Can Europe Make It?

The illegal kitchen spoon: the story of the Let's Help the Refugees Together group

We only asked for shelter for a few hours while the worst storm raged, but no charity organizations or churches we contacted were willing to help — an important turning point.

Luca László
31 January 2016

As one of the leaders of the Let’s Help the Refugees Together (LHRT) group I would like to describe its formation and operation. The group increased with surprising alacrity and had to face a large number of challenges and problems. So far it has managed to overcome most of the obstacles.

I hope that this report may be of interest to those astonished by the sudden eruption of this social movement in Hungary. It could even be edifying for those who tried to form similar groups but were unsuccessful. I will chronicle the changes that came about with the steady increase of the group between June 2015 and January 2016.

As a child of well-heeled intellectuals and a BA student of political science at the Corvinus University of Budapest, my knowledge of the needy was more theoretical than practical. A few times I helped to cook meals for the homeless in a downtown community centre. I spoke out for the Roma, the LGBT, the homeless and the prostitutes on community sites and among friends but could not find a way to turn my sympathy into action. As far as I could see this was rather common among the Hungarian elite.

The political demonstrations I attended were always disappointing. Only once, when the government littered the country with billboards of a hate campaign against refugees, and I managed to tear down a poster with friends did I feel a certain kind of satisfaction. But the billboard was replaced a few days later.

Whereas the groups that were formed to help the refugees spurred us to action and led to a sense of co-operation never experienced before. There have been many talks and debates ever since discussing the possible ways of turning this solidarity towards the needy of Hungary.

The issues related to the refugee crisis were not widely known in Hungary up until April 2015. When asylum seekers died in the sea and an EU summit was organized, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a talk on state radio, proposing to consult the nation. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee answered with a web campaign introducing personal stories, giving information and explaining why asylum seekers leave their homeland, what possibilities and disadvantages they have to face. The UNHCR also launched a billboard campaign about refugees who had found their home in Hungary. The average citizen only knew what was broadcast in most of the media: that refugees are dangerous. They come to take away what is ours, to rape our women and to force their culture on us. They come to take away what is ours, to rape our women and to force their culture on us. The asylum seekers arrived in this very tense atmosphere at the city of Szeged near the Serbian–Hungarian border and the railway stations of Budapest. All of a sudden everybody had to form an opinion, and thousands of gross comments were posted on the net.

The first Hungarian volunteer group, MigSzol Szeged, was formed on 26 June 2015. News of its formation spread quickly in the media and several people realized that there was a practical way to express their solidarity besides feeling sorry and going to demonstrations.

Their example was soon followed by the formation of the Let’s Help the Refugees Together group. Nóra Köves, a human rights expert, created the Facebook group to organize volunteers and to provide a platform where they could co-ordinate their activities. It was the first organization of its kind in Budapest. A day later the Migration Aid Facebook group was created that swiftly gathered several hundred members.

Luca Laszlo and friends, BK41. Own photos.

Early days

At the beginning there was no co-ordination, the founder collected money on his personal bank account and some people visited railway stations trying to agree on who took what and when. At that time only 30–40 refugees arrived in Budapest a day, but since most of the volunteers were inexperienced, it appeared to be a huge task.

In July most of the asylum seekers wanted to go to the refugee camps and stayed in Budapest for only a short time. Volunteers prepared hot meals at home, a maximum of 50 portions at a time and handed them out at the stations. There was no central location or storage room yet, so if no volunteers could stay for the night, everything had to be carried home each day.

Fortunately there were volunteers living close to the railway stations who offered to store equipment for the night. Sometimes we had to spread pieces of garbage bag on the pavement to create a clean spot where we could make sandwiches. Volunteers brought what they could and a large amount of (pretty useless) clothes were gathered. But we could never bring enough food. At that time there was no effective administration or co-ordination and the group was often powerless. Communication was often hindered by personal conflict.

The only state-funded institution that opened its gates to refugees was a temporary shelter near the Keleti Railway Station. Small groups of refugees were allowed to take showers there. Szilárd Kalmár, a social worker of the institution drew the Migration Aid group’s attention to a community centre of BK41 in Bérkocsis Street, also close to the Keleti Railway Station. Refugees were offered the chance to use the internet there. At the time BK41 provided services for various organizations and movements and also worked as a community library and free internet spot. Every Thursday the needy of the neighbourhood were invited for a free lunch. Distribution of meals was co-ordinated by Mr. Kalmár and he was the first to think about using BK41 as a possible locale forproviding hot meals for the refugees. Several volunteers who came to know each other at the Keleti Railway Station wanted to join a well-organized group and were happy to fall into line.

There were several conflicts with the Migration Aid group who at the beginning did not support cooking hot meals. There were several conflicts with the Migration Aid group who at the beginning did not support cooking hot meals. They believed that volunteers should act in line with the government’s official policy which was to get the asylum seekers out of the country as soon as possible, by turning a blind eye to how they do it. Serving warm food would create an incentive to stay. We believed otherwise: a minimally adequate reaction to the government’s cynical policy to neglect the needs of asylum seekers had to be to ease the refugees’ hardship if we could.

Later, the Migration Aid group adopted a tightly-monitored PR and media policy – enjoying a wide range of publicity (while we decided to avoid publicity) – and also prepared hot food a few times. The municipality provided them with some premises at the Keleti Railway Station, while we operated on private grounds.

The first time we prepared 130 portions of hot meals from commodities we bought ourselves. It was distributed in a few minutes. We created the Refugees Welcome Facebook group and from then on we discussed our agenda and co-ordination there. We used the Let’s Help the Refugees Together Facebook group to raise donations. We only accepted commodities and no money because we were very eager to remain transparent. Migration Aid lost several sponsors because they could not account for the huge amounts of money they collected. We invited our friends and acquaintances who were interested in our work to join the group and as initially it was an open group, a number of trolls also got in. At the beginning we did not pay them much attention as the organization of the activities took place in the other Facebook group, but later we decided to merge the groups and keep them in order.

We only let the address of BK41 known in private messages to those who wished to help and were careful not to let the media get wind of our secret kitchen. But as membership grew by the minute, it was impossible to keep it a secret. So, we decided to use the media to call attention to our work.

Luca Laszlo and friends, BK41.

Keleti Railway Station. Edd Carlie. All rights reserved.

The LHRT Facebook group

This had seven administrators by August and each had their specific tasks. One person was responsible for the online food orders and used an Excel chart to keep up with 5–10 orders a day. Two members rotated online duty day and night making sure we answered all questions. Four administrators checked the people who wished to join the group and if somebody posted racist, homophobic, islamophobic or xenophobic comments (s)he was immediately banned. One of our basic principles is that our volunteers should be tolerant not only towards refugees but towards all marginalized groups.

As communications manager, I had to answer most of the questions and I also tried to filter trolls out. We checked the applicants’ personal data and posts and we only accepted people with recognizable portrait photos. As we were not an official organization trust was essential. Facebook has become an indispensable tool to reach thousands of people fast and free. We have never had to use Facebook advertisements, because our volunteers were happy to share our posts.

As all members of the LHRT Facebook group could post anything, important information was sometimes lost. Therefore we created a separate conversational Facebook group where members could share articles, photos and discussions while the original group was kept going for operative purposes. As LHRT was in Hungarian, soon an English language group was also created for foreign members who did not speak Hungarian. When we moved from Hungary to other countries the English language group was renamed Let’s Help the Refugees Together in Hungary and Europe.

The group started its work by preparing hot meals and making sandwiches, but soon our activities expanded. As more and more donations, volunteers and asylum seekers arrived, we started working in several locations simultaneously. Usually we prepared vegetarian meals with legumes, rice or pasta, but sometimes the local Muslim communities donated halal meat. We strove to please the refugees by using Eastern spices and asking for their advice. An Afghani boy helped us prepare Ayran, a special yoghurt-based cooling drink they enjoy. We distributed hundreds of litres of heavily sugared black tea. After the first time we offered tea, a refugee family presented us with a big bag of tea leaves. It was a touching moment.

Afghan Park, Budapest.

"Afghan Park", Budapest. Edd Carlie. All rights reserved.Generally we prepared 3–400 portions of hot meals and 1–2,000 sandwiches a day and handed out fruits, sweets and yoghurt. There were discussions in the group whether the cow milk available in Hungary could be harmful for them, but eventually we decided to provide information along with the offer of milk and let them decide if they needed it. We were also hesitant to provide nutrition for infants and tried to call the mothers’ attention to the advantages of breastfeeding, but we had to realize that due to the physical strain and stress several refugee mothers did not have enough breastmilk to feed their babies.

The number of refugees grew steadily at the railway stations and in the parks nearby. Extreme right wing demonstrations became frequent. When we heard that such a group was to organize a large demonstration against refugees at the Keleti Railway Station I contacted the police and we agreed to help them by evacuating hundreds of refugees staying in the neighbourhood. Most of them were taken to the temporary shelter, but several were taken by volunteers on sightseeing walks in Budapest or to the cinema. The refugees spent an increasing amount of time in the city, because the camps were full and could not provide for the growing masses. Many people were coming back to Budapest, trying to find human traffickers or trains to take them on to western Europe.

Not allowed

Several asylum seekers wanted to find some kind of accommodation during their longer stay, especially those travelling with little children. We tried to help them and a lot of volunteers invited refugees to stay in their homes for a night. Some volunteers were afraid that they could be persecuted for their help. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was very helpful in providing legal advice and information for both refugees and volunteers. The biggest official charity organizations and churches were notably lacking in giving their support. We tried to contact them several times, for example to seek accommodation for asylum seekers, but were always refused. Once they said they were “not allowed” to help which we interpreted as government pressure.

Edd Carlie, Budapest Seen_"Afghan Park", Budapest, Hungary.jpg

"Afghan Park", Budapest. Edd Carlie. All rights reserved.Due to the warm summer temperature most of the time refugees had no severe problems with sleeping rough, but there was a short period when the temperature dropped significantly and there were storms and hailstone. We had to find shelter very quickly for thousands of people, with several small babies and pregnant women among them. Although we only asked for shelter for a few hours while the worst storm raged, none of the charity organizations or churches we contacted were willing to help. This was an important turning point, because we had to realize that we had nobody to turn to and we had to solve these problems ourselves, otherwise they would not be solved. This was an important turning point, because we had to realize that we had nobody to turn to and we had to solve these problems ourselves, otherwise they would not be solved. I witnessed how some volunteers decided to extend their assistance to activities (by providing shelter and aiding transport over the border) that was technically illegal and amounted to criminal liability.

The transit zones in the railway stations offered toilets and showers, but after a while everything else had to be provided by the volunteers: diapers, wet wipes, sanitary towels, bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorants and men’s razors. There was a debate in the group about providing make-up, face creams and body lotions for women. Some people believed these to be too luxurious and unnecessary, while others — me among them — believed that as long as we provided men with razors and shaving foam, we could also help women with these items if they needed them. Unfortunately, we could never collect enough of these donations to provide all the women who craved such small comforts. Sanitary towels had to be wrapped to be unrecognizable and we had to hand them out in secret as most women were extremely shy about their needs in front of men.

As only a few of our volunteers spoke Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Pashtu and few of the refugees spoke English, communication was often difficult. When female refugees looked very ill at ease and drew female volunteers aside, we could guess that they needed sanitary towels, otherwise we often had to use gestures to communicate.

Good intentions

There was a dire need for fresh clothes, most of all for shoes as several refugees arrived in rubber slippers or their shoes were ruined by too much walking. Managing donations of clothes and shoes proved to be a great challenge. As we used the locale of BK41 to prepare food continuously, we had no room left there to store and select clothes. A cultural community centre located in the next street offered to store the clothes and shoes collected by our group. We had to organize volunteer groups to sort out the donations as a significant amount was useless for the refugees, either because they did not meet the religious regulations that women can only wear long sleeves, long skirts and have to avoid transparent, open-necked or tight garments or because they were far too large for the males who were generally smaller in size than Hungarian males.

A surprising amount of torn or dirty clothes were among the donations that had to be sorted out as well. Although we tried various methods, the distribution of clothes was often chaotic. Eventually what seemed to work was offering small numbers of pre-sorted clothes to one target group and letting them choose what they needed. Eventually what seemed to work was offering small numbers of pre-sorted clothes to one target group and letting them choose what they needed. The clothes that were in good shape but could not be used by asylum seekers were donated to the homeless and needy families.

Medical teams were organized and a medical examination room was set up at the transit zone of the Keleti Railway Station. The medical volunteers of various groups gathered there and we took all our medical equipment and medicine there, as well. Later Medical Aid co-operated with all the groups, but worked separately.

Our volunteers were mostly women. A lot of pensioners and mothers with children helped regularly. We did not care for nationality, age or religion, only looked for good intentions. Sometimes there were minor conflicts among the volunteers, but fortunately for us they could all be smoothed over.

The BK41 was practically open 24 hours a day during July and August. Two volunteers moved into the back part of the place and slept there. They spent their evenings and often their nights by taking stock and preparing the daily inventory, determining what we needed to ask for the next day. The place was packed so full during the day that we could not move anything around to organize things. Some eatables, e.g. bread, fruits, vegetables could be handed out in almost any amount, but other commodities accumulated. Although volunteers worked very hard to keep up with the inventory, we often had to buy things very quickly when we ran out of something vital. We tried to use various methods for taking stock, but at the end of each day we rarely had enough time and energy to do it properly.

After a while we worked out a system of daily managers. Each of the regular, trustworthy volunteers took responsibility for a whole day when they were in charge of operations. They supervised the work of volunteers, accepted donations, tried to cover sudden needs by asking for help and organized the distribution of the food. They had to make sure that the place was cleaned thoroughly at the end of the day, the necessary preparations were done for the next day and they had to write a detailed report about the results, challenges and lessons of the day and post it on Facebook. We created a separate operative Facebook group for daily managers where strategic decisions were made. Google sheets were used where volunteers could sign up for morning or afternoon duty indicating how many hours they could stay. Later we created positions for chefs and shift managers of meal distribution, as well. Unfortunately, the Google sheets were not used by all volunteers, and sometimes one person had to stand in for a whole team. Usually it worked.

In the beginning volunteers could join in any time, but later we tried to encourage people to sign up for duty beforehand and we started registering volunteers. They had to fill out a form stating their name, age, experience, when they were free, what languages they spoke, what tasks they would be willing to do and how they could be reached. After initial registration they only had to sign a timesheet each day and they received a numbered badge with our logo.

Balazs Turay, Athens, Greece.jpg

Athens, Greece. Balazs Turay. All rights reserved.

Crooks and angels

Unfortunately all these precautions were not enough to keep out crooks. A Hungarian woman from Szeged, who claimed to be Muslim, worked enough to become one of the leaders of the group. She spent almost all her time in BK41 and for a time was one of the key figures. Later she helped less and less and we only met her at the Keleti Railway Station. She was very kind and helpful and was trusted by all of us. Her small lies were not noticed for a long time. Eventually it turned out that she was in connection with human smugglers and had one of our well-meaning regular helpers involved in shady business. When we started suspecting her dealings some members of our group expected our leader to take action, others urged us to report her to the police. This led to the first major conflict inside the group and some people decided to leave us. Although we warned the leaders of Migration Aid, the crook managed to continue her work with them. Later we learned that she even claimed to be a physician for a time, then she stole a car. In the end the owner of the car reported her to the police.

The refugees who spoke English were often asked to participate in our activities. Some of our members disagreed with this practice because they were afraid of turning them into “capos” and believed it would lead to conflicts among the refugees. Fortunately this did not happen and none of them abused their position. They helped us by arranging the refugees into queues during the distribution of meals and conveying information to the others (e. g. explaining the fact that the help they received was not provided by the Hungarian state, but by private individuals, companies and NGOs). Often they acted as interpreters.

Such a helper was Aziz, the Afghani youngster who spent more than a month in Budapest. He came to help us every day and even saved the life of a Hungarian homeless man who accidentally cut his own arteries in a drunken rage at BK41 and almost bled to death. As two photographers were present at the incident and they made photos, the story was posted on Facebook and immediately turned Aziz into a media star. Dozens of reporters wanted to interview him and while at the beginning he was willing to answer their questions, eventually he got fed up and just wanted to continue his quiet work as a helper. In the beginning of September one of our volunteers took him to Vienna by car, taking a considerable risk as he could have been accused of human smuggling. Our volunteer chose to ignore the regulations as the Hungarian state violated all international conventions repeatedly.

Athens, Greece. Balazs Turay. All rights reserved.

Closing the borders

The Croatian–Hungarian border was closed on 15 September and refugees disappeared from Budapest in a few days. The Hungarian state transported them by train from the Croatian border (Zákány) to Austrian border (Hegyeshalom). They had to walk a few kilometres from the railway station to reach Austria. This was a serious challenge for our group. The school year started on 1 September and several of our volunteers (teachers and parents) became too busy. Others just grew tired of working continuously. Donations still arrived in large quantities, but we had to ask for them more often. Others just grew tired of working continuously. Donations still arrived in large quantities, but we had to ask for them more often.

We decided to keep helping by transporting food and bottles of water to Hegyeshalom. This required much more organization and we had to rearrange our working structure. We started preparing food packages by the thousands and transported these to the border. We asked our supporters to donate petrol cards, but we could not collect enough to make the journey every day. Trains arrived irregularly, usually during the night or very early in the morning. Only a few of our volunteers could help us in these circumstances. The Hungarian Red Cross was also present at the railway station of Hegyeshalom, but we had very bad experiences with them. They had little equipment, but they wanted to control all the volunteers.

Meanwhile we took food to two refugee camps in Bicske and Vámosszabadi and clothes to the detention centre at Nagyfa. Food packages were made by 4–5 volunteers daily, and approximately 20 people worked regularly. Work was no longer as intense as during the summer months and personal conflicts became more pronounced among the members. We planned new projects to help the needy, the poor in the countryside and other marginalized groups in Hungary. Eventually we could not agree on which projects to pursue and kept to the occasional cooking of hot meals and distributing rugs, clothes and roll mats to the needy of the neighbourhood.

A month later the Hungarian state closed the Croatian–Hungarian border as well. The refugees had to take a new route through Slovenia to Austria. This led to an even deeper crisis among the volunteer organizations. We had to ask ourselves whether we should follow the refugees over our borders or concentrate on the refugees still living in camps in Hungary. We had to take into consideration that by that time most of the donations came from foreigners who wished to support our work with the refugees.

After several unsuccessful attempts we finally managed to form a base in Dobova, Slovenia. The Slovenian army and the local Caritas were in charge of controlling the situation there and although they appreciated our help, we had to stick to their rules to be allowed to stay. We co-operated with other volunteer groups because we could not have provided enough help on our own. We tried to organize our volunteers to provide a continuous presence there. From time to time various personal conflicts arose with other volunteers due to ideological differences, e.g. some of them only wanted to help certain nationalities, not all the refugees. We refused to participate in such actions. Some of them only wanted to help certain nationalities, not all the refugees. We refused.

Power games

We kept collecting food donations in Budapest and when we had a significant amount we transported that to Dobova by car. Meanwhile those members who could not travel to Slovenia tried to start other projects that needed our enthusiasm and manpower. Together with a cultural and educational foundation we successfully applied for a grant from the Open Society Foundation and created a scholarship programme for Hungarian teenagers. The youngsters take part in 90-minute-long seminars for 15 weeks with those members of our group who have teaching or training experience. They are taught the rudiments of voluntary work and they take part in activities every month. We prepare hot food together and involve them in its distribution to the needy. We also help families who live in a run-down block of flats without water, heating or electricity by providing them with food, gas cylinders and a generator.

After a while we could not manage on the sole donation of commodities and giving up our earlier principles we were forced to accept money donations. I have become the treasurer and I collect the bills and accounts. The donors trust us enough to believe that we spend their money on the specific purposes they determine and we post detailed reports with photos on Facebook.

After five weeks of continuous work the Slovenian branch of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA Slovenija) forced us to leave Dobova. There were continuous disagreements among the official aid organizations and the volunteers and everybody strove to take control over operations. The ADRA Slovenija took offence that a non-official volunteer group had a dominant role to play and the power games led to even worse conflicts until the army ordered us to leave the premises. We aim to maintain this model and work it up to perfection so that one day we can live in a world of social solidarity.

After that we launched short missions to Serbia and since Christmas we have been present in Athens. Co-operating with local volunteers and international aid workers, we provide refugees with food every day. It has become very difficult to raise donations and find volunteers who can travel to Athens.

In November we decided to establish an association by the name BK41 – Let’s Help Together to provide a legal background for our activities and fundraising. So far we have not managed to accomplish this as some members withdrew, while others expressed their wish to join. A law firm offered to help us with the formalities pro bono, but our administration is very slow in this case.

So far we have managed to overcome most of the various obstacles and could adapt to the continuously changing circumstances. Even though the number of sponsors and active volunteers has decreased significantly, there is a group that with the right management can work wonders. The variegation of our volunteers and the homely atmosphere of several generations working together resulted in a group that one feels is good to belong to. We aim to maintain this model and work it up to perfection so that one day we can live in a world of social solidarity.

Edd Carlie, Budapest Seen_BK41, Budapest, Hungary.jpg

Budapest scene, BK41. Edd Carlie. All rights reserved.

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