Three weeks at a Ukrainian refugee shelter in Budapest, Hungary: New arrivals, new lives

A "Support Ukraine" sign in Budapest, Hungary. (Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s Note: Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.

“I hope she’s able to make it,” Gabrielle, another volunteer at the shelter, says as we sit at the reception desk. My watch says it’s almost 9:30 p.m., making it 2:30 p.m. back in Kansas.

This afternoon, we received a phone call that one female would be arriving at about 9 p.m. Our shift was supposed to end an hour and a half ago, but what can you do? Fleeing a warzone doesn’t happen on a set schedule.

Gabrielle has some of her work files she’s woefully behind on pulled up on the computer. She’s not the only volunteer, either. Most everyone has a lot of work or school to catch up on. I can’t imagine doing this if my professors at Kansas State had not allowed me to make up my homework when I return.

I’m rubbing my eyes a few minutes later when a woman walks in. I can only see her weary face from where I am sitting behind the reception desk. I can’t imagine how long she’s been traveling.

“Hello,” I say, getting to my feet and trying to remember the speech I’m supposed to give. I see she’s carrying a small suitcase which she eases to the floor as though releasing a thousand pounds.

“I’m Alex,” I continue. Stating my name seems like a good place to start. “Are you checking into the shelter?”

I ask her the question because we’ve had more than one person mistake this place for a backpackers’ hostel.

While she looks a bit flustered, her eyes are calm and alert. “Yes,” she says and tells me her name: Sofia.

Gabrielle takes down more of Sofia’s information now that she’s arrived.

“OK. Nice to meet you, Sofia.” I’m careful not to ask how Sofia is doing. Maybe it’s overthinking it too much, but it never seems right to ask, given the circumstances. “Would you like a quick tour of the shelter before I show you to your room?”

She smiles. Despite the gesture’s genuine friendliness, the strain behind the efforts tells me she’s ready for sleep.

We step through the opening to the common room, where a couple of guests glance up to see their new housemate, but most remain occupied with their board games or phones.

The current situation also occurs to me as I show her today’s delivery of food sitting on the long table. “Would you like anything now?”

“No, thanks,” she says. “I’ve eaten.”

There’s more to show, but that can wait until the morning. “Well, that’s about it for here. Did you see the bathrooms when you came in?”

She nods slowly. She’s ready to grab her bags and find her room but considerately watches me for the tour’s end.

“Good,” I say. “Then we can go to the other side of the shelter where your room is.”

We turn back to the reception desk, her flowing clothes spinning as she moves. At the reception desk, Gabrielle has her room key. Sofia reaches for it and looks at me.

“Also, I have an interview tomorrow with a university,” Sofia says. “To see if they’ll take my credits.”

At first, I don’t know what to say. Has she really just fled all of that destruction to do an interview so quickly?

So far, my greatest concerns in school have included a ten-minute Spanish conversation with my professor. That, and the almost nightly ritual of whether I should continue watching Netflix or actually do some homework.

Sofia doesn’t even know where she’ll be living in a week.

“I’m so glad!” Gabrielle exclaims. “What are you studying?”

“I’m a fourth-year nursing student.”

“That’s awesome!” is the first thing that pops out of my mouth.

She laughs a little, then adjusts the strap of her bag.

Gabrielle suggests she take Sofia to her room as it’s in one of the two all-female rooms.

“Good night, Sofia,” I say. “Good luck tomorrow.”

She thanks me and follows Gabrielle through the open hallway overlooking the courtyard to the other side of the floor.

The noise of traffic from the street below pours into the building through the open windows, the hum of four-cylinder and moped engines interrupted by the occasional blaring horn. Music from the common room joins the chorus, something with heavy bass and fast lyrics.

“Can you imagine that?” I ask when Gabrielle returns. “She barely has 12 hours to prepare for an interview that could dictate where her entire life goes.”

“And we can only guess what she’s been through,” Gabrielle says.

Gabrielle is with several volunteers gathered around the reception desk the following afternoon. I’ve been wondering about Sofia ever since last night. During a lull in the conversation, I ask her about the interview.

“She got in!” Gabrielle says with a beaming smile. “She starts next week.”

Then she pauses as the rest of us lean in. “And they’re giving her a dorm room.”