On the morning of February 28th, I was surrounded by students in the cafeteria of our college. They were enthusiastic and eager to act. It was the first weekday after the war broke out between Russia and Ukraine and the students wanted to know how they could help those who were forced to leave their homes due to the crisis. Some of them wanted to go straight to the border, while others were waiting for a plan which they could join. There was an unmistakable sense of solidarity in the air waiting to reach those affected by the war.
I was standing there without knowing what to do. How can we help? What are the first steps we can make? Can our students really help if they travel to the border? How do we reach those who are in need? These were the questions circulating in my mind. I was paralyzed by these questions for a moment, because of this offbeat challenge. Certainly, numerous creative ideas rose in my mind, but I knew that all actions had to be set in a much broader context. Individual initiatives are important, but are only a drop in the sea, or might even turn out as counterproductive.
But the next moment my phone rang, and that was a moment when I first learned about how much professionalism is needed in social support. It was the director of the local Caritas agency, who asked me point-blank: “Do you have any students who could help us?” In a couple of hours, the college staff and the students were at the Caritas center, sorting donations, separating short-dated from long shelf-life food, toiletries from baby care products, winter jackets from bathing suits. Trucks with donations kept coming in from the smallest villages and the urban communities. The solidarity with the people hit by war took the form of piles of donations.
Later that day another call came from the state secretary responsible for higher education. The question was now whether we can provide homes for students from Ukrainian universities. To our surprise three girl students from India made their way to Pécs, and a boy from Nigeria. Due to the geographical distance, it was only him, who landed at our dorm. The others received support in Budapest by the Indian embassy and landed in their home country shortly.
The eagerness of students to help and the two phone calls made me learn something new about how solidarity functions and is cherished in our societies. First, it is the changed role of media. Although our lives are filled with mediatized images of wars, the news about the invasion in a neighboring country induced a general will for actions of solidarity. It was not the fear of war, but rather the chance to help which made Hungarian people donate whatever they had for our neighbors fleeing the war. Second, this general good will was accompanied by structures of support at the higher level. The simple will of individual people had gone short here. The eagerness of individuals to do good was concentrated into the most suitable channels of help and was organized in a future oriented fashion. The sense of individual involvement was strengthened by institutional action.
Crises, like the current one, show how much professional networks of charity are essential on a national and international level, and religious institutions need to play a central role here. The church-based charity organizations proved to be reliable actors in this situation of crisis. This became visible especially at the Ukrainian border. Caritas provided plentiful means of physical support, such as food, water, toiletries, sleeping bags, and everything needed to meet bodily needs. But, as one of our colleagues, who served at Barabás – one of the main, and now symbolic crossing points to Hungary – said, there was a need for something more too: to care for the “soul” of those, “who hit the road and lost all securities of their lives”. If there is one lesson to be learnt, it is this: There is still a great amount of good will, of unselfishness and will to care in our societies. However, it is our responsibility to build highroads within our societies, which enable them to reach Barabás.