Three weeks at a Ukrainian refugee shelter in Budapest, Hungary: Differing Futures

St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. (Alexander Hurla | Collegian Media Group)

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

“Hello,” a man says as I lean on the shelter’s reception desk. He’s probably in his mid-twenties and is wearing a black shirt with red slashes that could fit in at a death metal concert. I’ve seen him around the shelter for a day or two.

“Hi,” I say, standing up straight to face him. “Can I help you?”

“English?” he asks.

“Yes, I speak English.”

He holds up his index finger as he reaches for his phone in his pocket. “One moment, please.”

Swiping the screen, he stares at it for a bit, then looks up at me. “Bad Wi-Fi,” he says in an apologetic tone. He then holds the phone up to his face and speaks rapidly in another language.

He lowers the phone, and I see the loading dots translating words in a box that says “Hungarian” to one that says “English.”

He shakes his head a few times. “Sorry,” he says. “Old phone.”

I wave and tell him it’s no problem. I’m not sure if he understands.

My phone is in my room, and I’m about to go get it when one of the other volunteers places his on the desk. “Here,” he says. “Use mine. It’s fast.”

Once again, I’m amazed at people’s generosity in this place. I thank the volunteer and hand the phone to the man to speak into.

Through the translator, I learn his name is Dominik. He’s a Hungarian and was living in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion.

I hold the phone up, thinking of how to word my thoughts. Everything sounds trivial compared to his reality. Finally, I say I’m grateful he’s here and safe.

He reads the text and nods slightly. I can tell there’s more to the story as he responds.

A group of incoming refugees arrives, carrying everything they now own in small suitcases and backpacks. The volunteer whose phone we are using greets them.

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

I motion toward the common room, and Dominik and I move to the open space next to the long table with today’s dinner meals stacked in plastic to-go boxes.

He starts his side of the conversation into the phone again.

“My wife and child were here with me on vacation,” the translated text reads. “We cannot go back now.”

He tells me his family is staying with his mother-in-law in Budapest while he looks for work in computer science. He says he studied for a long time in college for his profession.

Holding the phone up, I say his work is a lot more useful than my degree where I do a lot of creative writing. I don’t know if the joke comes across.

He reads the message. Then he makes eye contact with me as he speaks into it. It feels strange as I watch him speak a language I can’t understand. I look over at the guests playing chess on the other side of the room.

“Stories are very important,” the translated text reads. “We need them.”

He then shows me a picture of his wife holding a little girl in a small dress. Their smiles must bring back memories of happier times every time he looks at them.

Then he speaks into the phone again. “My mother-in-law’s apartment is small,” the translated statement reads from his next statement. “And there is no room for him to stay there.”

I tell him about my wife and show him my wedding ring.

“You and I can be alone together,” I say into the phone – an expression I heard during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Handing the phone back, I hope the phrasing translates well enough into Hungarian.

He reads it and looks up at me with a smile. “Yes.”

A couple of days later I see him in the common room, and he waves me over. “I have a job,” he says as he prepares his phone for us to have a conversation.

“Congratulations!” I say, which I then repeat into his phone. It’s working better today.

I read what he tells me about his job. The translation is a bit choppy with its wording, but I gather the job has to do with computers and the company will train him soon.

As we’re celebrating through the phone, the chessboard in the common room opens up. We’ve talked about playing before, and through gestures, we decide to have a go at it.

“I haven’t played in a long time,” Dominik’s phone translates for me.

He laughs a little after reading it as we’re setting up the board. He proceeds to beat me in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

“Let’s play again,” I say, placing the few pieces I had a chance to move back to their starting positions.

The next game is a drawn-out slugfest I eventually win.

“OK,” I say. “The tiebreaker.”

Dominik looks at me for a moment. “Tiebreaker?”

I point to him, “You. One.” Then to myself. “Me. One.” Then to the board. “Third game is the winner.”

He nods. “Tiebreaker.”

He moves first. I’ve never had a strategy when opening in chess and just move wherever seems right to me.

Dominik moves on the fourth turn. “Checkmate,” and he leans back on the couch.

“What!” I say in disbelief as I follow every route my king could take.

The small crowd around us leans in as we study the board. Yet, it doesn’t lie: my king has nowhere to go.

He tells me the name of the opening, and I throw my hands up and laugh with him.

“Good game,” we say to each other, shaking hands.

“You’ll have to show me how you did that,” I say, motioning to the board.

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

One evening a few days later, I’m sitting at a bar with some of the volunteers from the shelter. A group of tourists at the next table over are shouting about how great this city is as their empty beer mugs stack up.

“I saw you talking to Dominik,” James, an expatriate who hasn’t been to his home country in several years, says. “I’m glad he’s able to talk to you after what happened to his family.”

“What happened to his family?” I say quickly, the picture of his wife and child rushing to the forefront of my mind. What could have happened to them in Budapest? They should be safe here.

James pauses before speaking as every other noise around me is blocked out.

“His parents and siblings were killed in Ukraine,” he says finally. He turns the half-empty mug in front of him without looking up. “When he first came to the shelter, he was shaken and could barely talk, but we could get that much out of him.”

The next day, I see Dominik again outside the shelter and sit with him. I don’t ask about his family in Ukraine. He doesn’t mention them. I wonder what I can do. What can I say? It’s the same feeling that’s followed me this whole trip. Is it enough just to be here? What is the right thing to say? The wrong thing? Is it necessary to say anything at all?

In the end, it’s a brief conversation.

Then he is gone. I was not around to say goodbye. A fellow volunteer tells me the job has taken him to another country, and I hope his wife and daughter were able to go with him.

After the weekend, I’m on a plane heading home. Soon enough I will hug my wife and parents and brother and sister.

‘Then what?’ I wonder as the plane coasts westward over the Atlantic. I’m going back to safety and comfort while those who passed through the shelter face uncertainty and struggle. And what about those who have yet to leave bomb shelters and basements in Ukraine? How can they pick up the pieces of a life shattered by this war? Will they even survive?

No answers come as the questions swarm. Then other things rise to the surface as I near American soil: my homework, the tax refund that hasn’t come in yet, my dog’s upcoming vet appointment.

Then I realize it’s happening: the forgetting, the blocking out, the turning away from it all, the ignoring. It’s terrifyingly easy to do.

I shut my eyes and pray for peace. I don’t know what else to do. I hope we won’t forget what is happening to our fellow human beings.

I hope I won’t.