Saying goodbye at the borders of Ukraine and Hungary Saying goodbye at the borders of Ukraine and Hungary  (ANSA)

Ukraine: Order of Malta serving those in need at the borders of war

Members and volunteers of the Order of Malta in Hungary, and across the border in western Ukraine, join forces to support refugees fleeing war. Barbara Piazza-Georgi speaks of the reality at one of the main crossings where families say goodbye to husbands and fathers turning back to fight against the Russian invasion.

By Linda Bordoni

As civilians flee the war in Ukraine, queues at border crossings into central Europe stretch for kilometers.

With men of conscription age prevented from leaving Ukraine, mostly women and children are arriving at the borders of eastern Poland, Slovakia, northeastern Romania and Hungary.

Close to the Hungarian border beyond the Carpathian mountains is the Ukrainian town of Berehove where the Hungarian Association of the Order of Malta is collaborating with the Ukrainian Charity Service of the Order with staff members and volunteers providing food, shelter and information to traumatized civilians in search of safety.

As Barbara Piazza-Georgi tells Linda Bordoni, the Hungarian crossing near Berehove is the scene of many heartbreaking farewells.

“The border is the scene of many heart-wrenching stories of families saying goodbye, and then the woman, who sometimes can’t even drive too well, gets the car and the kids through the border into Hungary.”

Piazza-Georgi, a communications officer with the Order of Malta in Hungary, explains that the region in which Berehove is located is separated from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian mountains. She describes it as “a bit of a special region,” Ukraine’s gateway to Hungary and Slovakia.

Listen to Barbara Piazza-Georgi

It’s peaceful right now, Piazza-Georgi says, and filling up with refugees from the rest of Ukraine, “either those who are trying to get into the west via Slovakia or Hungary –  it's the second biggest refugee route after the Polish one – or with people who simply hope to stay in that region of Ukraine without actually leaving the country, and sit-out the war there.”

So, she explains, there is a “transit refugee problem”, as well as the problem of internally displaced persons within the region of Transcarpathia.

“These are the two problems that the Berehovo Order of Malta is helping to deal with, and these are its principle activities now,” she explains, noting that all other humanitarian activities the Order normally carries out in the region have been put on hold.

Families arriving in cars

Piazza-Georgi describes the situation in the area where, she says, there are several main crossing areas into Hungary and Slovakia from Transcarpathia. The one where the Berehovo Order of Malta is working sees mostly families arriving in cars.

She speaks of the heart-wrenching farewell scenes at that border as families are divided. All Ukrainian men, aged between 18 and 60, are in fact not allowed to leave the country as they are called to support the Ukrainian military fighting the Russian invasion. The crossing is where they say goodbye to wives and children who get back into their cars and drive on to safety.

Volunteers, Piazza-Georgi says, are on hand to help those arriving with food and hot beverages “because they are exhausted from a long difficult drive and they are stressed”, but the more interesting and more important thing the Order is doing there is to provide concrete and practical help so they are able to continue in their journeys in the best possible way.

Order of Malta assisting refugees from Ukraine
Order of Malta assisting refugees from Ukraine

Helping solve the language problem

“We’ve developed a simple form, in Hungarian, that is filled out with the help of our volunteers who speak Ukrainian and Hungarian,” she explains, to help these people who would have big communication problems once they get to Hungary.

The form provides important details regarding health issues, the number of people in the family, where they want to go, what they need in terms of accommodation and so on, “so all they have to do when they get to Hungary is to show this to relief services, solving the communication problem to some extent."

In Berehovo, she adds, the refugees also receive important information regarding rules in Hungary, what to expect, their status as refugees, and so on.

Refugees from across the nation

Piazza-Georgi says those arriving in Hungary come from across the whole of Ukraine, some from as far away as the eastern region of Donetsk but also from Kyiv, and other cities that are being bombed throughout the nation.

Asked whether the refugees arrive hoping to go home soon, Barbara Piazza-Georgi says “I don’t think we dare to talk about that right now,” but the organization, she says, is preparing for a long-term problem.

In fact, she continues, the second thing that the Berehove Office is doing is to stockpile relief goods for the next few months: all that is needed for the foreseeable future.

Order of Malta on the ground for Ukrainian refugees
Order of Malta on the ground for Ukrainian refugees

Wave of solidarity

We are receiving goods and donations from everywhere, Piazza-Georgi says, expressing gratitude for the solidarity of so many.

“The Hungarian nation has mobilized itself wonderfully and there are piles and piles of donations,” which are distributed between those who arrive to stay and those who remain in Ukraine.

She reveals that major donations have been received from Germany, but also from other nations as well as from ordinary citizens who continue to donate whatever they can. Then, everything is shared out where needed most. 

“We are particularly grateful for this as it is a lovely form of international cooperation.”

An example of service to Our Lord and to those in need

The Order of Malta, Piazza-Georgi explains, is very active and is cooperating with all the other aid agencies involved. First of all, of course, with the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta which is a very large organization, and that is currently dealing with the refugees who have arrived in Hungary.

She also highlights how all the aid organizations that are part of the Sovereign Order of Malta’s global and regional network, as well as Malteser International, are cooperating to ensure the best possible outreach for those in need.

“It has been wonderful to see the solidarity across countries and across nationalities. One often thinks of nationalities being 'up in arms' against each other. But here we have seen everybody working together to ease suffering," she concludes. 

“It has really been an exemplary show of The Order of Malta’s ideal: defense of the faith, defense of the values of the faith, and service to our Our Lord and to the poor and needy.”

Order of Malta on the Ukrainian border with humanitarian aid
Order of Malta on the Ukrainian border with humanitarian aid
09 March 2022, 18:16