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On a freezing, foggy autumn evening, Dad was only 15 when he crossed the Hungarian border. Mum, then 13, would cross later. Hungarian refugees, they fled the blitz of Russian tanks crushing the freedom-loving peoples during the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
Gone now, my parents were close to my heart as I worked with Ukrainian refugees in Hungary last month – mostly women and children living a parallel nightmare as the Russian army ravaged their homeland.
More than 11 million people have now fled Ukraine, nearly 6 million of them to neighboring countries, including more than 600,000 to Hungary. On track to be the biggest refugee crisis in modern history, more Ukrainians will have left their country than those who fled the Syrian civil war and the Soviet Afghan war.
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Son of refugees, I needed to feel the real experience of the migrant from Eastern Europe. “I want to sit next to a stranger and learn about his life”, wrote Thomas Csorba (my own son) in a folk song – because when we get to know another soul, we surely have a glimpse of ours.
How might my mother and father have felt as teenagers fleeing tyranny and towards freedom?
These Ukrainian refugees are like a pleasant family puzzle – tired of their complex journey; yet so full of life and perseverance.
I wanted to see how all the pieces fit together and what the photo revealed. Despite the horrific stories of rape and murder, I saw resilience and even a strong, albeit sardonic, sense of humor – perhaps inspired by their comedian-turned-president now as de facto leader of the free world.
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A family cooked us a Ukrainian Easter dinner in their small temporary apartment in Budapest. They made us feel welcome and at home; maybe so they can go home too, even for a few hours.
Their son, who suffers from cerebral palsy, laughed mockingly as he pointed on his iPhone to a bombed-out restaurant – a favorite family spot in the Black Sea city of Odessa. The bombardment as part of the so-called Russian “special military operation” did not escape the young man – his anguish masked by the irony of the barbaric act.
We all come from somewhere and we all have a history of struggle and alienation.
Most of the Ukrainian refugees we spoke to stay relatively close to Ukraine with the hope of returning soon.
The day we crossed the Ukrainian border to deliver medical supplies to Lviv, the line back was longer than the line out.
Many would rather return home under the threat of constant bombardment than live in their current uncertainty. Such is the soul of the Ukrainian refugee.
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But another danger awaits the new refugees, namely the men stalking the young women at the border. They offer them what appears to be a friendly ride, but then force them into the underworld of human trafficking. Risking everything to escape war and finally cross the border – a moment of hope – and then fall into the evil of exploitation is too difficult to understand.
God-fearing, these Ukrainians are surely relying on the psalmist’s promise, “the Lord watches over strangers; He sustains the orphan and the widow, and he foils the way of the wicked.”
Inflexible and loyal, they have their fears – one of which is that we will grow weary and faint, and that humanitarianism will decline. But how to forget Bucha? Irpin? What about Kharkiv and Mariupol?
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They also fear that resentment will escalate as the costs of care become too high – housing, education, medicine and jobs. Grateful for our benevolence, they worry about our endurance. Some have appealed to the golden rule of the Gospel, namely “in all things, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Of course, they are right. There is our common humanity, our own compassion to suffer with each other. We all come from somewhere and we all have a history of struggle and alienation.
When one of us becomes last, least and lost, we become a refuge for him as if we were serving ourselves. Surely not the same Ukrainian hell, but when we see our refugee stories the same way, how can we stop taking care of the millions of Ukrainians without a home and without a country?
We all want a safe place to live. We all thirst for freedom and human dignity. We all want to go home.
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As Dina Niyeri, the Iranian refugee raised in the United States, inquires about our universal refugee status, “Isn’t it the obligation of anyone born in a safer room to open the door when someone ‘one in danger strikes?’
My mother and father have been gone for years, but now they are remembered and loved very much. And so, too, the Ukrainians, whose suffering, and ours with them, makes us all refugees.