The war in Ukraine: the experience from Hungary

16 May 2022

On 10th May, the UNHCR reported that nearly 6 million refugees have left Ukraine since the outbreak of the war, with 1.6 million people returning. Hungary shares a border with Ukraine, and the Hungarian Government states that 577,000 Ukrainians refugees have entered Hungary since 24th February.

Judit Balazs is professor of psychology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and chair of the ECNP Suicide Network. She has been assisting Ukrainian refugees in Hungary. Here she speaks to Tom Parkhill.

TP: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me about this. What’s the situation in Hungary with the refugees, the numbers I see are around 577,000. Is that about right?
JB: I think it’s somewhat higher now, but it’s around that. Thank you for your invitation to talk.

Well, it’s not good to talk about a war, here in the 21st century. How did you get involved, you work mostly with children, in dealing with refugees?
Yes, we are a neighbouring country, a war is happening right next to us. That’s really why I’m involved.

I remember I was sitting at home on a Saturday. Two days previously the war had started. I had joined a volunteer group and I saw messages that people were escaping to Hungary. On the group message board I saw that refugees were arriving at one of the main train stations in Budapest, where I live. We heard that the refugees wanted to go on to Vienna. So I said to my husband “I need to go” and I took what food I could find in the refrigerator and I ran to the station. I thought I could help.

Unfortunately, I was just two minutes too late, the train had just left! At the station I met a few of the volunteers who were still there, and they told me that the train was packed, mainly with women and children. Then I heard that another train was due to arrive at another station; so I went there, and effectively I stayed in that station before and after work for the next couple of days. People started to arrive from Ukraine. We gave them food and some basic stuff to let them wash themselves, and we started to organise some places to stay. Of course, I’m a child psychiatrist, with an active research group, so I realised that we could probably give more professional help. So I asked everyone in our group, and they immediately said yes.

As you say, you are a child psychiatrist. Obviously there are lots of refugee mothers and children, as most of the fathers are left behind. This must create particular problems – it’s not just that the children are separated from their fathers, their fathers are in a war situation. What sort of problems are you seeing?
You are right, that’s exactly what we are seeing, mothers with children, and usually the father can’t cross the border. That’s an extra burden, not just being a refugee and leaving your home. But it’s not only the fathers, very often the grandparents are at home as well. When you ask refugees if their elderly parents are not in the age group which can cross the border, they say “Yes, but they don’t want to leave their whole life behind”. So they stay. It really touches you.

What can you do? As a professional involved in psychiatry. What can you do to help these children and mothers?
In the first weeks we didn’t use our special knowledge as psychiatrists or psychologists. We had to offer them some basics; a safe place to sleep, a safe place where they are welcome, where they can meet other people. We started playgroups, our University offered a site, and we volunteered before and after our daily work. Then we started to advertise that there was a play group every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon where Ukrainian children and families were welcome. It was a place where they could get to know each other, to get to know people in a similar situation. Mothers would cry while they discussed the situation, or played with their children. We also went to shelters, these were full of people who didn’t have anywhere else to stay. These places had lots of children who didn’t have anything to do. We worked with them and gave them some activities – we still do that – and this gave us the opportunity to give them more specialist help. We see that the need of the refugees changes from week to week, as we move away from the start of the war. We have to respond to this very carefully.

So it sounds like the refugees have arrived in Hungary and many are not moving on. They’ve come to the nearest safe place in the hope, I would guess, of going back. It sounds like what you are doing is to try to help them develop a little bit of a life while they are there in Hungary.
It’s changing, we’re seeing very different groups now. We see some people who come here and who then go on further, perhaps because they have friends in another country. But there is also the group you mentioned, these people who want to stay closer to their home and go back. And there are people who come and go: they go back sometimes to see their husband, or the place they are from if they have a place to go to, and then come back here. So it’s a very different situation for each person, and it depends on whether they are able to go further, want to go further, and what are their basic needs.

This is a new and a terrible situation, and we’re not used to dealing with war anymore. Is there anything which has surprised you, anything which you just hadn’t thought of?
A lot of things surprised me. It surprised me that, as you said, we are in the 21st Century, and the same things are happening today as my grandparents told me after the second world war. I asked people “How did you know when you had to leave?” This was also a question for my family in the second war. People told me different stories about the exact point when they decided they’d had enough. Some people said “My husband told me that my car should always be ready to go” — this was in the last month before the war. Others said “No, it was very much a surprise, I didn’t want to believe this was happening, but when the city bridge was damaged we realised it was time to go”. There were children who told me how great it was to be able to sleep here because this was the first time in weeks that they had been able to sleep without hearing an alarm. When I asked them “Did you really hear alarms?” they showed me recordings on their phones, and said “This is what we hear”. And so it was clear what was happening, it wasn’t just something on the news. I could try to understand, but it’s not understandable.

You have your normal, everyday job, how do you deal with this and the refugees you are helping?
I work as a medical doctor, at the University and seeing patients. To tell the truth in the first weeks it was very difficult, even mentally, to do anything else other than think about the situation. Actually I once found myself sitting in an ECNP meeting thinking “Why am I sitting in a meeting here when I should be helping”. I felt these people are coming, and coming, and we should try to manage, but we did not have any exact protocols of what to do. Even now we sometimes have to change what we were doing, we did this just three weeks ago; many children have started to go to school, they have more planned days, and we can do more specified activities with them. All my team has volunteered. We now have more people involved, more students have volunteered, and we can offer them this work as fieldwork; it’s a very real and sad fieldwork. We now have a system which is more organized. Nobody planned this situation, but we have to do our best now.

A last question. Is there anything that the professional, medical psychiatric community can do? Some people in the past have told me ‘training’, but what do you think?
It’s not the first time a war has broken out, so there are techniques which are understood and established. In the first weeks people arrived who had not experienced fighting. After that we had people arriving who had been close to the fighting, perhaps even seen their house destroyed. After that, we began to see people coming who had lost somebody close to them. One important thing was that at first many didn’t want to settle here, because they hoped to go back home soon and continue with their lives. They didn’t want the kids to start school, because that would be a sign that they now live here. I think that now we are seeing different signs, depression is overtaking anxiety. There are special treatments which change with the playgroups, but luckily not everyone needs treatment; we see resilience, and that’s important. I send my students on specific training, but now we have to be smart in how we work.