Robert 'Gene' Brown and Marylin Ball-Brown are two 'ordinary' Americans who retired to Hungary hoping to spend the rest of their lives leisurely visiting 'their' children across Europe. Little did they think that within a few years they would be standing in a war zone handing out supplies to homeless and often traumatised refugees in nearby Ukraine.
Photo: Gene and Marylin in sandbagged Kyiv, May 2022. Gene originally hails from California, Marylin from Kansas, though they lived their married life in the Pacific northwest, laterly in Washington State. After retirement in 2013, they settled in Veresegyház, 25 km northeast of Budapest.
My wife and I couldn't have children of our own, so we borrowed some from other people, and returned them, hopefully, in better condition than they were when we got them. We had 35 exchange students live in our home for various periods of time, over the course of about 15 years.
Some only stayed for a few weeks, and some stayed for an entire school year. We travelled across the world, visiting the families of "our kids," and getting to know their biological families. When we retired to Hungary in 2013, it was with the intent of spending our time with our feet up, and occasionally visiting the European families of our German, Hungarian, French, Danish, and Swedish former students. HA! We got a big surprise.
Having previously spent a great deal of time with young people, when we arrived here, we immediately began collecting new, young friends. This led us to a surprising set of events. During the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, many of the young people we had become acquainted with decided to set up a play area near Budapest's Keleti train station for the refugee children.
We try to remain aloof from local politics, because we consider ourselves guests, living in a country which is not our own. However, the refugee children in this situation were trapped between their parents, seeking safety from violence, and local politicians who claimed that they were protecting the European community from an unwanted invasion. The children were suffering, and we had to help.
We bought lots of art supplies, paper, colored pencils, scissors, glue, and similar stuff, and contributed all of these items, along with bottled water, fresh fruit, snacks, and diapers, and gave it to our young friends who, in turn, gave the refugee children something to do while their parents settled their disagreements with the Hungarian authorities.
We acquired a small network of friends and family who contributed funds to support our personal efforts, so we were also able to expand our efforts with trips to the Croatian, Serbian, and Austrian borders with supplies for the travellers. Then, the numbers of refugees dwindled, and we resumed a peaceful life involving plenty of great Hungarian cuisine, fine wines and a little travel.
February 2022 - War in Europe
In February of 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine, and refugees began crossing Hungary's borders, it seemed only natural for us to load up the car and our small utility trailer, and head to the frontier. We arrived in the small town of Tiszabecs, on the border with Ukraine, and found hundreds of people looking for shelter. The townspeople had organized a welcome center, and they were doing their best to meet the needs of all the new arrivals. A translator asked us if we could help a family of 8, four adults and four children, with their transportation needs, and we agreed to assist them. They had a car, but they had too many people and a baby carriage (pram) as well as a stroller, so our car and empty trailer were an ideal fit for their needs. They wanted to meet up with some Ukrainian friends who were already in the town of Iklod, which is only a few kilometers from where we live, in Veresegyház, so it was an easy job for us. From this meeting, a great adventure began. We continued to see the Ukrainians for several months, and they even stayed in our small house with us for a few days, while seeking a bigger, appropriate space for their large family. In the meantime, we rekindled the donor group of friends and family, and began again to collect humanitarian aid for refugees. Our new-found Ukrainian friends had many contacts in their home country, so we began sending food, clothing, and medical supplies to internally displaced refugees, and helped to organize refugee centers within Ukraine, itself. As the supply situation changed within the country, we discovered that it was far more efficient to send cash directly to our trusted contacts in Kyiv. They could buy whatever was needed there, and quickly transport it to wherever it was needed, closer to the conflict areas. We continue to collect and disburse funds, today, to help those in need. Towards the end of April, or maybe in the beginning of May, some donations of medical supplies from two sources landed on our doorstep. Some American tourists brought a full shopping bag of generic Costco painkillers in their luggage to Budapest, at about the same time that a small community in Italy sent vans full of supplies which had been collected from local residents. Among the supplies from Italy were bandages, IV kits, and one box of prescription painkillers, which had been donated by a physician. This presented us with a dilemma: How to get these things to Ukraine, where they are sorely needed, without getting any of our contacts in trouble for possessing prescription painkillers? Our Ukrainian family came up with a solution. The man and wife team needed to return to Kyiv to take care of some business and family affairs, and asked me if I wanted to go with them. I said "Yes!" I was truly shocked when we informed my wife that we were heading into a country at war, and she said she wanted to go, as well. So we loaded the Ukrainian's car with all the donations, plus a few personal items, and off we went. We crossed out of Hungary with no trouble, but then, we had to enter Ukraine - carrying drugs. Contraband, that we legally had no right to possess, could land us all in prison, or at least in an interrogation room. Visions of TV and movie dramas swirled around my brain when we pulled up to the inspection point. A young, armed, uniformed border guard asked us for our identification and then asked us to open the back of the car. He started looking in boxes and suitcases, when an older, higher-ranking gentleman came over to observe. This older man said that we had too much stuff, and the thorough inspection was going to delay the line too much, so would we please drive around to the back of the office building, where we could get the inspection done properly? At this point, our ever-resourceful Ukrainian mom reached into the shopping bag full of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, grabbed two large bottles of painkillers (300 tablets in each bottle) and handed one to the officer and one to the guard. She said that she knew that dealing with the public all day long had to be very stressful, and that these men and their colleagues must suffer from headaches quite often. These American painkillers would alleviate the suffering quickly, and we wanted to thank them for their public service with a little gift. The officer took out a pen and wrote something on a little slip of paper, handed it to our driver, and pointed to a gate, saying, "The exit is that way."
No interrogation. No bright lights in our eyes. A big sigh of relief, and we were on our way to the nearest train station. We took the overnight train to Kyiv, because fuel for the car is limited, and the roads are not great.
The following morning, the very first thing that happened as we awaited our ride near the station was an air raid siren sounded. I was asked if I was afraid, because I just stood there, not really knowing what to do. I responded that I was a bit anxious, but I was not at an age where running to a shelter was an option, so I might as well look nonchalant, even if I was a bit nervous. Our friends took care of their affairs, while we were guided around the city by a succession of friends and family. It seemed a bit surreal to be tourists in the middle of a war, but we also had some serious business to attend to. We stayed a week, and met some lovely civilians, some serious members of the military, and some people who had had harrowing experiences during the Russian occupation of Irpin and Bucha. We saw sandbagged fighting positions on all of the bridges in the city.
We saw the devastation in Irpin and Bucha. We saw bombed out grocery stores, and broken bridges.
I stood in a crater created by a rocket-propelled grenade. We talked to people who, just a few days previously, had been hiding from artillery barrages that threatened to take their lives. These experiences made the war all the more real for us, and emphasized the importance of all the small efforts that we had been taking and continue to take on their behalf.
Photo: Gene, by the crater left after the explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade, Kyiv.
We returned home safely, and we continue to collect funds for refugee relief, but with a new sense of urgency, knowing that the small efforts that we take mean so much to so many people whose lives have been upended.
When contemplating the end of our working lives, we never could have imagined that our retirement would involve such an adventure, but it seems that Forrest Gump was right: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."