With the onset of war in February of last year Hungarian Interchurch Aid was presented with an extraordinary challenge: supporting those fleeing Ukraine in Hungary as well as those who staying in the country, suffering the consequences of the conflict. HIA thus focused on providing for people in need on both sides of the border, creating a long-term, sustainable humanitarian response in the two countries. The scale and complexity of the emergency required a new framework, which was established by the foundation of the Support Centre for Ukrainian Refugees (abbreviated: UMTK) in July 2022. Looking back to the year behind us, we can see how this unique institution has been able to change lives, offering a helping hand to refugees in their numerous needs.

Although HIA had been involved in many emergencies and refugee crises during its 30 years of existence, the organisation’s humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine has been by far the largest. The protracted nature of the war, the millions of refugees made it clear that new solutions are required: with the establishment of the Support Centre HIA has integrated all services it provides for refugees in Hungary into a single institution. From immediate and tangible aid to long-term assistance, all are available in the Centre located in downtown Budapest.

The challenges faced by refugees from Ukraine are typical and individual at the same time. Seeking a safe environment in Hungary, they find themselves in a foreign linguistic and cultural environment, needing help not only to survive, but also to navigate through the obstacles presented by bureaucracy, government authorities and procedures. The system set up by UMTK is therefore client-oriented: after booking an appointment, the social and humanitarian workers of the Centre talk through all issues and difficulties that the person seeking help encounters during his or her stay in Hungary. After assessing the situation, staff offers solutions to the problems encountered using the Support Centre’s range of tools.

Refugees visit UMTK for a multitude of reasons: often, they ask for in-kind support, but also when they struggle with health problems, administrative issues, need for accommodation, legal questions or psychological support. However, the Support Centre is not only a place for resolving problems, it’s also a space to spend time with the community. Owing to the integrational, social and humanitarian work as well as regular events and activities the institution has been able to build up a community of 900 families around UMTK.

“We are simultaneously trying to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, empowering them with the tools of social work, and help them integrate. Of course, their situation is constantly changing, and we have to adapt, too.” – says Zoltán Sipos, head of the Support Centre for Ukrainian Refugees, summaising the aims of the Centre. According to him, the Centre’s goal is to hold refugees’ hands on their long and bumpy road leading to self-sufficiency.

A path that is rarely without obstacles – but UMTK’s staff is ready to help. In addition to providing social- and life skills and mental health counselling, the institution also serves as a point of information- and meeting point for refugees. This enables members of the community around the Centre to help eachother, creating a web of horizontal connections between refugees that in the end becomes a safety net complimenting the traditional methods the staff helps people in need with.

Apart from a helping community, refugees are also aided by seasoned professionals providing much-needed services that speak the language of those who had to flee their homes in Ukraine. Clients that need legal help are met by a team of lawyers advising them on various issues (asylum and other administrative procedures, appeals, legal issues of any kind). Those, who struggle with mental health issues are assisted by native Ukrainian and Russian speaking psychologists in individual and group sessions. During the past months, a special mental health ambulance for people who suffer from gender-based violence has also opened within the Centre, offering social, psychological and legal support.

Housing and accommodation remain one of the most difficult areas to provide help in. However, thanks to a coalition of socially responsible corporate partners, HIA has acquired a flat that it hands out to refugees for free until they have the necessary funds to rent their own place – typically 3-6 months at a time. For this, refugees also need a job, and the Centre supports its clients’ efforts to enter the labour market by connecting vacancies of HIA’s corporate partners with refugees in need of work. Free-of-charge Hungarian and IT courses are also available to them, allowing them to increase their value in the labour market.

In-kind aid, durable food, hygiene products and non-food items and the cash assistance provided through a voucher system are still in high demand among clients. This can be attributed both to the dwindling financial reserves of refugees’ after one and half year away from their home, just as much as the record inflation that is plaguing Hungary at the moment

A year and a half has already passed since the outbreak of the war, and the dynamics of the refugee crisis have changed with them. Railway stations are no longer crowded with refugees like in March of last year. Most of those who arrived then have moved to another country, but those who’ve found safety in Hungary need humanitarian, social, mental and community support – and they will need it for years to come. We’d like to sincerely thank our volunteers, partners and donors, without their contribution, we wouldn’t be able to provide this community of Ukrainians with long-term assistance through the Support Centre for Ukrainian Refugees.