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On a frigid foggy fall evening, Dad was only 15 when he walked across the Hungarian border. Mom, then 13, would cross later. Hungarian refugees, they were fleeing the blitz of Russian tanks crushing freedom-loving people during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Gone now, my parents were heavy on my mind as I worked with Ukrainian refugees in Hungary last month – mainly women and children living a parallel nightmare as Russian military ravage their homeland.
More than 11 million have now fled Ukraine including almost 6 million into neighboring countries, including over 600,000 into Hungary. On track for being the largest 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.
UKRAINE REFUGEE CRISIS: SCENES OF SUFFERING, LESSONS IN BEAUTY
A son of refugees, I needed to feel the real-life experience of the Eastern European migrant. “I want to sit next to a stranger and learn about his life,” Thomas Csorba (my own son) wrote it in a folk song — because when we learn about another soul, we surely get a glimpse into ours.
What did my mother and father may feel as teenagers running from tyranny and towards freedom?
People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee center, in the village of Medyka, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, on March 15.
These Ukrainian refugees are like a pleasing family puzzle — weary from their complex journey; yet so full of life and persistence.
I wanted to see how all the pieces fit and what the picture reveals. Despite the horrific stories of rape and murder, I saw resiliency and even a sharp sense of humor, though sardonic — perhaps inspired by their comedian-turned president now standing in as the de facto leader of the free world.
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One family prepared a Ukrainian Easter dinner for us in their tiny provisional apartment in Budapest. They made us feel welcome and at home; perhaps so they could also return home, even for a few hours.
Refugees walk after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on April 8, 2022.
Their son, who suffers from cerebral palsy, laughed mockingly as he pointed to a bombed-out restaurant on his iPhone – a favorite family spot in the Black Sea town of Odessa. The shelling as part of the so-called Russian “Special Military Operation” wasn’t lost on the young man – his anguish masked in the irony of the barbaric act.
We all came from somewhere, and we all have a story of struggle and some alienation.
Most Ukrainian refugees we spoke with remain relatively close to Ukraine hoping to soon return.
On the day we crossed the border into Ukraine to deliver medical supplies to Lviv, the line going back in was longer than the one coming out.
Many would rather return home under the threat of constant shelling than live in their current uncertainty. Such is the soul of the Ukrainian refugee.
UKRAINIAN REFUGEE IN US: ‘I DON’T BELIEVE THAT WE’RE HERE’ AFTER CROSSING THE SOUTHERN BORDER
But another danger waits for the new refugees, namely men stalking young women at the border. They offer them what appears like a friendly ride, but then force them into the underworld of human trafficking. Risking everything to flee war and then finally crossing the border – a moment of hopefulness — and then falling into the evil of exploitation is too much to fathom.
God-fearing, these Ukrainians are surely leaning on the promise of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, and He thwarts the way of the wicked.”
Tough-minded and faithful, they have their fears – one of which is that we will grow weary and become faint, and the humanitarianism will wane. But how can we forget Bucha? Irpin? And Kharkiv and Mariupol?
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They also fear that resentment will fester as the costs of caring for them become too much – housing, education, medicine and jobs. Grateful for our benevolence, they worry about our stamina. Some appealed to the golden rule in the Gospel, namely, “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Of course, they are right. There is our common humanity, our own compassion to suffer with one another. We all came from somewhere, and we all have a story of struggle and some alienation.
When one of us becomes the last, the least, and the lost, we become a refuge to them as if we are serving ourselves. Surely not the same Ukrainian hell, but when we see our stories as refugees alike, how can we stop caring for the millions of Ukrainians without a home and a country?
We all want a safe place to live. We all hunger for freedom and human dignity. We all want to come home.
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As Dina Niyeri, the Iranian refugee raised in America, asked about our universal refugee condition, “Is it not the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks?”
My mother and father have been gone for years, but now they are even greatly remembered and loved. And so, too, the Ukrainians, whose suffering, and ours with them, makes us all refugees.