in Budapest where several families speaking only Romani arrived. In both locations she has assisted with Romani-Hungarian translation. Currently, she is helping at a refugee center run by ISSA Member Nestingplay in Fonyód — which is based at a beautiful holiday resort by Lake Balaton. At the resort there are 83 Hungarian speaking Romani children and their parents from the Transcarpathian region — an area near the Ukrainian border with a large Hungarian speaking minority who have fled to Hungary for safety. Refugees at the center in Fonyód are currently receiving three meals a day, as well as support in other critical areas. However, the provision of these basics does not alleviate the complexity and heartache of having to leave everything behind.

Recently, Partners Hungary has received a grant from the Latter-Day Saint Charities (LDS). With this support they have set up a mini PlayHub at the refugee center in Fonyód — providing an opportunity for children to socialize with their peers and work through their trauma in creative and constructive ways.

With Eszter Harsányi, the director of Nestingplay, Erzsi and her colleagues have taken the first crucial step in supporting these families, by helping them to obtain refugee status in Hungary. As most of them are planning to settle in Hungary for the foreseeable future, Erzsi and her associates have also begun the process of obtaining tax and social security numbers for them. This is essential for them to be able to access social services such as education and healthcare, which are important elements for positive early childhood development (ECD).

ECD for refugee children

Having provided essential humanitarian aid, Partners Hungary has been able to begin turning their attention to ECD. Since March 15, Partners Hungary in cooperation with Nestingplay and other volunteers and professionals have been providing educational activities for the children from Ukraine who are currently missing school and preschool. The organizations are trying to find schools and preschools which these children can be integrated into. This is of the utmost importance as having the routine of school will help to give the children a sense of stability and normality. In addition, interacting with peers of their age will help them learn about and integrate into Hungarian society. Unfortunately, however, the local schools have not yet been forthcoming about vacancies and the possibility of taking refugee children.

The situation at the border has been significantly different — here, crisis situations must be solved with urgency. Families have been arriving exhausted and hungry, in need of food, blankets, and a warm shelter. Partners Hungary has been assisting Romani families who have been accommodated here. Other families have been stranded for days due to terrible conditions in various parts of Hungary. In these situations, there is no opportunity to organize developmental activities for children, the main focus is on humanitarian aid, and providing emotional support where possible. While children’s developmental needs are paramount in these situations, they cannot be accounted for until both them and their parents are safe and protected.

A double burden for Romani refugees

In Hungary, Romani refugees are experiencing the crisis even more acutely than others because of overt discrimination. Erzsi describes a scene she witnessed at the Ukrainian border where food was withheld from Romani refugees until all the others had been fed, and even then, some Romani were still not given food. In addition, she says that it is also twice as difficult for Romani people to find accommodation and a place in the education system for their children. While situations like this highlight the importance of elevating the rights of all children and families, it is important to be especially aware of marginalized groups, as when they are discriminated against and shunned in crisis, they become even more vulnerable, and these conditions are perpetuated.

Further plans to support refugees

There are plans at Partners Hungary to get more involved in refugee support, especially for Romani populations. Erzsi’s own NGO, which is located close to the border, is actively involved in collecting and disseminating donations to refugees, not only at the contact points where they arrive but also to those families which have already been accommodated elsewhere, to ensure that they continue to be supported and do not fall off the radar when the immediate state of crisis wanes.

Within Partners Hungary, an expert in ECD collected toys and created a play corner at a train station in Budapest to offer parents a moment of relief and children a chance to play and feel a brief sense of normality. Even in crisis situations, it is important to remember and prioritize children’s instinctual need to learn, play, and interact with peers.

In addition to NGOs like Erzsi’s and Partners Hungary, there are volunteers working tirelessly (some for 12-16 hours a day) trying to connect the refugees with local services and support them in other areas. There are also people who cannot get to the border in person but are offering help through other means, such as financial and legal support. Erzsi is very proud of all their achievements and thinks that it is important to note that the whole response to the crisis has been coordinated by individuals and NGO’s, with no support from the government.

Ultimately, Partners Hungary’s main goal at this moment is to stay in contact with the families that have been accommodated so that both parties can keep each other informed on what is happening, and so that the refugees are able to receive any support that they need. Providing this general support to families is crucial as it will help to reduce the confusion and fear of being in a new environment, in turn reducing the tangible stress that children feel.