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PDA/CPJ trip to Hungary and Moldova focuses on plight of Ukrainian refugees

Journey enhances coordination with partners and awareness of evolving needs

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A teacher from Ukraine provides instruction at a school established for Ukrainian refugee children in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Susan Krehbiel)

LOUISVILLE — More than two years after Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to provide aid and support to organizations serving Ukrainians who’ve fled to neighboring countries.

A two-person team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries recently journeyed to Moldova and Hungary to meet with partners and discuss how to best meet the evolving needs of refugees as the war rages on, with no end in sight.

Susan Krehbiel, Associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries, and the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Humanitarian and Global Engagement, were in the region from April 26 to May 4. They took part in discussions involving multiple denominations that share a common interest in serving refugees and that donate to some of the same partners as the PC(USA).

“As faith-based and humanitarian-aid organizations grapple more and more with complex crises and increasingly long periods of emergency response, as in Ukraine, our strategy of engaging partner denominations from the U.S. and abroad in shared initiatives becomes more crucial,” Kraus said.

The needs of refugees vary, depending on how long they’ve been displaced, whether they’re located in an urban area or a more rural setting and what their personal characteristics and circumstances are. Many are women who are widowed or who have become separated from their husbands because of the war, so they’re alone with their children. Some do not have strong work histories.

At left, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus and Susan Krehbiel recently returned from a trip to Hungary and Moldova. (Photo courtesy of Susan Krehbiel)

“Among those who’ve been already displaced for two years, a lot of the focus is on education, such as language and employment skills, as well as on small grants to help people start up new initiatives” and “employment placement,” Krehbiel said.

However, there are people who still need support for their most basic needs: those who’ve left Ukraine more recently, even in the last few months, she said, as well as individuals experiencing illness or other physical limitations, being caregivers, or encountering discrimination.

There also are universal issues, such as a shortage of affordable housing, facing refugees of various kinds.

“In both countries, housing was a big challenge,” said Krehbiel, who noted that some refugees receive housing vouchers to help pay rent and others live in shelters known as accommodation centers.

Looming large for them and PC(USA) partners is the reduction of government funding to assist refugees. Krehbiel noted that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is expected to greatly reduce the number of Ukrainians who will be eligible for financial assistance, a move that is related to a new vulnerability screen. So, funding from other sources, such as churches, becomes all the more important.

“One of the reasons we (PDA) didn’t spend everything in 2022, when the war started, was because we could anticipate the needs of the refugees were going to outlive resources from governments,” Krehbiel said. “Several organizations we visited have already had to lay off some of their staff and close down some of their projects.”

One way to make the best use of funds is by coordinating with other denominations and support organizations.

In Hungary, PDA was joined by representatives from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. After that, the Disciples and PDA continued to Moldova, where they connected with Kerk in Actie, the Protestant church in the Netherlands.

“While larger coalitions, such as the European Union and our ACT Alliance appeals, are vital, these smaller efforts, based in on-the-ground exploration of the afflicted communities’ needs and relationships, allows us to strengthen the capacity of local partners and support creative, often overlooked initiatives in significant ways,” Kraus said. “Doing this with the involvement of several denominations also allows these small, effective local efforts to plan for sustained response in a still uncertain and volatile context.”

A mural of a refugee family by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in downtown Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Susan Krehbiel)

The first meet-up in Hungary was with leaders of the Reformed Church in Hungary and its disaster recovery and response organization, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid (HRCA).

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting a secondary school that was started by a Ukrainian teacher and her husband to serve refugee children living in Budapest. The school, a partner of HRCA, has about 120 students and offers the official Ukrainian school curriculum as well as Hungarian language classes, Krehbiel said. There are also social activities and psychosocial support for families.

Before the school opened, “a lot of the students were studying at home online, so this (school) is now bringing them back into a community setting where they can study with other kids. They can socialize. They do field trips. They have soccer with Hungarian kids, so they also have some integration opportunities,” Krehbiel said. “Being back in a physical classroom space is something that the kids have not been in for quite a while between Covid and then the war, so that was really exciting to see.”

In Moldova, PDA visited YMCA Moldova, which is one of the organizations that has received funding from PC(USA) for its general refugee response.

“Even as they are doing some of the traditional things you might think a Y would do around youth empowerment and youth development, they are running the shelter for refugee families,” Krehbiel said. Also, “they are thinking now too about the ways that their focus on youth” can be a support to refugee youths.

Clothes for distribution at the refugee service center in Bălți, Moldova (Photo by Susan Krehbiel)

Dumitru Roibu, Executive President of YMCA Moldova, will travel to the United States in September to be one of PC(USA)’s 2024 International Peacemakers. He hosted Krehbiel, Kraus and others at the inauguration of the YMCA Moldova Community Center for young people in Chisinau.

In an interview with local media, Krehbiel said, “We are very happy to be a partner with the YMCA Moldova. We came in to support their work with the Ukrainian refugees coming, and we are particularly interested in their ability to both welcome new people to the country but also to be working with the youth here in Moldova. We see this as very important for the integration between the two communities. I’m very excited to see the work that they’re doing.”

To watch footage of the inauguration, go here.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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