The Rev Aaron Stevens, minister of St Columba’s Church of Scotland in Budapest, Hungary, gives a powerful account of this summer’s refugee crisis in the city and his church’s efforts to help.
A week after deciding to provide overnight shelter in our church to refugees, tonight we had our first guests. What a week, what a summer, it has been.
The influx of asylum seekers arriving through Serbia first gained Hungarian media attention when, in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that immigration laws would have to be tightened in order to protect Europeans against terrorists.
In the summer, while our church day camp welcomed children from several countries, the government launched a ‘National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism’, with billboards reading, “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our laws.” Written in Hungarian, these signs communicated something not to the refugees, but to the Hungarian populace.
Simultaneously, thousands of refugees were arriving, being given vague information and put on trains for Budapest. Confused about what to do next, some were arranging for people smugglers to take them to Germany. I could see them standing in huddles near various landmarks along the main ring road. Once I joined the Migration Aid volunteers in providing water and clear information to those lingering at the railway station.
As numbers increased, so did efforts to offer assistance. People stayed at railway stations, avoiding the official reception centres and hoping the governments would let them travel westward. By the end of August, Keleti and Nyugati Stations had effectively become refugee camps “staffed” by volunteers who organised themselves via Facebook.
Then only a week ago, I received a text from one of those volunteers.
“I hope your church is willing to help,” she wrote, “Because today I came across a six-day old baby at the train station.”
Together with the RCH Refugee Mission and the Kalunba charity, we decided to provide overnight shelter on a temporary basis to women and children. Everything fell into place. The Session was excited to be addressing the critical situation, and friends began transferring donations to our bank account. By Sunday afternoon when some of us went to Keleti to play with children there, our church was receiving mattresses, bedding, hygiene products, and more. Equally impressive was how quickly volunteers rallied to sign up to help.
For all our speed in mobilising, though, the situation changed even more rapidly.
While we were getting ourselves together, Germany began welcoming refugees, Austria was letting them through, and Hungary was even transporting many to the border. In subsequent days, asylum seekers were getting out of Hungary by any means necessary. Our social worker partner and his volunteer interpreters were visiting the railway stations, but the people there were afraid to leave even at night for fear of missing the next ride.
Today, change again. The way out has closed. Because of chill and rain, our first guests arrived drenched. An urgent call for dry clothes was posted on social media, and within an hour, the items were at the church.
Dropping by, I saw a boy removing a splinter from his foot, a mother eating soup, and a father charging his phone and using the wifi (families are justifiable terrified of being separated, so we no longer insist only on women and children). One boy asked Dora Kanizsai, head of the RCH Refugee Mission, if the space was her house. Pointing upward, she replied, “No, it’s His house.”
I hope they can rest, and pray that they find peace.
Written by Rev. Aaron C. Stevens, Minister of St Columba’s Church of Scotland in Budapest
The report was originally published on the website of Work and Life, Magazine of the Church of Scotland.