One Woman Making a Difference to Syrian Refugees

American tourists help Syrian refugees in HungaryJennifer Kate Lovallo, an pediatric nurse practitioner, decided to spend a week of vacation in Budapest before beginning her new job. Less than halfway though her time there she heard about migrants from Syria being detained at the train station less than a mile from where she was staying and decided to walk down there and check out the situation. Immediately Jen contacted her brother and they coordinated their efforts to purchase necessary supplies for the migrants on the first day of their 100 mile walk to Austria, at the train station in Budapest, and at a camp in Roszke. Through TBS’ good friend Ilina Ewen, Jennifer gave us permission to share some of her accounts of what things really look like for the Syrian refugees.

Today was rough. Really rough. There’s part of me that wishes I could somehow undo what I saw today, while another part hopes I never forget it.

I headed towards Roszke, where hundreds and hundreds of refugees are camped out right on the Serbian border. Most have come from Serbia, crossing into Hungary, hoping to make it onwards to either Austria or Germany. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Conditions were reported as dire, ugly, and tense–with Amnesty and BBC correspondents likening it to an internment as opposed to a refugee camp. Granted, I’ve never seen either, but I didn’t expect my time there to be an easy thing to swallow.

Hell, I didn’t even know if I’d get in. Reports of heavy police activity, patrolling dogs, and barbed wire fences hadn’t scared me off, but I still didn’t know what to expect. Granted, there are at least two or three camps currently at Roszke, and I was only headed to one of them.

…and I was overwhelmed at that. As I got closer, I could see the lights of police cars flashing ahead. I passed three different police checkpoints checking cars for ‘smuggling humans’ (also Hungarian for: refugee convoys of Austrian volunteers being turned away). As I drove down the route towards the camp, I passed nearly three dozen refugees walking towards it.

As I pulled up and parked alongside the road, my heart sunk. Reports of conditions (and counts) had clearly been downplayed. There were people standing, some huddled around fires, others just huddled together, for warmth, as far as I could see. Hundreds and hundreds of people.

I knew in an instant–no matter the number blankets or granola bars or diapers I’d packed this car with, it wasn’t enough. It’d barely scratch the surface. I was one of two, maybe three cars bringing supplies. The rest were journalist or police cars.

I grabbed my first few bags and headed in, eyes welling with tears I desperately tried to choke back. No one should have to experience this. No should ever know a moment of life like this. The fact that fellow humans had forced the plight of these humans to this extent…I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I still can’t wrap my head around it.

Of all the things I never wanted to know in life: the feeling of a little seven or eight-year-old girl chasing behind me, pulling at my sweater for a blanket shouting, ‘Please! please! please!’, while my too-wise-for-his-age guide sternly smacked my hand and said, ‘She’s old enough; she’ll live.’

If I called it a tent city, it would be an exaggeration. I barely made it inside the police tape before I was surrounded by a dozen people, just grabbing at whatever they could. Mainly blankets. It was freezing.

Two or three more trips back and forth from the car like this. At some point, I noticed there were nearly a dozen police officers standing alongside the railroad tracks near where I’d parked. I didn’t know what they were doing or why they were there, but finally, I saw it.

In the pitch black of night, there were families making their way from Serbia down the tracks towards the camp. My heart sunk even further, not just because these parents and children were slowly, mostly stumbling in, but because I realized, as a floodlight lit up the tracks, the stream of refugees coming in was endless.

I’m thankful for my friend Anton, a 17 – or 18-year-old kid who helped me navigate through the masses in the pitch black with his dad’s phone flashlight, denying supplies to anyone before we first found all the small children and babies.

Of all the things I never wanted to know in life: the feeling of a little seven or eight-year-old girl chasing behind me, pulling at my sweater for a blanket shouting, ‘Please! please! please!’, while my too-wise-for-his-age guide sternly smacked my hand and said, ‘She’s old enough; she’ll live.’

I halfheartedly hope, and only for my mom’s sake, that the press video coverage of me telling a Hungarian police officer to fuck off doesn’t make it onto international news. Then again, when you forcefully grab and bruise my arm and tell me I can’t go back ‘in there’ (the camp) because “it’s dangerous and these people are animals”, to which I replied “no, they’re humans”, came back with a “stupid American girl,” I find my resounding “fuck you” to be quite justified.

I think I cried half the way back to Budapest. But, I’m headed back tomorrow, for one last drop off before I’m headed home.

And on that note, if anyone has any connections at Delta or Air France that might help me delay my flight just a bit and NOT charge me $2000+ in fare difference and penalty fees, I’d forever be indebted. I just want to get these kids some more blankets. Thanks folks. xx

Posted here with permission from the Facebook page of Jennifer Kate Lovallo. If you’d like to donate to Syrian refugee relief efforts, you can visit one of these sites — Jennifer’s own efforts at Things They Left Behind,  (thingstheyleftbehind.com), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or UNICEF.

Image by Jennifer Kate Lovallo, with permission.

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