The number of refugees from Ukraine continues to increase. Members and friends of the UMC in the bordering countries are working in a coordinated and structured way. However, the challenges are great - and the personal resources limited.
Since the first refugees arrived from Ukraine, members and friends of the UMC in the bordering countries have begun to set up aid programs. They offer the refugees at least for a short time places where they can rest and talk as well as receive clothes, food and medical care.
The willingness to help is great. "The storages are full of donations at the border and the NGOs are very active. Lots of ordinary people open their homes, go to the railway stations, apply for volunteering, donate food or other materials, take up refugees by car," Milan Mutschler describes the situation in Hungary. He coordinates the UMC’s aid activities for the refugees there.
In order for the refugees to receive the help they need, cooperation is important. In the countries bordering directly or indirectly on Ukraine, the political authorities are very active, writes Urs Schweizer, assistant to Bishop Patrick Streiff, in a March 23 report giving an overview of the UMC’s relief efforts. In some countries, the Church has long been seen as a reliable partner. In others, the authorities are now making the same observation. In many places, therefore, there is a willingness on the part of the authorities to cooperate in dealing with the emergency. For example, in Pilsen (Czechia), talks are underway about setting up a children's group for Ukrainian children. In Bulgaria, too, the establishment of centers for Ukrainian children is being considered. There is also cooperation in various countries in the areas of food supply (food bank) and language courses for children and adults.
In Romania, the UMC is working with other, non-governmental organizations, for example, to find a safe accommodation for refugees. It also provides meals for refugees in cooperation with local restaurants. Cooperation between churches has also changed as a result of the situation. "Today, we can boldly ask each other - and the doors open," says Methodist pastor Bence Vigh, for example, describing the situation in Hungary.
The UMC’s relief efforts have four main focuses: In many places, shelters for refugees are offered or organized. In Cluj-Napoca (Romania), for example, 20 to 30 people can be accommodated at a time. But here, those who want to stay longer term are also helped to find permanent accommodation. "Over the past three weeks, about 70 people have been hosted in Cluj-Napoca," Schweizer writes.
Providing meals and food for the refugees is another focus of the help provided by the UMC. "Where refugees are housed, they also receive meals from local churches or church members."
In addition, the refugees receive clothing and shoes: these would either be bought locally or donated from around the Methodist congregations. "So far, local churches in Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria have been reluctant to accept trucks of used clothes and shoes from Western Europe, as long as everything can be bought in the respective countries or is donated by locals," Schweizer writes. However, the situation in Ukraine itself is different, as many goods are already no longer available there.
This is also a fourth way in which members and friends of the UMC provide help: people from Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania have already traveled to Ukraine several times with aid supplies. Long-standing relationships between Methodists in these countries and those in Ukraine are coming to fruition.
"This work is only possible through the dedicated work of local church members and professionals who are willing to give up their free time for this cause," states a newsletter from Czechia. When refugees stay for a very short time, a high degree of flexibility is required on the part of the helpers, Schweizer adds. "And the volunteers work hard when it comes to preparing meals, washing clothes, etc."
"The helpers are sometimes stretched to their limits," says Sarah Putman. She coordinates the Methodist Church's relief efforts in Romania. "We have to get used to the new 'normal' hours, schedule, needs and priority of helping our new friends while maintaining other church activities."
The people who come and go are very different. Giving them the support they need along the way remains a major challenge. "What all these people have in common is a longing for a safe place," Schweizer writes, "a longing for security, peace, a hopeful future - and in many cases, fear for family members still living in Ukraine."
The concern for their relatives cannot be taken away from them by the people of the UMC. But that they find safe places - at least for a short moment - is what the Methodists are working for.
Author: Sigmar Friedrich, Zurich