Service among refugees

For almost 10 years the Refugee Ministry of the Reformed Church in Hungary has been helping the integration of refugees fleeing from prosecution.

The history of the RCH Refugee Ministry goes back to the beginning of the 2000’s, when Kathy and Joe Angi, missionaries of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, arrived in Hungary. The American couple found their spiritual home in the congregation of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, and as foreigners themselves, they easily noticed the refugees living in Hungary. Just as in any other safe country, thousands of people arrived here running from war, poverty, or other conflict. Only a few hundred of those who entered the country could get legal refugee status, subsidiary protection, and were able to stay in Hungary; even these people had to wait out the long process of seeking asylum in a refugee camp.

The missionary couple often visited Subcarpatia and as they stopped by a refugee camp in Debrecen during their travels they slowly got to know the people there. They wished to provide pastoral care to the refugees – Kathy had experience providing pastoral care in crisis situations before – and help ease the stress that comes from the long wait. They built connections through this work and some of the Christian residents of the camp even started to visit Sunday worship services at St. Columba’s, the Scottish Mission in Budapest. “All these personal experiences made the congregation realize that the refugees need practical help in everyday life,” recalls Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy, the current head of the Refugee Ministry.

Helping the whole person

The first integration project started in 2006 with three families, organized by Marika Görömbei, Anna Ferenczy, and others. Those who received refugee status had to find schools for their children, a job to support themselves, a home for their family to live in, and they needed to integrate into Hungarian society, all without speaking the native language of their new country. They were taught Hungarian and professionals and social workers helped them to find apartments and do necessary administration work to begin their life in Hungary. The Refugee Ministry developed over the years within the Reformed Mission Center, and the church was able to help refugees in more and more areas of life like starting a school integration program, which has been commended by many international ecumenical organizations, and projects which helped clients to gain international experiences.

“I started at the Refugee Ministry in 2008, when a project helping refugee women find their place in the labor market was starting,” says Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy. A lot of refugees came from a country where it’s typical that men are the sole providers for a family. The project not only provided jobs for 15 women, but it also created a community where cultural values could be shared. Among the women who attended were both widows who had no previous education and women who had university degrees but did not use them because their sole focus was on their family. “This was a one-time project for two years, but later we could integrate its results into our housing and school programs, and the participants later came back as volunteers,” recalls Dóra.

“Even though our service has been broadened and developed professionally over the years – its housing and school projects are unique, no other organization has such a program with this level of efficiency – up until the refugee crisis this year, many people didn’t understand why our services are needed at all,” says theologian Balázs Acsai, who came to work with the Refugee Ministry as a social worker in 2011. The RCH does many activities that strive to introduce this ministry in congregations, in order to involve the Hungarian social and education sphere in projects aiming to break the ice and build connections between clients and congregants. Thanks to this work there is now a kindergarten that employs refugee women as well as an intercultural theatre, where refugee and Hungarian youth can participate together and build relationships.

“It’s easier to work overtime knowing that we’re helping these people. When I’ve had enough of the application forms, I go out to the people and I can see how much Hungarian they’ve learned in a week and what their new achievements are at their jobs. For Hungarians and congregations worrying, I can say that it’s beautiful when so many people from different cultures praise God together, or when we talk about God with foreigners in a way they’ve never heard before. And sometimes we don’t even need words, it is more trustworthy just to love and help,” says Dóra with a grin on her face.

Searching for new path

RCH Refugee Ministry programs are financed by European Union or Hungarian State Funds, which need to be reapplied for every year. The goal of the project has always been to provide long-term help and guidance for participants, but because the application works on a year by year basis, the ministry never knows if they’ll have funding for the next year. When money did not come in one year for a school project, it was the selfless help of part-time coworkers and the funding of the church that kept the project alive. Churches and charity services from South Africa, South Korea, the USA, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Switzerland and Germany have also supported this vital integration work by providing the necessary funds to help the RCH keep these programs running.

At the end of June, all of the funding from the EU and from the Hungarian state had run out; programs came to an end, important staff members had to find other work, and the RCH Refugee Ministry was not in a place to help those in crisis at train stations all over the city. In order to meet the growing need of the refugee population in Hungary, the former colleagues of the Refugee Ministry started a non-profit organization called the Kalunba Charity. (There are examples of practices like this in partner churches as well to increase efficiency.) Through this charity, they will apply for funds again this year in the hopes of being able to continue their important work, but nothing is for certain.

Thanks to the more flexible framework of working through the Kalunba Charity, they were able to partner together with the Scottish Mission in Budapest this autumn to provide overnight accommodation for many refugee families. The members of the congregation – amongst them, previous participants in the Refugee Ministry – prayed for travelers, went to train stations to help however they could, and opened their church doors to those in need. “People came into the church – I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t know about their experiences -- into a Christian congregation and it made them happy, “ remembers Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy about her experiences as a volunteer. “They slept in a room we use for worship, a peaceful and loving environment, and the next day they continued on their journey with a little more hope and a little more strength. I believe it is an important thing, and it sends a memorable message.”


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Reformed Church in Hungary

Address: H-1146 Budapest, Abonyi utca 21.   

PO Box: 1140 Budapest 70, Pf. 5

Phone/Fax: + 36 1 460 0708 


Our church through American eyes

We encourage you to read our  former GM intern Kearstin Bailey's blog about her time, spent in Hungary.