Mayor of small border town responds to a call of humanity

László Helmeczi was halfway through his second term as the mayor of a quiet town on the Hungarian – Ukrainian border, until one day he woke at the forefront of an international humanitarian crisis.

During two hours spent together, László Helmeczi, the mayor of Záhony, a previously unassuming border town between Hungary and Ukraine, over 300 km east of Budapest, receives about 60 calls. He answers only one of them. “Sorry, the others can wait, but this one is important,” he says. The call is about a couple in their sixties, who recently fled their home in Kherson Oblast’s Arkhankel’s’ke and are now housed in a 20-bed dormitory in Záhony’s temporary shelter, not knowing what’s next. “They lived in their basement between March and July, but they were caught in the crossfire, and a stray explosive device destroyed much of their house,” the mayor explains. “Now they are exhausted and left without hope.” The call brings good news. The municipality will be able to provide them with a vacant house in the town that will be habitable after a thorough cleaning. The mayor just needs to set things into motion.

DSC08610

The mayor's phone never stops ringing. He answers it on Sundays and at night as well. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

DSC08626

Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

DSC08686

The municipality's tent at the Záhony railway station has been an essential location for aid workers and thousands of refugees alike. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

László Helmeczi began his workday on February 24, 2022 as he always does, by browsing the news. Like millions, he was shocked to learn about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but didn’t immediately realize this also meant the end of his job as he knew it. He didn’t have to wait for long to find out. By 6 PM that day a temporary shelter was set up for the refugees he expected would be stuck there overnight. And with hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the border to his town since February, he is yet to have a good night’s sleep since.

I put out a Facebook post at 1 PM, and by 6 PM a nearby shelter was ready to host refugees

Záhony is the only border town between Ukraine and Hungary that has a railway station. Its former buzz, when the state-run railway company alone employed 8,000 people here is long gone. More than half of its 4,500 residents are now retired, and barely anyone is school-aged. “The priorities of our citizens were clear. We had to keep the streets silent, and the cemeteries tidy,” the mayor says.

László Helmeczi spent the first decades of his career working for the national railway company as an IT professional, then running his own IT business. He went into local politics because he wanted to improve life in the community. At the midpoint of his second term as the town’s mayor, his main ambition was to bring Záhony back to life and make it more attractive to young people. But neither his experience in leading the municipality nor his private sector past could have prepared him for what was coming, when the war in Ukraine landed his town in the limelight of Europe’s fastest-escalating refugee crisis since World War II.

DSC08631

In discussion with Ukrainian refugee Géza Vinda. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

DSC08674

Géza Vinda showing photos of his house and family to the mayor. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

DSC08680

Family photos help keep the spirit when everything seems lost. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

DSC08741

The mayor talking to one of his close colleagues from the municipality. Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

As a former manager, Helmeczi is a man of swift decisions. Knowing that the last train from Chop, the neighboring town on the Ukrainian side, arrives at 10 PM, and the first train leaves for Budapest only at 4 AM, he immediately knew that an overnight shelter would have to be established. “It was late February, with freezing temperatures. We couldn’t expect people to spend the night at the station. I put out a Facebook post on what we needed at 1 PM, and by 6 PM a nearby shelter was ready to host refugees,” he says. Having good relationships with all the local NGOs and civil organizations, of course, helped. “It wasn’t me. No one can do it alone,” the mayor adds.

You keep looking for a solution until you find one. That’s what you do

Soon after the first refugees arrived, donations started pouring in. Then volunteers. Then additional government resources, NGOs, and aid organizations. Life in the once-quiet little town was completely upended.

Amidst the emergency, the mayor and his team had to tackle all kinds of problems on the fly. What do you do when a family shows up at the overnight shelter with 21 dogs? What do you do when their families put 9 older people on a train, who arrive in Záhony not knowing where they are or what’s happening to them? “Well, whatever it is, you keep looking for a solution until you find one. That’s what you do,” says Helmeczi.

The mayor had never expected to be the central character of a humanitarian response, but now he had to live up to the challenge. The team of his municipality was functional and well-connected enough to switch gears, and outside help from international aid organizations was also on the way. “At first, we were so caught up in the issues at hand that we didn’t really realize the amount of human suffering we were dealing with. Only after a few weeks did we have the time to actually sit down and talk to people,” the mayor says. That was when reality kicked in.

The story of Géza Vinda and his wife, the couple from Arkhankel’s’ke is just one of thousands. They had a farm with a nice house and they were comfortably off. Now they are left with only a few photos. “We were the last ones on our street to stick around,” he says. “Our house is next to the school building that was hit, and one grenade entered our living room through one of the walls. But when the roof of the neighbour’s house was blown off while we were out of the basement feeding the animals, we immediately decided it was time to leave.” The couple fled through the reeds of the nearby river. A few shots were fired after them, but they escaped.

When Géza hears word from the mayor that they may be able to move out of the dorm he gets visibly emotional. Then, in the blink of an eye, he pulls himself together. “Let’s go, we’ll clean that house ourselves. We’re not here to just sit around and wait.