“I don’t want anyone to be hungry — ever,” said Ljudmila while stirring a large pot of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup, at a Red Cross shelter in Szeged, Hungary. Dolling out bowls of soup for Red Cross volunteers and Ukrainians alike, she works with the command and efficiency of a drill sergeant. She points to the table in the shared kitchen and displays a bounty of food that she and fellow shelter residents have made. Commanding everyone to sit and eat, suddenly there is order in what was a chaotic kitchen, and everyone is seated, eating warm soup as freezing rain falls outside.
The table is filled with Ukrainian delicacies including pampushky, garlic bread buns, sweet and savory vareniki, and dumplings filled with cheese, salo, cured pork fat over bread topped with pickles and honey cakes. Ljudmila doesn’t sit to eat until everyone has a large dollop of sour cream in their soup. “My mama taught me how to cook this recipe and cooking this reminds me of home,” she said. Since fleeing the Donbas region of Ukraine in March, Ljudmila says that she has found community and purpose at this shelter operated by the Hungarian Red Cross. She says she’s grateful for a warm and safe place for her two daughters and four grandchildren, who are among the 80 residents at the shelter.
Providing Relief to Those Who Need It Most
In surrounding countries impacted by the Ukraine crisis, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) delegates have been working with local Red Cross officials to design and implement a cash assistance program to deliver aid quickly and easily to those who need it most — like Ljudmila. She says that the program has been a huge help for her, allowing her to buy a winter coat and purchase food that she can cook for herself and others. IFRC officials stress that cash assistance is about empowerment, allowing people to determine their own needs and quickly address them.
At the shelter, fellow resident Alissa* holds her nearly two-year-old daughter as she talks about her harrowing journey from Kharkiv. She says support from the Red Cross has been critical for them. “It was very stressful. When I arrived in Hungary, I didn’t know where to go or what to do,” she said. “With the funds I received from the Red Cross, I bought winter jackets for us as the weather has gotten cold and we didn’t bring winter clothes with us from Ukraine,” she said.
Alissa says she’s happy she and her daughter are safe and cared for while they figure out what comes next. “I think it is good that the Red Cross exists. Without the Red Cross, I wouldn’t have known what to do. There’s no other place like this — where I can have nice accommodations, where I can get medicine for my daughter and where I can get funds to buy the important things we need,” she said.
Cash Assistance is Key to Evolving Needs
Two hours away, in Budapest, Hungary, American Red Crossers Kanhong Lin and Monica Shah are working with IFRC colleagues to design and implement cash assistance programs for refugees impacted by the Ukraine crisis. Their team designed an IFRC cash registration app being used in Hungary and other surrounding countries impacted by the crisis. With the help of over 40 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies, IFRC continues to strengthen coordination, providing the largest emergency cash initiative in the history of the movement.
Since the conflict began, Red Cross teams have provided cash assistance to nearly one million people — supporting their basic needs, rental assistance, health and shelter needs. Thus far, more than $138 million in assistance has been distributed to needy families.
IFRC officials say that financial assistance is often thought of in a dry clinical way. However, they stress that cash assistance is about empowerment. “There’s dignity and choice in this sort of assistance,” Lin said.
“In the past, those in need would need to come to the Red Cross, make an appointment, wait for a distribution, drive out to a fixed site or find transportation to that site, often bringing their small children,” Lin said. With this type of cash assistance, the Red Cross is getting relief to people in the most efficient way possible. “With the advances in technology and since most people in this conflict have smartphones, people can register for cash from the comfort of where they are at that moment,” he said.
Lin says that cash assistance puts the power back in the hands of those who need it and puts funds back into local communities. “What I love about this type of assistance is that it gives people a sense of control in helping themselves, particularly at a time when people have lost control of other circumstances outside of their control. No one wanted this war. No one chose to leave and flee their homes. This assistance can provide help and dignity,” he said.
Community in the Kitchen
As Ljudmila passes around more sour cream for the table, she shares her favorite Ukrainian saying, “you have to learn to cook borscht and you will never be hungry.” She says this assistance has given her the freedom to help herself and to help others she’s met at the shelter who are in the same situation. “In the kitchen, we talk about motherhood, we talk about the war, we talk about children. We talk about it all — everything. It’s good for us.”
Ljudmila’s daughters and grandchildren soon enter the room. When asked about their favorite treat from grandma — she interrupts with a laugh. “It’s borscht. It’s always borscht. Nothing can compare. You can call me Babusia Borscht,” she says with a big smile.
Visit here to learn how the American Red Cross has responded to the crisis in Ukraine.
This is story is part of a special series on how people responded to crises in 2022 through the American Red Cross. Read our 2022 year-in-review press release to learn more.
*Name changed for privacy.