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  • Jenna Bilyeu

Americans Provide Humanitarian Aid on Spring Break

By Jenna Bilyeu

PIA’s Jenna Bilyeu interviewed Deanna Phillips about her recent experience providing assistance to Ukrainians escaping to safety. 

Deanna chaperoned a spring break mission trip from First Baptist Church in McKinney, Texas, to Hungary. Her group was given the opportunity to help serve some of the refugees leaving Ukraine.

How long had your trip to Hungary been planned?  

Signups for the trip were due last December. The students then began months of preparation to share our culture (via stories and skits) and their testimonies with the Hungarians we would meet on the trip.

Was the trip in jeopardy when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began?

Because our travel was not near the war zone, it was determined to be safe (Hungary is west of Ukraine, and Russia is invading from the east). 

What language(s) were spoken? Did any in your group know any languages other than English?

Our students were able to pick up Hungarian phrases very easily, but aside from my co-chaperone who spoke Dutch, our group only spoke English.

English is not widely spoken in Hungary, so an interpreter was assigned to us. Our interpreter spoke English and German. Between her and other interpreters, our conversations were translated from English to German to Hungarian and back again.

You ended up at the Ukrainian border. How did that happen?

Our travel group of 30 was divided into five small groups, and our group and one other were sent close to the Ukrainian border. We were assigned to help at the border, while the other group hosted a Vacation Bible School for gypsy children. Our group had two adults, three high-schoolers, and one middle-schooler. 

The city where we served (Záhony) was experiencing a heavy stream of refugees coming across the Ukrainian/Hungarian border in cars and on trains. It was the first stop outside of Ukraine, and most stayed there for one night and resumed their journeys the next day. 

What type of work did you do to help the refugees?

We arrived in Hungary on Saturday and woke up Sunday morning to a truckload of supplies and volunteers that had just arrived after a 20-hour drive from Holland. We helped unload the supplies, and we were able to communicate with the volunteers since our other chaperone from McKinney was originally from Holland and spoke Dutch. 

Later, we spent about three and a half hours making sandwiches to feed the Ukrainians. We were in a room making sandwiches as quickly as we could, non-stop, assembly-line style. This freed up the local volunteers to greet and feed refugees arriving at the train station down the street. 

“Then we had the life-changing moment of walking into and through that train station.

I understand the conditions were unlike anything you had seen before.

I have sent my husband off to war, prayed for his safety, seen the effects of those that didn’t make it home. However, I have never seen this side. I will never forget the faces. Never forget the looks on the moms’ faces.

Do you know those wooden beads that kids play with in doctors’ waiting rooms? They had those in the train station, and there were toddlers busily playing with those beads while their mothers sat nearby with the most shocked, blank expressions.

Most of all that gut check moment when one of our students said, “I was just thinking what would I put in one suitcase if I had to leave my home?”

I also talked to one woman, Daria, who stayed one night at the guest house where we stayed. It was International Women’s Day, and I helped her unload her car. She was with her infant daughter, young son, and I guess her mother. She had left Kyiv and was on her way to Poland. She handed me the flowers someone had given her and said, “You keep them,” and all I could think of was that she left her husband, father, and home and didn’t know what her future held. There was very little she wanted to celebrate. As she slept a floor above me that night, I prayed for her each time I woke up.

Do you have any insight into how we in the US can contribute to the humanitarian effort?

There are many groups organizing shipments and aid, many of them close to home. I do know that while we were in Hungary, volunteers for Mission Regan ( here in McKinney flew a shipment of medical supplies to Ukraine. 

“I am forever changed because of Hungary.” -Deanna Phillips

For a true story about a community making a difference in a momentous place and time, Deanna recommends the musical Come from Away, about the people in Newfoundland who provided shelter for thousands of displaced air travelers on and immediately after 9/11.

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