Three weeks at a Ukrainian refugee shelter in Budapest, Hungary

Photos from the refugee camp in Budapest, Hungary. (Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)

Stepping off a train in Budapest, I see signs with Ukrainian flags and words leading towards a government building for people entering the city to register and find resources. A reminder of the thousands of refugees who have passed through here.

I fall in with a crowd of hurrying people whose pace indicates they know where they’re going. I see the street open up to a tent bearing signs of Ukrainian blue and yellow. A line of people in heavy coats and garments huddle around it, trying to keep warm because of the overcast sky. My phone says it’s 38 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s 3 degrees Celsius to everyone here.

The tall buildings block the afternoon sun, dimming the light as I walk in the direction I think I should be going. Statues and stonework adorn the structures that run in a connected line on either side of the street. At ground level, people bustle past each other, some dodging in and out of local shops and international restaurants.

I arrive at an inconspicuous multi-storied building, much like the rest in the city, and find a small sign for the shelter. I’m buzzed in and climb the worn stone steps that overlook a courtyard in the middle of the ground floor. The uncanny quiet inside is a welcome reprieve from the traffic and city noises outside. At the top, I check in where the volunteers stay and settle into my bunk for a jet-lagged nap in a room of 12 beds, realizing I’m lying in Budapest, Hungary, after barely a week’s planning.

(Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)
(Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)

The refugee shelter on the floor below my dorm room comprises two sides of the level connected by an open walkway. It has about 60 beds in multiple rooms and a living area on both sides. A fellow volunteer tells me they have been full almost every night since the start of the Russian invasion.

I begin orienting myself in the shelter as I knock on doors to empty trash cans. I then grab a broom as “guests” — the term we use for the people staying at the shelter — excuse themselves past me. Some of the guests’ laughter drifts through the hallway from the common room, and I wonder if I would have the strength to laugh after enduring the trials they have.

My fellow volunteers introduce themselves to me during their tasks. The staff consists of expatriates and travelers from countries all over the world. I soon discovered most did not come to Budapest specifically to help at the shelter. Instead, they’re helping even while other obligations such as work or school constantly harass them for attention. I’m grateful my more-than-accommodating professors at Kansas State will allow me to make up assignments once I return to campus.

A couple of days later, I’m returning from a walk around the city. Two guests, both men probably in their mid-to-late 30s, smoke outside the shelter overlooking the courtyard. We nod to each other and strike up a conversation in English. They tell me how amazed they are to meet someone all the way from Kansas, and I don’t know if I should say I’m amazed to meet someone from Ukraine — at least not here.

Our conversation inevitably drifts to the reason we’re all here.

One of them tells me he survived in a bomb shelter in Kyiv for two weeks before escaping to Hungary. The other man says he still flinches whenever he hears a loud noise. I’ve only associated PTSD with combat veterans, and it disturbs me to hear this.

(Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)
Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest, Hungary. (Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)

I look them in the eyes as we talk and cannot imagine the things they’ve seen. The first man laughs a little, although it seems more of a laugh to avoid another emotion, and he laments about having to start over after already building a life.

They ask how the war is being reported in the U.S. I tell them we hear about both the steadfast fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people and the atrocities committed by the Russians.

“It’s true,” the first man assures me. “They’re attacking civilians.”

Both men look down and lower their cigarettes, sending a wisping ribbon of smoke into the air.

I don’t know what to say and am more afraid of saying the wrong thing. The first man looks up at me during the silence, and I tell them it’s sad to see all this happening. My word choice doesn’t seem strong enough as soon as I say it.

He corrects me and says what is happening in Ukraine is not sad but brutal. He repeats that word: brutal. I nod with him, ashamed of calling something so horrendous and, yes: brutal, simply “sad.”

Then he smiles, perhaps picking up on my shame. He apologizes, the smile leaving his face, and looks away as the conversation ends.

I see him several times over the next couple of days, exchanging pleasantries and handshakes.

As I’m carrying a mop bucket to the other side of the shelter, he passes by, heading for the stairs. “I hope to see you again one day, Alex.”

It takes me a moment to process this. “Are you heading out?” I say, putting the bucket down.

“I am,” he says, and the abruptness staggers me. Yet, that is how it is for many people after the needed paperwork goes through or arrangements are made. When it’s time to go, you better go.

“Good luck,” I manage to say before he’s too far down the stairs. We wave to each other, and I watch him leave the transitory shelter. I have no idea where he’s going and make a note to ask one of the volunteers.

The person I’m cleaning with walks by with a full trash bag. I pick up my mop bucket and start swabbing the common room, preparing for more guests to come.