Order of Malta ‘building bridges’ with migrants in Hungary ahead of Pope’s visit

Pope Francis will embark upon his 41st Apostolic Journey abroad on April 28-30, visiting the European nation of Hungary for a host of meetings, events and celebrations taking place in the capital, Budapest.

Mar 06, 2023

Humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees in Hungary (Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta)

By Thaddeus Jones
Pope Francis will embark upon his 41st Apostolic Journey abroad on April 28-30, visiting the European nation of Hungary for a host of meetings, events and celebrations taking place in the capital, Budapest.

“Christ is our future” is the motto for the journey, while the logo features the Budapest Chain Bridge, the oldest Hungarian bridge over the Danube River connecting the cities of Buda and Pest. The logo also symbolizes a treasured theme of Pope Francis on the importance of building bridges between people.

Visit with refugees in Budapest
During his three-day visit, the Pope will visit with refugees and poor people, as well as with children with physical challanges at local institute.

Hungary and surrounding countries are striving to manage the massive influx of refugees coming from Ukraine, as well as other countries from much further afield. Since the start of the war in Ukraine over a year ago, nearly 1.5 million Ukrainian nationals have reportedly travelled through Hungary as refugees.

One of the primary Catholic agencies assisting these new arrivals in the nation is the Hungarian Charity Service, the Sovereign Order of Malta’s relief organisation that works locally and throughout the world through its extensive humanitarian service network.

Order of Malta’s local and global outreach
Since 2010, Daniel Solymári has assisted in these efforts for the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta as its Director of Foreign Affairs. He also serves as a Counsellor at the Embassy of the Sovereign Order of Malta to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 2020.

In an interview with Vatican News, Mr. Solymári speaks about the agency’s work in Hungary and his work in Syria and sub-saharan Africa providing emergency help and resettlment services for refugees and migrants fleeing war, poverty and natural disasters.

He also shares his hopes for Pope Francis’ visit in April and a soon-to-be-released book he will publish on on the Pope’s pastoral work in favour of refugees and migrants.

Q: Tell us about the beginnings of your work with refugees…

Founded in 1989, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, the Hungarian relief organisation of the Sovereign Order of Malta, was actually born out of a refugee crisis. Hungary was caring for nearly 50,000 East German refugees in Budapest during the ‘system change’ or transition and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the largest humanitarian aid programme in Europe at the time. That year saw the outbreak of the Romanian Revolution, followed shortly afterwards by the Yugoslav Wars in 1991, in which the Hungarian Order of Malta’s parish charity team played a major role. It was against this backdrop that the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta was established, and it’s for this reason that sensitivity to international crises has been a defining feature of its work ever since. We are convinced that, as a Christian humanitarian organisation, we must constantly seek some tangible form of solidarity with those living in the most remote areas – in the words of Pope Francis, the ‘human peripheries’. This is why the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta was the very first Hungarian humanitarian organisation to work in the Middle East, in the cradle of Christianity, as well as in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. We’re still present in those regions with our humanitarian or international development aid programmes. We’re involved in the lives of the local people, working with them to seek opportunities for a more dignified human life.

Q: Why the special focus on the refugee issue?

Allow me to put into historical perspective the deep sense of responsibility that the Charity Service of the Order of Malta has for refugees. In the past, the Sovereign Order of Malta was subjected to a long period of persecution, right from its inception. After its beginnings in Jerusalem, the organisation fled first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes, then to the island of Malta and finally to Rome, always from the current persecuting global force. This past, this inner experience of the organisation has created a strong sense of community with the refugees. Migration is therefore a core and deep organisational attitude for the Order of Malta. It was never, even before the crisis of 2015, a question for us that we had to be particularly attentive to and in solidarity with refugees. We travelled to the island of Lampedusa, we helped refugees from Kenya, South Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I could go on and on. Helping refugees is therefore also in the DNA of the Hungarian Order of Malta. For me, Pope Francis is a source of strength like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Q: What kind of assistance are you providing refugees and migrants in Hungary?

In the early 2010s, it was sobering to see how easily global problems could become local. And the European migration crisis of 2015 showed everyone how quickly the everyday struggles of distant people could become part of our so-called ‘Western’ daily lives. It has presented to us that the problems of the Global South are no longer an isolated reality far away from us, but are very much here and now. It’s a situation that must inspire all of us, first and foremost the various countries and the actors involved, to seek solutions and, as Pope Francis often emphasises, to cooperate and to put into practice a culture of solidarity. It’s my deep conviction that only this attitude, a redefined humanism, sensitive to the pain of others and constantly seeking peaceful coexistence, can be the way forward. Since 2015, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta has been redoubling its efforts to find new ways of putting Christian charity into practice. From a migration perspective, Hungary is primarily a transit country, but we still see thousands and thousands of people choosing to stay in the country for medium or long term. For them, immediate humanitarian aid is no longer enough – we need to provide sustainable solutions to their challenges. For that reason, integration and resettlement programmes are now the most significant part of the work of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta with regard to refugees in Hungary. There’s a war going on beyond our eastern border, which has an immediate and concrete impact on Hungary. The number of Ukrainian refugees entering Hungary has exceeded 1.5 million (some estimates put the figure at close to 4 million), and there are currently more than 30,000 people with temporary protection status. 

Q: How is Hungary coping with the massive numbers of people fleeing wars or poverty?

Since 1989, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta has been a good partner for public administrations in Hungary and around the world. Seeing the tangible manifestations of social solidarity, the Hungarian public has turned with confidence to the nascent Hungarian Order of Malta, and even governmental bodies have entrusted it with the management of social tensions that its administrative, social and health services could not, or could only partially, handle. Today, Hungary has a well-functioning, world-class health and social care system, but the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta remains a strategic partner of the government’s social organisations, including the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For decades, the Hungarian Order of Malta has emphasised the need to provide assistance locally and in close cooperation with the local population and those in need. In a way that those in need see best. We can’t impose models applied in Global North on them that are incompatible with their needs. That’s why we believe that help should be delivered locally: first and foremost, it should be delivered where the trouble is, where the problems arise. We offer the professional principles and procedures that we know and help to implement them locally, if that’s what our local partners, who know best the needs of their own area, want. For example, we’ve built water pipes and sanitation facilities in urban slums in East Africa and implemented repatriation and resettlement programmes in Syria and Africa to help refugees and IDPs return home.

Q: Regarding refugee resettlement, something that gets less attention than emergency care services, how important do you think this is in terms of long term solutions to the massive movements of people we’re witnessing today?

The Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta strives to build partnerships: it only provides assistance in response to requests arising from close cooperation. As part of this, we’ve worked with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church to help nearly 200 internally displaced Syrian families return to Homs. And at the request of local bishops, we’ve also helped refugees in urban slums in Africa to return to their rural homes. These are programmes that enable IDPs to make a new start. Not only are we intervening with and reversing the spiral of poverty, but we’re also having an immediate impact in reducing migration, enabling these families to stay at home and create decent conditions that give them a realistic chance of a new start. The dominant narrative controlled by the media and politics tends to make us forget that not everyone wants to leave their country. Just think how terribly difficult it is to leave behind your homeland, your relatives, your memories, the graves of your loved ones – not everyone really wants to do that. To prevent anyone from having to do so, we have programmes to help people stay in their own country. And I consider these initiatives to be basically successful. 

However, returning to the issue of aid work in Ukraine, we can say that the intensity of aid has changed. In the beginning, the priority was to help people who were fleeing the country, but now our work is moving towards more permanent assistance. A significant percentage of those arriving in Hungary are waiting for peace to return to their country. But peace is unlikely in the short term, so a significant number of refugees want to continue their lives here. The question is for how long. As far as they’re concerned, we need to help them to establish a way of life.

Q: What does the ongoing war in Europe mean from a humanitarian perspective?

Wars are the most terrible reality in the system of coexistence between nations. I deeply believe that even the legitimate use of force and violence is not a joyful celebration, but a profound shame that we haven’t been able to find a disarming gesture of love. I therefore feel it’s important to note that we mustn’t allow war, any war, to become an inextricable part of our lives and our thinking. And this is not just naive sentimentality. Everyone in every field must do everything in their power to avoid conflict and work together for peaceful coexistence. Everyone must do their part, depending on their capacity to act. We can safely believe that lasting conflict could be avoided if journalists, politicians, shop assistants and teachers would redouble their efforts to work for more inclusive coexistence in all situations – to work to value all people, regardless of where they are born or live in the world, as opposed to the many contemporary forms of exclusion and neglect of others.

Q: How do you think Pope Francis’ visit to Hungary in April will help you in your local efforts here?

For me, Pope Francis represents the hope of peaceful coexistence, of a more inclusive world. I’m convinced that his visit is an inspiring force that can motivate us to make a redoubled effort to seek the possibility of non-violent coexistence. We live in a time of war. Here in Europe and around the world, human conflicts are tearing societies apart. In such a reality, the Pope’s visit is a symbol of peace. I always see human conflict as a wound on the body of society that hurts all members of the human community. I look at conflicts as I look at a sick family member: if someone in the family is sick, it affects all the other members of the family psychologically. It is this togetherness, this caring attention of the ‘father’s house’, as His Holiness put in the Fratelli tutti, that the Pope brings to Hungary and to this part of Europe. 

Q: You’re also a researcher and about to publish a book on Pope Francis’ pastoral work in favour of refugees and migrants. Could you give us a preview of the book?

I authored the first Hungarian-language summary of Pope Francis’ teaching was published in 2015 in the form of a discussion book, which my co-author and I was working on for two years. The book was titled ‘Pope Francis’ Way’ and we had the opportunity to hand it over to the Pope personally on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. I’m convinced that the Pope’s voice is a clear and distinctive voice, a torch that lights the way to follow. It’s also very coherent with the Church’s teaching on the refugee issue and is a consistent continuation of what his predecessor has professed. This was the subject of a multi-part article written by me and published in the long-established Hungarian journal Vigilia. For the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, I prepared an in-depth analysis of his speeches on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees and the migration policy of the Holy See. The words have been analysed one by one, and the connections, divergences, links and sources have been scrutinised. In the analysis, we’ve clearly shown which of Pope Francis’ ideas can be considered independent and which elements are based on the teaching of his predecessors and the Church. The continuity is close and coherent. That’s why I believe that Pope Francis is neither liberal nor conservative, but radically Christian!

Q: You’re also a diplomat for the Sovereign Order of Malta in Jordan, coordinating assistance to refugees there. From the Hungarian side you work actively in Syria, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa. Could you describe briefly this work and what you’re experiencing?

Jordan is an important place in the Holy Land. It is no coincidence that popes often began their Apostolic Journeys to the Holy Land in Amman. A wonderful country, Jordan is a very important area for the Sovereign Order of Malta. Bordering Syria to the north, it’s one of the countries most affected by the Syrian crisis, with the second highest refugee per capita rate in the world. There are still nearly 1 million people in the northern refugee camps who need all the help they can get. The Order of Malta is highly active in the Middle East and its presence is indispensable in Lebanon. The same goes for sub-Saharan Africa. The diplomatic network of the Order of Malta work’s on a daily basis to put Christian solidarity into practice in everyday life. --Vatican News

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