Help Is Still Needed After Two Years Into The War

Two years ago, Russia attacked Ukraine. The relief program for the victims of war launched by the Hungarian Interchurch Aid is the largest humanitarian project in the history of the organization, which has helped more than half a million people so far. Magyar Nemzet spoke to Laszlo Lehel, president and director of the aid organization, about the crisis that unfolded in the last two years, the comprehensive assistance coordinated by the aid organization, and the sadly declining support for the cause.

2024. 02. 24. 18:19
Hungarian Interchurch Aid President-Director László Lehel on the way to Bucha. HIA embarked on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine, but did not arrive empty-handed. Two 24-ton trucks were jam-packed with aid destined for Bucha and our partners in Eastern Ukraine. Fotó: Hungarian Interchurch Aid
Vélemény hírlevélJobban mondva- heti vélemény hírlevél - ahol a hét kiemelt témáihoz füzött személyes gondolatok összeérnek, részletek itt.

After the Russian attack two years ago, you immediately started to provide help in the unfolding humanitarian crisis. What was the main task then, and how were you able to respond so swiftly and efficiently?

Effective response actually has three pillars. One is that we stayed in Transcarpathia after the first flooding of the Tisza River. We set up a center that provided and continues to provide diverse assistance to people living in Berehove and in several other districts in Transcarpathia. We started this work as an officially registered organization. It was very important that we established a permanent presence. Another important pillar was that we are a member of an international federation of church-based relief organizations headquartered in Geneva. This umbrella organization includes highly prestigious Scandinavian, German, French aid organizations. There are more than a hundred member organizations, many of which work with much bigger budgets than we do. Many of them closely cooperate with their respective governments. In the event of a humanitarian disaster, they are often asked by their governments to deliver the government's humanitarian assistance. Well, these organizations saw that we responded immediately and contacted us. They came here to Budapest, and we began thinking about providing assistance jointly. Since we had an official local permission, the others decided that they would then support us. And that's what happened in the initial period. They said  if we did the projects, they would finance them. Then, in the meantime, some of the aid organizations, seeing that this was unfortunately going to be a long-term job, registered in Kyiv and started to work independently, but I can tell you that we have been working as one big community ever since.

The third pillar is the Hungarian government, which decided to launch the largest humanitarian program in Hungary's history to help in this situation, and assigned us an important role in this.

The government contacted us precisely because they saw how actively we are working, that we have systems and structures in place, and that we enjoy considerable international recognition. After Berehove, we set up our next office in Lviv, then in Kyiv and Dnipro, while constantly expanding our However, two years passed since the outbreak of the war, and the need for assistance increased. How were you able to maintain this established system?

We set up new offices and sent our Hungarian colleagues there, and they started to build up our local infrastructure. In such cases, you need people for logistics, for projects, you need concepts, you need a lot of coordination with local and international organizations. All of this kicked off and we have identified what forms of support we will launch. This was followed by the opening of our office in Kyiv and then our office in Dnipro, so now we are based in four places.We have eighty local Ukrainian staff who are officially employed and nearly twenty Hungarians working on these projects. Of course, not all of them are out there in Ukraine, but there are Hungarian staff everywhere, managing the projects, keeping the finances under control, monitoring the projects. Well, that's how the system was set up, and today we have reached the point where we are known throughout Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government also has a high regard for the work we do.

Due to the course of war events, in the past two years, reconstruction has already begun in some areas of Ukraine, if we can say that.

Yes, this is thanks to a very intensive consultation with the Hungarian government and especially with the ministry of foreign affairs and trade. We recommended the region of Kyiv, as the Russians withdrew from there last March. We were already there in April, visited the locations, and made suggestions as to which community projects Hungary should support.

We've started building a health center, we've set up an ambulance station, we've set up a container kindergarten, which runs very well and looks good, and we're renovating a school.

We are working on a district school in Zahalci for 600 children, and we expect to hand it over this year, so children will be able to go to school there in the autumn.

Photo: Hungarian Interchurch Aid/Janos Nemes

We are talking about projects that serve a larger community. So it's not just a few families, it's thousands of families, tens of thousands of people that the Hungarian government has helped through these reconstruction projects. However, we have to be careful when we talk about reconstruction, because in the war-affected zone, we cannot talk about any reconstruction, only in the inner regions. Hungary has left a very serious mark here with the assistance provided.

Renovating a school or a kindergarten directly contributes to the children's well-being, which can mean a lot after what they had to go through. In addition to material and financial help, you also provide mental health support, which is also very much needed. How does this work?

That's right, we have a system for this, and we have to pass on the methodology and the way it's built up to the local partners. I am talking about Ukrainian partners who had some experience in this area, or who had specialists, teachers, psychologists, various educators, and so we were able to start to provide assistance in mental health using  art and music. According to our aggregated data, we reached exactly 59,656 people.

This is a huge number.

It is, but we have even higher outreach numbers.

So far, we have helped a total of 513,000 people, more than half a million people who have received some form of support from us. I am talking here mainly about internally displaced persons. We have provided assistance in twenty-two Ukrainian regions, we aim to be active mainly in the immediate vicinity of the war zone.

There are some social groups whose members are not in a position to leave the region, nor do they want to. They relocate 20-50 kilometers far from their residence and try to find some sort of community accommodation. We have been supporting these so-called temporary shelters. Not only have we been able to help them with food, but in many cases we have also been able to help them with infrastructure. For example, in cases where there were not enough fridges, not enough toilets, not enough cooking facilities.

Unfortunately, the war is unlikely to be over any time soon. The ceasefire and peace negotiations that Hungary has been constantly pushing for are not in sight either.

It's a very sad story, and you shouldn't really boast about the work of a relief organization here. We would be the proudest if we could say that there is no need for our work because peace has been reached and people are not dying every day. I have been to many places, from Odessa to Kherson and Kyiv, and it is a terrible feeling to travel through Ukraine, and it is a harrowing experience to see the cemeteries in the towns with Ukrainian flags on the graves of the war dead. It is even more heartbreaking when you return to a place and see that the number of flags has visibly increased. Then you think of how many families have been affected, how many children have lost their fathers.

It's a terribly sad story to work in a situation like this, where you feel a bit of hopelessness, and you try to do everything you can, but there's still a question mark, a big question mark.

In our major projects, we are now focusing on the regions in the immediate vicinity of the war events, mainly around Kharkiv and Kherson. Here, we mainly take on tasks such as partially renovating houses and apartments that can be fit live in after a little renovation, and it makes sense to stay there. We helped with the supply of heating throughout the winter. We bought fuel and distributed it to the families. We have renovated shelters where activities for children can also be held. Kids activities cannot be organized safely in the open air or in community buildings, because of the frequent shelling. These shelters are not close to the fighting so evacuation is unlikely. We have tried to provide the children with specific sessions and, of course, we also try to coordinate these projects with local authorities and international organisations in all cases.

Photo: Hungarian Interchurch Aid

We have many projects that receive international funding. There's a so-called Ukraine Humanitarian Fund in Kiev that puts out tenders, and we've won four bids in the past one year. This shows that we are doing work that is highly appreciated in an international community of aid organizations. So not only are we working with Hungarian government money, but we have also brought in substantial international funding. By the end of this year we will have spent a total of 18 billion forints on our aid program.

When the war broke out, many people volunteered, many people wanted to support the refugees and the work of the aid organizations financially. Are there still many supporters? Did the willingness to donate remain high?

It has fallen rather sharply, and to take the international example I mentioned earlier: last year the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund had 400 million euros, and this year the budget will be no more than 60 to 70 million euros. We do not really receive any donations to support Ukraine any more, and we should not jump to conclusions from the number of well-off Ukrainians we have seen passing through Hungary on their way to Western Europe. This is a small social group that lives in very good conditions, drives very good vehicles, and has no financial problems, but the average in general is unfortunately not like that. Those who live in deprivation and in difficult conditions have at best managed to flee to a more peaceful area in western Ukraine, or perhaps thirty to fifty kilometers away from the war zone. But these people have no savings, nothing to live on, no jobs.

There is a very significant number of communities that cannot survive and exist without international and Hungarian help.

Finally, I would like to say that we, as a Hungarian aid organisation, enjoy an extremely positive reception in Ukraine. This gives us a lot of strength. We see debates at different levels, but what we see in Ukraine is that people embrace us, they are happy that we are Hungarian, they are grateful that we go there and grateful for the help. In this way we are adding to Hungary's good reputation and spreading the word that we are helping and supporting a neighboring country as much as we can in this terrible situation.

How can anyone who wants to help your work?

For those who feel that they might have some resources that they would like to make available to us, I suggest that they check our website: or our Ukraine-related website, where they will find all the information and can help us very easily. Believe me, we still need support!

Cover photo: Laszlo Lehel, president and director of the Hungarian Interchurch Aid (Photo: Hungarian Interchurch Aid)

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