“Even a few words can help”: Addressing the mental health of war-affected Ukrainians in Hungary – Hungary

Hungary, August 24, 2022 – Vasil was looking forward to his retirement after four decades working at the same Ukrainian company. Instead, war broke out, forcing him to flee, putting his plans on hold and putting his only son in danger.

The widower traveled alone to neighboring Hungary. Her son serves in the Ukrainian army, a soldier in one of the regions with the heaviest fighting. Although he is aware that there have been significant losses, Vasil remains optimistic that he will soon see his son again. “My past and my future remain in Ukraine,” he says.

“This small hope keeps him alive,” says Szilárd Kovács, who works for the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) team of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Hungary.

Vasil is one of more than a million people who have fled to Hungary in search of safety since Russia invaded its neighbor in February. Hungary is mainly a transit country for Ukrainians and third-country nationals (TCNs); many of those arriving do not know what their next step will be. Uprooted from normal life, they face significant physical and mental challenges along their long and exhausting journey.

Most of those displaced from Ukraine are single mothers traveling with children who face serious risks such as trafficking and exploitation. These difficulties are often compounded by the grief of having to leave loved ones behind; almost without exception, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine.

In addition to providing temporary shelter to displaced Ukrainians, IOM staff in Hungary are helping them cope with the often very disruptive events they have endured in recent months.

A member of IOM’s mobile health unit operating at the border, Szilárd provides psychological first aid to people in need at temporary shelters provided by local authorities, where hundreds of newly arrived Ukrainians are currently seeking refuge.

“I learn a lot from them and do my best to bring something to their life,” he says.

Uncertainty reigns among many of those arriving at the shelter as they try to plan their next steps. Where to go, what to do, when to return home? These are questions that, for the moment, have no answers.

Others, however, express very specific plans for the near future. “Planning ahead can be seen as a coping mechanism,” says Szilárd.

At Záhony station, the arrival point for displaced Ukrainians, needs can range from immediate crisis intervention to a simple supportive conversation. “Even a few words can help,” says Szilárd.

When specialized assistance is needed, IOM staff refer people to different service providers. Many are referred to the Red Cross for medical services, while others receive legal assistance from the Helsinki Committee. Displaced persons may also be referred to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a charitable enterprise, for further transport within the country.

Szilárd recalls a particularly meaningful experience with a mother and her three children at Záhony station. As they drew and folded paper airplanes decorated with Ukrainian flags, the group quickly grew and many more children began to join.

“You could see the joy in their eyes,” he recalls. “It’s the kind of activity that gives children whose lives have been so suddenly uprooted by conflict the opportunity to be children again, if only for a few minutes. It is priceless.

Olga, who has worked for IOM as a Program Officer in Complex Emergencies and Protracted Armed Conflicts for 15 years, stresses the need for a comprehensive mental health response that addresses needs and concerns of those who have lived through devastating events, such as war.

Deployed to countries neighboring Ukraine as an MHPSS Emergency Roving Coordinator, Olga recently conducted an assessment at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, and in short-term accommodation provided by IOM Hungary, to determine how best to support the psychosocial well-being of displaced people. populations passing through the country.

“In these temporary shelters, life is on hold for the many women, men and children who have been forced to flee their homes, starting over completely in an unfamiliar country – often with little or no resources,” says Olga.

“It has had a huge impact on their mental health as they not only mourn the loss of their previous lives, but their country itself.”

Displaced people often have few alternatives regarding their life plans and future prospects. IOM staff bring structure into their daily lives and a sense of belonging to help them deal with loss and bereavement by encouraging the establishment of various committees, each with different responsibilities to the community.

Caring for the well-being of others can also harm the mental health of professionals who work tirelessly to help others. A recent assessment found that displaced populations, staff and volunteers need a safe space to process their war-related emotions and experiences. Professionals and volunteers operating in these settings need to benefit from ‘Care for the Caregiver’ initiatives. As a first step, a weekly discussion group was set up with shelter staff and volunteers.

Since the outbreak of the war, 1.1 million people have arrived in Hungary from Ukraine; nearly 28,000 have applied for temporary protection status in Hungary. IOM’s mobile health unit provided psychological and psychosocial support to more than 150 displaced Ukrainians, and 280 people were identified as in need of protection or other types of services.

As the conflict in Ukraine shows no signs of abating and the needs of displaced people continue to grow, IOM teams plan to expand these essential mental health services to areas with the highest arrivals. high.

By Anna Gergely, Media and Communications Assistant, IOM Hungary

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