Article by Gyöngyvér Gulyás
A seven-storey workers’ hostel in Miskolc has been housing more than a hundred Ukrainian refugees for months. These families and mothers are being helped to form a community by the “Women united for a life worth living” programme, which is being implemented in cooperation with several organisations. We spoke to Rita Kishonthy-Kardos (Emma Association) and György Rónai (Pontközpont) about the project.
Here we are in the community space of the Point Centre, which also hosts sessions for Ukrainian children and mothers. Can you tell us a bit about this place?
Gy: The Point Centre has been operating for 10 years in the centre of Miskolc as a civic space. It is a community space where every day mothers with young children can come for a coffee, a chat or an organised programme. We have a wide range of colourful programmes for adults, children and families. From time to time, we also take on certain missions, supporting causes that are important to our staff.
Györgyi Rónay and Rita Kishonthy-Kardos
R: After the outbreak of the war, we also immediately made it our priority to help Ukrainian refugees. As a parent, I have a connection to the Waldorf School in Hamor, where I attended a trauma education workshop on how to work with refugee children back in March. There I met a dear friend, a Ukrainian lady who has been living here for a long time, Krisztina Voronová, who brought to my attention the families placed in Miskolc. We went with her to the first group accommodation she knew of to assess the needs.
What is everyday life like for families in this hostel?
R: Imagine a seven-storey building with just a kitchen, a small community space and a tarmac courtyard. It is not easy to live with so many people. They communicate through a Viber group, for example, how they share 2-3 washing machines. The big aid agencies take turns and two interpreters are present every day to help the families living in the hostel with their daily tasks.
People react to this situation in many different ways. Some people can’t cope at all with unstructured daily life, they sink into almost nihilism. Some people have been partying loudly for months, obviously disturbing others. Some, on the other hand, have managed to find a job in a local factory, in a pastry shop or work online, and their children can learn online. But there are also people who have started school here. We have seen that mothers of children of nursery age prefer to keep the children with them, thinking that they can go home in a few weeks. Obviously in September we will have to rethink this, because unfortunately it seems that they have to plan for the longer term. We know of one mother who finally returned home to central Ukraine with a four-week-old baby. So there are so many different stories.
How can you help them?
R: When we first went there, we weren’t thinking primarily in terms of material donations. The idea was to try to get them out of there.
We thought that the system was the most important thing, so that some kind of rhythm could be set in lives that had been completely disrupted.
In the beginning, when there were no jobs or institutions for children, it was particularly important to have a system. Many of us here are professionals working with children, so we started to create playful, movement-based programmes focused on them at the beginning.
Then, when the Mother Nature Association‘s application came out, we thought that in addition to continuing the children’s programmes, we would also pay attention to mothers, organising activities for them as well. That’s how the Hungarian classes and the women’s circles were created, where not only mothers, but also grandmothers and young women without children came.
Gy: We try to give them as many areas as possible. The women’s circles always have a different theme, and the sessions are also designed so that everyone brings in their own knowledge. We have had dance meditation, zumba classes, we also go out and show them places to go and they report back and then they go to a particular playground for example. It’s also important to be able to show them as many different colours as possible, and our project is called “Women united for a livable life”. We are also planning an event where we will cook together.
R: And it’s not just about holding programmes, it’s about building bonds. Human relationships, friendships, we‘ve invited many of the women’s circle to our homes. These back-and-forth relationships give a lot. They give back that this place is an anchor for them. The fact that they come to us week after week helps them to feel connected here, that they don’t feel like complete strangers in Miskolc. So yes, it’s an important goal to get them somewhat embedded in local life.
We have a “layer” of people who try to be active, for example bake cookies and come with them, and many of them have been able to get a job.
Gy: There is a mother of two who has managed to get a job and move out of the hostel and into a rented flat. Just the other day she got a report back from the others that her face had changed. Indeed, even her smile was so different, so radiant, that she felt relaxed.
R: He calmed down because he felt that he was not helpless, not dependent. He also mentioned another case in his life when it also proved that he could control his destiny. This is very important.
Of course, some people are more passive in the face of this type of trauma. Because when time goes by, when they feel that nothing is improving, that they are not moving towards anything, there is a feeling of helplessness.
What do you think they need to get out of this?
R: Maybe mostly to develop connections where they don’t feel alone.
It’s the trusting relationships and being embedded in a community that I think can help the most. If they have a circle that they feel is their own and situations on a daily basis that they feel at home in, that makes a huge difference in being able to take more control of their own destiny.
If they can achieve something they want to achieve, however small a step, it helps them to feel in control, not adrift.
But otherwise it’s unthinkable. Even we who are in contact with them on a weekly basis can’t imagine what it would be like on the other side.
As I looked at the photos of the women’s circles, I thought that somehow this is not what you see when you imagine being a refugee in a war. It is so good that you have so much beauty to offer them.
Gy: Yes, when they first came, I think they felt like they were coming as guests, like it was a holiday. Everybody put on their best clothes. Ever since then, these occasions have had that specialness and now they always bring something.
R: There are always more of us waiting for them and it’s important that we are as much a part of the circle as they are. So it’s not a question of inviting them and running a women’s circle for them, we don’t ask them questions, we are in the circle together. Because we are the same, there is a connection, a similarity in our women’s things, in our experiences.
“It’s good to be able to give them that sense of liberation.”
Gy: There are so many beautiful moments in these circles. There was a time recently when we ended our dance by standing in a circle and holding each other. And we did hold each other, figuratively speaking.
Just this week we received such a touching response. There is an elderly lady who had her second child over the age of 40 and she told us that when she had this child, how much she wanted to meet women, to talk, to strengthen each other and how fantastic it is that she is finally getting to do that in this circle at this age.
What is also special for mothers at these times is that there are finally 1-2 hours when the children are not with them, as is usually the case in this situation from 0-24. They have also reported back how nice it is to finally not have to keep to themselves. They can cry, do whatever. It’s good to be able to give them that sense of liberation.
Do difficult feelings come up?
Gy: Yes, and as trust deepens, deeper things come out. Last time was the first time, I think, that they were giving things out about the war situation itself. There was a strong sense of ‘coming over’ guilt in these stories. What right do they have to feel good about themselves on one of these occasions while their father-in-law or husband is fighting at home.
R: They feel it’s a betrayal of the people who stayed at home that they came and there’s always the question of how they can be happy about anything. Some left behind their 97-year-old grandmother, with whom they had arranged to celebrate her 100th birthday together. Now she prays that she will see her mother again. This mother saw an old lady in the shop the other day who reminded her of her grandmother. She bought her a chocolate bar and just gave it to her. The old lady didn’t understand it all, but it meant a lot to her. We all cried when she told us this.
There is another young girl I once sat down with in a pastry shop to talk. It was very much in her mind how strange it was that we were sitting here having a latte and a cake while there was a war going on at home. Then he told me how they had come here through Romania, how he had to convince his parents to come with him, how hard it was to leave the daily routine. At first she was also in a kind of frozen state, but she was able to access online psychological counselling while still at home, which helped her to work through some of her guilt about staying at home. Since then, she has been looking for something to be grateful for. For example, she could never have spent so much time with her parents, as they lived in separate cities, and now they have a room next to each other, which has strengthened their relationship. Or she finds strength in being active, seeing how much it helps her feel in her place. She has become a sort of organiser, we are organising a camp for them in Bükkszentkeresz, she has an important coordinating role in that too, and she has also volunteered to teach English.
Gy: Children also have this desire to do something. One of my personal favourites, for example, is a little girl of ten or eleven. Every Wednesday morning there are Hungarian lessons here at the Point Centre, and this little girl also attends them every time. She comes with the others even if her mother can’t make it for some reason. She hasn’t missed a single lesson and you can see how important it is for her to be able to speak Hungarian when she goes to school or goes to a class with children.
Community Hungarian lessons led by Krisztina Voronová
How easily did the children dissolve here?
Gy: At first I was a little anxious about how we would talk to them because of the language barrier, but my storytelling teacher reassured me that I should speak only Hungarian and they would speak Ukrainian and we would understand each other perfectly. And it really works fantastic. It’s very easy for me to connect with these kids, they’re very relaxed. Of course, there are days when you can see the things running in the background, the frustration of them, and that’s when we had to call on the pillows to help them out a little bit. But here somehow they can really play together in a liberated way. It’s also nice to see how little friendships and little communities are formed among each other, the teenage girls whispering together, the boys playing in gangs, and that makes a big difference to them.
“The boys are also in a gang.”
“Here they can really play together freely.”
So, using the power of community to hold children and adults together, to provide a kind of anchor and normality in the uncertainty of war, is a way of summing up what is being done here at the Point Centre for Ukrainian refugee families.
R: Yes, and that reminds me, on one occasion somebody asked me a question about who would be doing what at home on a Wednesday night if there was no war. Everyone was talking, bringing in a bit of their ‘normal’ life. But at the same time how interesting it is that there is a war going on and yet this is the only life we have. And you have to make the best of it. That’s what we’re trying to help them with.
The project is supported by MotherNature-Anyatermészet Association, MINE, Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment and State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg.
Liza Baranyai – MoNA
Liza Baranyai | MotherNature – Mother Nature Association: ‘Women’s communities have a special role to play. Women’s women have a special role to play. They can provide a very different type of solution to problems than the ways we have been used to. We support caring-regenerative responses because this is very much needed today.”
The article was first published at mumpark.hu.