The Russo-Ukrainian War and relief in Hungary - My story, Our story

Gabriel Asante, president of Ghana Students Association in Hungary (GASH), reflects on his experience of leading a rescue mission that helped over 1,000 students living in Ukraine flee to safety in Hungary. He tells us what happened in the first four days after war broke out and why it’s a period in his life he will never forget.

Some weeks days ago, the unfortunate happened. Ghanaian students in Ukraine were forced to flee to neighbouring countries due to the Russo-Ukrainian War. Hungary, which shares a border with Ukraine in the northeast, was one of those destinations. Friday 25 February (morning)

I was alerted on Friday morning from colleagues in Ukraine that are part of our wider global network of Ghana student associations about the conflict in Ukraine.

Ghana does not have an embassy in Hungary, so I contacted the Ghana Embassy in the Czech Republic and the Honorary-Consul General of Ghana to Budapest to confirm the news. They confirmed the news and told me that Hungary had opened its borders to Ghanaians with valid passports to enter the country. It was a difficult time. I did not know what was ahead and had no experience in evacuation exercises. I immediately called an emergency meeting with my executive members at 9:30am CET, briefed them and told them I may call on them any time from that night onwards. This was our first emergency meeting since we assumed office in September 2021.

One of our priorities was to find accommodation for stranded students. We also sent a message informing Ghanaian students fleeing Ukraine that , if they needed help, they could contact me via phone and WhatsApp.


Bombed residential buildings in Ukraine

Saturday 26 February (morning)

The appeal worked. On Saturday morning, people started calling – mainly Ghanaians and Nigerians studying in Ukraine, but also other nationals too. I assured them that once they got to Hungary, we would help them - even though – at that time - I didn’t know where that help would be coming from.

Ghana’s embassy in Prague told me to cover the costs with my own money and promised that I would be reimbursed. I don't know where they expected me to get the money from. We students had not received our monthly stipends from the Ghana government (through the Ghana Scholarships Secretariat) for the last six months.

The Honorary Consul-General of Ghana to Budapest told me that he was is in quarantine in Dubai and would only be available from Wednesday. It was indeed a difficult moment! I gathered all my courage and continued to encourage my dear brothers and sisters who were fleeing to Hungary. The number of calls coming through was beyond my imagination. I was getting five calls at a time on average. It was difficult, so on that Saturday morning, I tasked the public relations officer of GASH and the general secretary to create an official list that included the mobile numbers of all the executives.


Click the image above to listen to the rescue story

Saturday 26 February (night)

Saturday night through to Sunday morning, I couldn’t sleep because I was getting calls every single minute. I couldn’t decline any calls because I realised that people were worried and needed encouragement and assurance. Some were calling for directions for when they got to the Ukraine-Hungarian border which I had no knowledge about. That night, they asked me if I could get a bus to the Hungarian border to pick them up, so I contacted the Ghanaian Embassy in Prague, but they told me I should find a way to get some money to hire the bus. I was helpless! Sunday 27 February (morning)

I received a call from one of the students fleeing Ukraine that after long struggles, a train from the Hungarian-Ukraine border was heading towards Budapest with about 25 Ghanaian students on it. I was happy because that meant that Ghanaians were on their way to safety. However, I was still concern about what they would do when they arrived in Hungary. Together with some other GASH students, we looked for accommodation. We enquired about university dormitories but were told there were no empty beds immediately available until that evening.

Students in Ukraine were forced to flee to Hungary

Sunday 27 February (afternoon) At about 1pm CET, the first batch of Ghanaian students from Ukraine arrived at Nyugati Train Station in Hungary. I went to welcome them, give them encouragement and assurances that we would do everything possible to assist them. We then used the local tram to transport them to the PIWC-Budapest Church auditorium. With the help of the church and the student body, we prepared some meals for them.


Sunday 27 February (evening)

We had secured temporary accommodation at ELTE University in Budapest, and that evening took students there. We had been able to assist 26 Ghanaians fleeing from Ukraine – 19 in the afternoon and another six in the evening.

I didn’t get home until 2:10AM CET and was in bed by 3AM CET but calls kept coming, which meant I couldn’t sleep. The newly arrived Ghanaian students told me that over 100 Ghanaians were crossing the border to Hungary that night. I asked myself, where would I be able to accommodate and feed them? Monday 28 February (morning)

I woke up at 5AM CET trying to look for more accommodation and funds to feed the new and arriving students from Ukraine. My colleagues in Hungary, including my executive members, were at the Hungarian train stations meeting and transporting the arrivals (mostly students) to the PIWC-Budapest church auditorium. I called Prague again but unfortunately, no help came from them. We busied ourselves preparing meals for students that had arrived in the morning and were due in the afternoon. Monday 28 February (afternoon)

One of our students made a social media post explaining the situation and appealed for public support. A woman called Ann, who was passing by the church auditorium, offered to help us. She spent the afternoon typing on her phone. We didn’t know what she was doing but by about 5PM CET, Hungarian locals started trooping into the church auditorium with bread, drinks, cookies, rice, oil, eggs, and more. Others offered rooms in their houses to accommodate the students. It was truly a miracle and as a result, we managed to secure rooms for every student that arrived on Tuesday evening for free.

GASH President Gabriel Asante donating cash and other items to displaced students from Ukraine

Food was in abundance at the church auditorium. Companies and individuals offered us places to accommodate our students. Apart from our students, who were serving as the main volunteers by meeting people at the train station and cooking for them, other Hungarians came to our aid and served as volunteers. I want to say a special thank you to all these Hungarians. You have demonstrated that you were great humanitarians during this crisis. We appreciate you. Between Sunday and Tuesday, we had registered about 200 Ghanaians (most of them were students) but we also welcomed other nationals to our facility. Today

By the end of March, we had received and registered 405 Ghanaians and 975 other nationals including Nigerians, Ukrainians, Cubans, Tanzanians, and Indians.

Currently, there are no Ghanaians or Africans stranded in Ukraine. Some have travelled back to Ghana, while most of them are still here. Some have been able to afford to rent their accommodation in Budapest, but we are still feeding and accommodating those that can’t. We are trying to do our best to provide them with hostels but it is still not enough.


GASH President Gabriel Asante donating cash and other items to displaced students from Ukraine

I am writing this in my personal capacity to show gratitude to God, PIWC-Budapest, Hungarian citizens and residents of Hungary, Ghanaian students in Hungary and everyone who contributed and continues to contribute to making this a success. At the right time, GASH will make a documentary about this experience. The exercise is still ongoing, and we are still receiving students and non-students from Ukraine. While everyone has somewhere to stay, most of the people come to eat well-prepared food during the afternoon and the evening at the church auditorium – for free. Public transport is also free for them, thanks to the Hungarian government and Budapesti Közlekedési Központ (BKK) the name of the public transport system in Hungary.

I am indeed happy and overjoyed because through my leadership and support from many uncountable people, we have been able to provide relief to those fleeing war. I will never forget this experience in my LIFE!

 

As well as being president of GASH, Gabriel Asante is a PhD. Candidate at the Doctoral School of International Relations and Political Science at Corvinus University of Budapest.

You can find out more about him here:

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