Father Imre Kozma, founder of charity services of the Order of Malta in Hungary, March 31, 2022 | Photo: ANSA/Patrizio Nissirio
Father Imre Kozma, founder of charity services of the Order of Malta in Hungary, March 31, 2022 | Photo: ANSA/Patrizio Nissirio

Father Imre Kozma, the founder of charity services for the Order of Malta in Hungary, spoke to ANSA about the organization's work to register and help Ukrainian refugees. "We help everybody, we are not a political organization," he said.

It was August 1989 when Father Imre Kozma opened the garden of his Zugliget parish to almost 50,000 people arriving from East Germany. The founder of the Order of Malta's charity services in Hungary has since then seen at least four other humanitarian crises: from the one that followed the 1991 revolution in Romania, to the war in Yugoslavia, the transit of thousands of Syrian refugees heading to Germany and other European nations and today's one regarding Ukrainian refugees.

"We help everyone. We are not a political organization. We are a Christian humanitarian service. We do not want to read between the lines of politics. We provide assistance," said Kozma, 82, in the headquarters of the Order of Malta on the banks of the Danube in front of the monumental Hungarian parliament.

"During all these years I have written to hundreds of MPs, ministers, and prime ministers of all political orientations. And they have all always had a positive view of us," he said.

Order of Malta helping Ukrainians inside and outside country

On the wall in front is a black-and-white photo of the tents of East Germans that were welcomed by the priests' acolytes. Kozma said he was due to leave for Poland to deliver an ambulance. And, even now, the Order of Malta is working hard to help Ukrainians that have left their country and those who remain within it but have fled from the areas of conflict.

"Many want to go to Western Europe. However, we expect about 200,000 to 300,000 to remain in Hungary because it is close to Ukraine and it is easier to re-enter from here," said Gyori-Dani Lajos, CEO and vice president of the Order of Malta in Hungary. "Then there are about a million IDPs in western Ukraine and these people might arrive at some point."

Nationality doesn't matter

The organization offers aid to those in need, to those stopping by on the way through, and works to assist those who want to stay with long-term support for integration. Their nationality does not matter, he said.

"In 2015 there was a highly charged atmosphere from the political point of view, while today it is easier for us: we can save lives," he added.

Alongside the Ukrainians, some 20,000 foreign students -- mostly Africans -- have arrived, and their countries of origin have helped to repatriate them. Those who did not have support from their countries, the poor, remained here. Many are Nigerians. They are housed in university dorms and are helped to continue their studies, he explained.

Assistance in Hungary

The Order of Malta also offers assistance -- in addition to operations at the border with Ukraine and inside the country at war -- in some places in Hungary, which is getting ready to open hotspots for those who may arrive and for those staying in Hungary.

In the indoor stadium called Bok, in the center of the capital, much work is underway to register, sort, and help those arriving here. Doctors, cooks, and volunteers help with the transportation and also provide information for those wanting to seek work. Many women with children are present, as are many from the Roma community.

"But most of them will not move onwards. They do not expect to go to other countries," Lajos said.

Few men are leaving Ukraine as they are prohibited from doing so if they are between the ages of 18 and 60. However, there is a man named Gregory, originally from Kharkiv, a teacher who arrived in Budapest after a dangerous journey lasting several days.

"I continue to hold lessons for my students online but I do not know where they are or whether they know where I am. My aim is to go to the US but I do not know how. I have friends in Lubbock, Texas," Gregory said.

Another man who has left Ukraine -- Odessa in his case -- and came here is Andryi, a sailor on a cruise ship who arrived on Wednesday (March 30) in one of the three Order of Malta shelters in Budapest.

"I took the ship because I have a contract. I can earn money to support my family, who are unfortunately there.And, above all, because I cannot abandon Odessa."


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