Two days after the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, a seven-person medical team from Hungarian Baptist Aid arrived on the tear-shaped island to the southeast of India, starting work in the capital of Colombo and then moving south.
“When I got to Galle, it was unbelievable,” Ferenc Tisch, international program director for the national partner of the Baptist World Alliance’s relief-and-development agency Baptist World Aid, recalled of his first glimpse of the city in southwest Sri Lanka. “I couldn’t imagine how it happened.”
In hindsight, Tisch told EthicsDaily.com, he now wishes HBAid had focused on the eastern part of the island, which has fought a long-standing war against the government and has been comparatively neglected in relief efforts.
The badly affected Ampara District is a difficult 10-hour drive from the capital yet has hundreds of thousands of people who are depending on relief, Tisch said. Nearly two months after the tsunami hit the east side of the island, he said, there remain “villages where nothing has happened.”
Tisch described “being present” as one of Hungarian Baptist Aid’s most important contributions. “It’s so important to be with people who have lost everything,” he said.
In addition to providing medical relief to tsunami victims, HBAid has played a coordinating role with North Carolina Baptist volunteers, who have cleaned wells, cleared yards and distributed blankets, undergarments and sanitary items.
Tisch originally earned a degree in international relations and wanted to work in foreign affairs, but eventually his interest turned toward doing “something for a more human world.”
HBAid, which also goes by the name Aid24, began in the mid-1990s with the Balkan War. Over the years it has emerged as one of the “first responders” within the worldwide Baptist community, working through a network of indigenous churches.
It is easier for Hungarian Baptists to get into many countries than it is for Americans, said Bela Szilagyi, HBAid’s executive director. The group has been involved in relief efforts in North Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kosovo and the Ukraine.
Szilagyi explained that Hungarian Baptists have “a better acceptance, because we share a similar historical past of communism.”
HBAid also established a presence in Iran after the December 2003 Bam earthquake killed an estimated 30,000 people. Tisch spent six months working alone in Iran, because he was the only staff member with a visa that allowed him to stay in the country.
The youthful Hungarian observed a striking difference in the reaction to disaster between the Iranians and Sri Lankans. “The people in Sri Lanka are helping themselves,” he said. “In Iran, people just collapsed. People just gave up.”
Support for HBAid comes from the Baptist World Aid, Canadian Baptist Ministries, Baptist Missions Society and several Baptist state conventions, Szilagyi told EthicsDaily.com. About 45 percent of HBAid funding comes from Hungarian Christians. Non-Christians contribute another 45 percent, while the government provides 10 percent.
When Szilagyi joined HBAid’s staff in 2000, he brought with him contacts from his year and a half of work at a law firm that facilitated the presence of TV networks in Hungry like CNN, BBC, National Geographic and Animal Planet. HBAid work abroad is often accompanied by TV crews, including Hungarian crews.
“I saw that my calling was for Hungarian Baptist Aid,” he said, explaining why he left his law firm.
His faith was nurtured in the home of Baptist parents who were persecuted for their beliefs when communists ruled Hungary, he said.
“My mother was denied graduation from high school because she was a believer,” he said. “My father was fired from a job because he wouldn’t join the Communist Party. After a year of unemployment, he got a job paying half of his other job.”
A hard-line communist teacher told Szilagyi that he would never be admitted to high school because of his faith. But when communism fell, he was able to advance through the country’s education system, eventually obtaining a law degree.
When Szilagyi left for his most recent mission of mercy, he told his 4-week-old son that he was “leaving for Sri Lanka to those children who do not have fathers, but that I would be back soon.”
Both Szilagyi and Tisch told EthicsDaily.com that they expect to be working in Sri Lanka through 2005, and perhaps as long as two more years.
Robert Parham is the executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.