When war broke out in Ukraine on the 24th of February, life changed for everyone. The darkness of war gripped those fleeing from the blasts, and among those fleeing the Russian army, were the 76000 plus international students studying at Ukrainian universities. Daily life looked like sitting behind a book, in a lecture, behind a computer screen writing essays and dreaming about life after university. Now with the Russian invasion, international students found themselves overwhelmed, isolated and on the run to cross borders in to foreign neighbouring countries. Stranded, and without embassy or university support, African students found themselves fleeing to neighbouring countries but without accommodation, or the ability to understand local languages in a new country. Some had fled from war back home in Africa, finding solace and new hope while studying in Ukraine, now they were fleeing a war the second time.
Just 48 hours after the invasion, Gabriel Asante, president of Ghana students Association in Budapest (GASH for short), received a desperate call for help. The call was simple. Nineteen Ghanaian students and 2 Nigerian students had managed to board a train from Ukraine and are heading to Hungary, can you help them?
“When I got the call, I knew I needed to help these students, so I called my guys and told them we need to find accommodation for these students. But finding accommodation was difficult, we didn’t have resources, or money, and accommodation was booked out. The pastor of the Pentecost International Worship Centre in Budapest allowed us to bring the students to the church on the morning of their arrival, until we could place them in their accommodation. We used the resources we had and managed to get accommodation for the students, so we brought them to the church and gave them food, made them feel safe and just talked with them before taking them to their accommodation in the evening.”
That was Saturday night.
Gabriel, and the financial secretary of the Ghana students Association, Patterson, as well as the PR officer, Nathaniel, made sure these students were safe and fed. But it was more than just feeding hungry, exhausted people, they wanted to give them a sense of home, a sense of hope, and a renewal of that feeling of safety. “We made only Ghanaian food for them and played Ghanaian music. This is not just about helping people; this is about feeding their soul. Telling them they are safe, giving them a sense of home, that safety of home.”
A few hours later after a full day of unexpectedly finding themselves working with those effected by war, Gabriel received another call. This time 130 students were on the border of Ukraine and Hungary, with nowhere to go.
Nathaniel decided it was time to publish a social media post and ask for help for the cause. They needed accommodation, food, clothing, anything. That moment was a catalyst.
People from across Hungary started arriving and volunteering, donations of food, clothing and accommodation poured in. Psychologists volunteered their services to any traumatised students, even hanging posters with their numbers on for later use.
“The local Hungarian people helped so much and we are so grateful to them,” Gabriel shared, “People arrived offering accommodation in their homes, some people came over just to clean up and then left again. We then realised we could help other students as well because we had everything we needed.”
Gabriel, Patterson and Nathaniel joined hands with “workshop,” a local café that operates as a safe place for refugees. From there, they make sure students eat warm, homemade meals and fellowship with other students. They even created a special team to check if accommodation offered by locals, is suitable for the students who reach them. Throughout the arrival of students, they assisted some in finding other schools to study at, and others they have helped settle in to accommodation for a longer period of time, until they can decide on their future and the steps forward.
More than 30 volunteers came alongside Gabriel, Patterson and Nathaniel, and female students from local universities were cooking non – stop. But after serving close to 200 students, another 800 international students from Kenya, Congo, South Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria arrived seeking help from Gabriel and his team. Over 325 Ghanaian students came to them as well. “We didn’t have any support, we are not an NGO but we could help over 1100 people because whatever you want to do, you must do it. If you want to help people, do it! All of this was done out of goodwill.” Gabriel, Patterson and Nathaniel have now booked long-term accommodation for many of the students, and are continuing to support them daily. Providing food packages, they can cook for themselves and continuing to check up on them. After witnessing the power of creating community and support for those effected by war, they have now started an NGO to continue the work. Patterson who is a key member of the team said “when I was a child my father had a room in our house in Ghana, where people could come stay and be safe, he helped so many people, they even named their children after my father! It is part of our culture as Africans, especially in Ghana, even if you know the person or not, you still help them.” Gabriel, Patterson and Nathaniel are continuing the work they begun and anyone who reaches them in Budapest will be helped to get clothing, food and accommodation. It’s a model they want to replicate across different countries and communities. “The least we can do is help people get their life back on track again. We did it without any resources, just as students who wanted to help, and this is the best way we can do that. Anyone who reaches us will be helped, we support anyone who is displaced by war.”
While the work has slowed, the passion has not, and with an estimated 2 to 4 million more people expected to flee Ukraine as refugees, the work of support for those effected by the war, is just beginning.
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Thanks to the talented writer Lauren Jacobs (www.laurenjacobs.co.za) for turning my interview with these guys into the captivating story you read above. So happy we can finally work together on a project Lauren!