A BU lecturer went to Hungary as a Fulbright scholar. Now she helps Ukrainian refugees | UB today
Novelist, poet and short story writer Theodora Goss arrived in Budapest at the end of January to start a semester as a Fulbright scholar. Kid was born in Budapest and lived there until the age of five, when she and her mother emigrated to Brussels and then to the United States.
A lecturer in writing and literature at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of BU’s Gitner Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2020, Goss looked forward to teaching fantasy literature at two Budapest universities, seeking Hungarian culture and literature for his own writing projects, and to attend Hungarian language courses.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing shelling, shelling and the brutal killing of civilians by the Russian military began pouring into Hungary, and Goss found herself in the midst of the world’s largest refugee crisis. in Europe since World War II. Everyone she knew in Budapest was jostling to help. To Eötvös Lorand University (ELTE)where Goss teaches fantasy literature, Kristina Kocybaa German professor, opened a pop-up school for Ukrainian children, with English lessons for their mothers. And she began recruiting graduate students and other scholars as volunteers. Goss signed on to teach mothers English.
UB today spoke with Goss about the school, the resilience of the mothers and their children she observed, and what it is like to be in Budapest now.
with Theodora Goss
UB today: How do the people of Budapest help Ukrainian refugees?
Theodora Goss: Everyone I know here is doing something. A faculty member I know makes sandwiches and brings them to the station. People I know who have extra space are hosting Ukrainian refugees. They help them with forms, things like that.
There’s a Facebook group in Hungary that I belong to that basically translates to “Help for Ukraine”. There are a lot of members and people posting things like, “A woman with two kids is coming, who’s got a place for them?” Or, ‘Someone is here and they need a job in this particular town.’
There are people who need medicine and there are doctors who can say, “This is how the Hungarian system works, this is how you can get the medicine you need. Imagine if you came to a completely different country with a completely different medical system, especially here where you have a national medical system – how do you access that system?
UB today: Can you talk about the pop-up school?
Theodora Goss: At the moment, we have 40 children who come to school regularly. They are all from fifth to ninth grade. We offer various subjects for children as well as language courses for around 20 to 25 mothers and grandmothers. Children are at the age when they really need contact with other children – and if they are to remain in the local school system, they have to make the transition in one way or another. We are trying to determine what the next step is for these children. At present, the school is located in the university. It has gone from four to five days a week and is adding more lessons for children, including computer science. Kristina was recently able to secure funding for snacks for supplies. Soon they will be offering a free hot meal for children.
We have Ukrainian teachers who give lessons in Ukrainian. For now, they are volunteers, but Kristina hopes to be able to pay them.
UB today: What about the class you teach?
Theodora Goss: I have between 7 and 10 wives. They are between 30 and 60 years old. Many of these mothers will say, “Oh, my children speak better English than I do. It is now quite common to learn English in Ukrainian schools, and also in Hungary. The older generation coming from Ukraine, because of the Soviet system, had Russian compulsory. Some adults have a certain level of English — they took it in school, but sometimes they haven’t used it for a long time.
Kristina’s assistant, Yuliia Terentieva, and I shared the class. She is a graduate student at ELTA and she is originally from Ukraine. She teaches women who have absolutely no knowledge of English. The ones I have is a lot to improve their confidence in the language.
At the start of class, we always talk about what we did last week. A woman is here with her grandchildren, and she is trying to find out where they can settle. She doesn’t know if Hungary was the best place for them. She also thinks of the United Kingdom.
UB today: What else do you know about some of these students and their stories?
Another woman is an administrator in one of the Ukrainian universities. She works in the international studies office. At present, she can still work online with her university in Ukraine, but she does not know what will happen with the university and how long it will last.
Another woman who is not very sure of her English said that she would like to go to the United States because she has family in Boston.
These women arrived in Budapest about a month ago. And now they have to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. They receive fairly regular news from Ukraine from relatives who have stayed behind.
Last Monday, I was teaching and during the break, two people entered the room. One of them was a man. He explained that he was American and that he worked with NGOs in Ukraine. And there was a woman with him that he had brought out of Ukraine – he could leave because he is an American citizen. And she had been in Bucha, hiding in the basement of a train station for a month.
Kristina told me that when the children arrived they were confused and scared. And what they’ve been able to do with the school is build community. And now the children have friends at school. The teachers say the kids talk all the time now.
UB today: Can you tell us a bit about your family history in Budapest?
I’m talking to you from what used to be my grandparents’ apartment. They looked out the windows here in 1956 and saw the Soviet tanks coming down the street – towards the students who were part of the uprising [against the Soviet Union] and broadcasting from the radio station.
I was five years old when my mother left Hungary with me. We went to Brussels, and when I was 7, we arrived in the United States.
UB today: You seem to have an affinity with these Ukrainian mothers and their children.
Yes, in a way, women are like my mother and children are like me. My mother talked to me about coming to the United States and having to learn a new language. She is a doctor. The path was easier for her because the United States needed doctors at that time, but I remember that she had to redo some of her training. There were all kinds of hurdles she had to go through. And here are these women with their children, trying to figure out where they can safely live in the world. I think they are traumatized, but they don’t have time to be traumatized.
I asked them in our last class, ‘What did you do last week?’ And they said, ‘Well, we found playgrounds for the kids, we tried goulash.’ They are trying to figure out how to make life as normal as possible for their children. They are in limbo, they are obviously worried. And yet they are so positive, they are so proactive. They are such a pleasure to teach. They are so talkative, so helpful to each other.
A person will say: “I went to Vienna, you can use a Ukrainian passport to get a [train] free ticket.’ And everyone will be like, ‘Oh, tell me how you did that.’ And so the class is a means of exchanging information.
I see that the moms are also angry. Someone came and took over their country. Can you imagine if someone invaded the United States, knocked on your door and said, “Go find another country.
One of the things that always strikes me when I come to this part of the world is that there is such a sense of security in the United States because the world wars have not taken place here. On some of the buildings here you can still see bullet holes.
UB today: It must be very different for you to be there in Budapest compared to those of us here in Boston who read about the war and see it on television.
Here, the war in Ukraine is very present in everyone’s mind. There are Ukrainian students in the university system here and they have friends who are still in Ukraine. There’s a lot going on politically with Finland and Sweden, and there’s talk of joining NATO. There are countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that feel very threatened. Everyone here is very aware of the political situation.
We started the semester online because of COVID. Two of my students are from Russia and they were joining the class from Moscow. At that time, Russia was a normal part of the world. Then in March, one of the students messaged me. He said: ‘I’m really worried. I’m trying to make sure I have my visa, I’m trying to get out of Russia. I am 100% against this crazy war. And I’m a man, I’m of conscription age, and I’m afraid of being drafted and sent to fight in Ukraine.
And then one day he was in remote class and he sent a message: ‘I just got my visa, I’m going to the Hungarian embassy, and I’m going to try to find a flight out of Russia because all the flights stopped. It was in February. He succeeded, he is here now. There is no question that he returns to Russia, where he cannot be heard.
Elte partners with an educational foundation Trefort Gyakorlóiskola Alapítvány. Donations can be made by international wire transfer to the foundation, with ELTE Pop-up School in the subject or object.
Trefort Gyakorlóiskola Alapítvány
Trefort utca 8
Budapest 1088, Hungary
Objective: ELTE Pop-up School
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