Don’t give fish to the starving, teach them to fish – The Calvary of a Roma Refugee Family in Transcarpathia.

Article by Gyöngyvér Barcs

In this series, we present the winning organisations and their work in the Mother Nature Association (MoNA) spring competition. In this episode, we’ll look at a Roma refugee family that one of the winning associations is helping to become self-sufficient.

My colleague Blanka and I visited the Roma Women’s Association for the 21st Century. It quickly became clear how indispensable their work is. They even go above and beyond to help Ukrainian Roma refugee families. It is not an easy undertaking, but there are occasional success stories.

From the outset, I would like to answer the three why’s

I often see these three questions popping up in comments on Facebook, for example, but I have also been asked them when I told them that I was going to visit a Roma refugee family in Transcarpathia. Here is my answer to all of them!


      1. Why do people from Transcarpathia come to Hungary if there is no war there? The answer is very simple. Because there is no food, or if there is, it is so expensive that they cannot afford it. People are literally starving. Where the family we visited comes from, there is no bus service, there is no public transport at all.

      1. Why does the association – or anyone – help refugees, when there is also something to help here in Hungary? Unfortunately, this is true, but the Association of Roma Women of the 21st Century – like many others – is also involved in helping refugees in addition to their everyday work. I would also like to say that everyone helps whoever they see fit. If someone loves animals and helps them, we might also ask them why they do not do it with the homeless or orphans instead? I think it’s a choice that’s in everyone’s heart.

      1. Why are they helping the Roma? In Transcarpathia, the situation of families living in abject poverty, which is already appalling and almost incomprehensible to us, has been exacerbated by the outbreak of war. The shelves in the shops were bare and food aid never reached them. Starvation reached such proportions that there was no other way out but to cross the border to see if someone would help them. Mothers with their newborn babies and children in their arms, or elderly grandmothers, were forced to make the journey to see if there was any hope of getting food, formula or baby care items. Who wouldn’t do this for their family? Who would let them literally starve to death? Who would not help when they see this?

    It’s easy to look out of a bubble, but when you step out, reality hits you in the face

    I was born in a bubble (in a well-off, intellectual family). I did open a window on this bubble to peer out, but I didn’t step out of it very often. Although I had read that there were uneducated, even illiterate, people living in abject poverty here in Hungary, to come face to face with this was shocking and even more thought-provoking. I have been visiting with the wonderful Réka Makula, the leader of the Roma Women’s Association of the 21st Century and her partner – who is also a member of the association!  – a Hungarian-speaking Roma family with 11 children in Transcarpathia, but not a day goes by that my thoughts don’t wander around them.

    A happy Hungarian Roma extended family in Transcarpathia

    A Roma couple, Meli and Imre, lived in Fertősalmás, a small village in Transcarpathia, the closest village to the Hungarian-Ukrainian-Romanian triple border. They had 11 “turyas” (children), Meli is now expecting her twelfth baby. The husband worked, kept pigs and tended their small garden. They had friends, and parents and grandparents lived nearby. They had built a house for themselves in a village, not in a camp (that’s what they call gypsy settlements there). When Meli told me about this, I – a naive, bubbly, mother of three – imagined a house with a kitchen, living room and bedrooms. But it soon became clear to me that this house was actually a room, or more precisely a building with four walls. But it was all they had, their life. They didn’t care about money there either, but they were happy.

    Escape from home

    When the war broke out in Ukraine, they were also hit by food shortages, and if they did have food, it was very expensive. Meanwhile, public transport had completely stopped, and the once-a-day bus service to the village had stopped. There is no work at all in the area, but the father would not have dared to take a job, lest he be taken away from his 11 children to become a soldier.

    There was absolutely nothing left to feed the children. As the mother had no milk, she could no longer feed her baby. It was hopeless to buy formula, so she fed her with sugary water.

    Meli, the mum and her 8-month-old sugar-fed baby .

    Who is the parent, the person, who would let this go on? Because of the unsustainable situation, the family was forced to sell everything they had to pay for the journey to the Hungarian border with their many children.

    They hoped that things would get better in Hungary, that someone would help them. Fortunately, there was no problem at the border, the Ukrainians let the father out because of the large number of minors – men with at least three minors are allowed to cross and are not supposed to be taken as soldiers.

    Only their granddaughter did not travel with them because the 17-year-old already has a husband and two children. The husband did not want to leave the country. He would have allowed his wife to stay with her parents and siblings, but only on the condition that she could not take the children with her…

    The calvary of the family in our country

    The family crossed the border at Beregsurany, where they were “papered” and taken to a hall. From there, with the help of the Hungarian Baptist Gypsy Mission, they were taken to the church house in Kemecse. There, they were promised help to get dual citizenship, money and a house, which they would either buy or rent. But for three months nothing happened.

    The local nurse – who is still in contact with them – helped them to get their one-year residence permit. Meanwhile, the Gypsy Mission kept trying to find them accommodation, but unfortunately without success. Then they were taken to Kiskunhalas to look for a sublet, but in the end even the Roma refused to rent them their property. From Kiskunhalas they were taken to a gypsy settlement where, according to Imre, the head of the family, there were so many gypsies that they were “very scared”. Moreover, everyone spoke Gypsy, but they only spoke Hungarian and Ukrainian.

    After that, they ran out of ideas, and Imre asked them to help them head to Budapest to the BOK Hall. But they were only allowed to stay one night and were told that if they wanted to go abroad they could help them, but if they wanted to stay here they couldn’t. But they wanted to stay in Hungary and they still want to stay here. So they ended up in Gyöngyös, where they could only be placed among the Roma again. They didn’t want to stay here either, Imre said that here too “it was scary for them to be among all the gypsies”.

    They were then returned to Kemeche, where they were allowed to stay for three weeks as a favour. In the meantime, they had come to know and love almost everyone in Kemeche. The villagers always brought them something, sometimes sweets, sometimes food. Unfortunately, they could not stay here, because 24 people lived in one room with them.

    Józsi and Réka, the two guardian angels, came to their rescue

    Józsi is a Roma entrepreneur, he knew them from the beginning, he visited them every day, he talked to them and he helped them as much as he could. He got them odd jobs, gave them half a pig and a hen. Meanwhile, Réka, the head of the association, continued to work hard to find them rent. The promises kept coming, but nothing ever came of them. It seemed unlikely that they would ever find long-term accommodation.

    Finally, on the verge of desperation, the entrepreneur Józsi, known only as a “good man”, offered them his house in Kékcsé, which the Tabula Plaza Foundation will rent to them until the end of August. Réka took care of that too, as well as the fridge, the front-loading washing machine – the likes of which Meli had never seen before – the groceries, the cleaning and cleaning products. There is no bathroom or toilet in the house, but the contractor has promised them that he will fix that soon.

    However, unlike the people of Kemecse, here in Kékcsé no one is curious about them, no one from the village has ever looked at them. Meli found this very hard to take.

    Don’t give fish to the starving, teach them to fish!

    Tabula Plaza will pay their rent and utilities until the end of August, but you can’t live on benefits forever. But Imre’s family could easily survive like this. This became clear to me when, on our arrival, the couple shouted at Réka that this is not it. Fortunately, Réka is experienced and knows that it won’t work, so they have to stand on their own two feet. It’s no help if they always get what they demand. Because they do make demands if someone doesn’t stop them. So Réka has been forced to tell them that they will only get money once a week in advance, they will be taken shopping once, so if they run out of something after shopping, it won’t be until the next shopping trip and that’s it. It’s no use phoning. So they can’t do anything but think about what they will need for the next week, so they are forced to learn to plan ahead and save, to make a list.

    Meli with the youngest child and Imre.

    Réka also informed them that the foundation will not pay the rent from September, so Imre will have to go to work. There is no one left to help them. That’s not necessarily true, but if everything falls into their laps, why bother. Imre told us that he is currently doing odd jobs with the help of the contractor, but it looks like he will get a job in Budapest. He is even thinking of going abroad to work – but he is worried about what will happen to his family without him. Meli added that while they lived in Kemeche, they were able to “work in the day job” with their older child, aged 15, who has been “working hard since the age of 9, just like a grown-up“.

    Save the children!

    When I saw the family I was amazed, they are so beautiful. Most of them are “fair-skinned” (light-skinned) with huge blue eyes that sparkle with intelligence. 

    Blanka, our colleague with some of the children in the kitchen.

    But still, when Blanka, my colleague, went off to play with them, she had a shocking experience. It turned out that not only the parents, but also the children could neither read nor write. And the sixth-grade girl couldn’t open the box of the jigsaw puzzle she had received as a present. She simply didn’t know that she just had to lift the top off the box, because she had never done that before. They thought the bear was a dog and didn’t know the difference between an acorn and a peanut. These otherwise bright, intelligent children are incredibly behind the times. Meanwhile, their social development is well beyond their age group. Each child looks out for the other, and you can see how much they look out for each other and love each other.

    Blanka, our colleague playing with the children 

    While I was talking to Meli and Reka, a 12-13 year old girl appeared curiously, alternately carrying her 8 month old and two year old brother on her hip. You could see that it was hard to carry them, but at the same time you could see that love was much stronger than putting them down. Meli told us that she is actually the one who raises the babies, cooks their formula and feeds, diapers, bathes and puts them to bed.

    The 12-13-year-old girl with one of her brothers.

    But Meli, the mother, won’t let the children go anywhere, because then who will look after them? Réka mentioned that the Red Cross organised a summer camp for Ukrainian refugee children, but to no avail. The children had to stay at home. So there is no chance for their development.


    Imre and Meli’s 16-year-old daughter is homesick, missing her friends, her 17-year-old sister, her grandparents and, understandably, the internet, which was home to them. But Réka is quick to point out that she has a boyfriend at home, the one she longs for. And if he goes home, we know what will become of him.

    The 16 year old girl with her phone (we shared the internet with her) and one of her brothers in the entrance of the apartment.

    When Blanka asked them what they missed most about home, they said their grandparents and their dog. None of the children said toys…

    Since then our hearts have been aching and Blanka and I have been thinking about how to save the children.

    Is there hope?

    Réka took Meli to the gynaecologist so she wouldn’t have to walk and take the bus in the sweltering heat. Imre got a job in Budapest, from where he comes home every week or two. The children will go to kindergarten and school. The only question is how well they will be able to catch up and keep up with the children in the Hungarian village, and whether Imre will be able to earn enough money to support his pregnant wife and 10 children. We shall see. We are rooting for them.

    If you would like to support the 21st Century Roma Women’s Association in any way, please contact Reka Makula via their Facebook page or email her at You can read our interview with her here.

    The project is MotherNature-Anyatermature  Association, MINE, Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment and the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg.

    Emese Dömösi – MoNa

    Emese Dömösi | MotherNature – Mother Nature Association President: “In order to make effective changes in the world, we need to start small. Regenerative processes and the emergence of feminine and maternal qualities are the key to making meaningful change. It has been proven countless times that the straight up, always more, always better, is not a sustainable trend. What is sustainable is the circular process that is the essence of women.”

    The article was first published at