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Ex-Hungarian diplomat forms NGO to help educate Ukrainian children

Ex-Hungarian diplomat forms NGO to help educate Ukrainian children
Réka Szemerkényi, Hungary's former ambassador to the US (4th from right), poses with other women involved in Together for Others—a new nonprofit group established to help educate Ukrainian children. (Photo courtesy of Réka Szemerkényi)

As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its third anniversary, the world’s attention has clearly shifted to the latest bloodshed in the Middle East. Réka Szemerkényi wants to put the focus back on Ukraine—and the human suffering endured by the Ukrainian people since Feb. 24, 2022.

Szemerkényi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States from 2015 to 2017, hopes to channel her diplomatic connections toward her new charity, Together for Others. Its goal: to “provide support, education and essential resources to children in war-torn Ukraine.”

Formed at an Oct 13 host committee luncheon at the Potomac, Md., home of philanthropist Shahin Mafi, the nonprofit organization will be the focus of a major fundraising event planned for April 26 at the Czech Embassy.

“There’s a whole generation of Ukrainian kids who have spent not only two years under COVID, but two years without schooling,” said the former diplomat, who is founder and executive director of the Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “Obviously, the psychological pressure and the physical threats against their own lives—and those of their parents and families—are bound to have negative consequences. So it’s doubly important to stand with them now, and send the message that they are not forgotten.”

Szemerkényi said this generation needs external financial support to fund the education required to rebuild Ukraine, whose current population stands at 36.7 million­—down from 43.5 million in 2021, before the war started.

“Russia’s goal is to weaken society’s resilience and belief in their own future,” she told The Washington Diplomat last month. “We want to reach out to those people who are still in Ukraine so they can continue their education and stay in touch with their teachers.”

To that end, Szemerkényi has partnered with Science4People, a German-based nonprofit founded earlier this year by Hungarian physicist Ferenc Krausz, who is currently director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany.

From left: Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to the US; Xiaozhen Wang of Atlantic Trading, and Iryna Warren of Merrill Lynch, at an Oct .13 lunch to kick off the nonprofit organization Together for Others.

“Our idea is two-fold,” she said. “First, we want to ensure that the kids get all the school supplies they need. In addition, we’re developing a project to pay teachers to give extra classes to groups of students in remote places. There’s a lot of talented children who need additional courses. We will pay teachers 10 euros per hour so that these kids don’t fall behind.”

In addition, many schools in war zones have been damaged, and will need to be repaired. Szemerkényi said she hopes to raise at least $300,000 at the April 24 event.

“I have reached out to several former colleagues, and they have been very supportive,” she said. “We hope to have 10 or 15 ambassadors on an honorary committee who will come in person, and also support the initiative with auction items such as a dinner at the ambassador’s residence.”

Program highlights for this inaugural charity fundraiser include a musical performance; welcome remarks by the event’s host, Czech Ambassador Miloslav Stašek; and a keynote speech by 2023 Nobel physics laureate Ferenc Krausz, who is also the founder of Science4People.

There will also be a reading from “You Don’t Know What War Is,” the diary of 12-year-old Yeva Skalietska; a folkdance performance by Ukrainian children; a photo exhibit of children going to school in war-torn Ukraine, and both a silent and special live auction. In addition, the evening includes a VIP networking reception for high-level sponsors as well as a seated dinner.

Besides Stašek and Krausz, other speakers are to include Colleen Bell, former US ambassador to Hungary, and Matthew Boyse, former deputy assistant secretary of state. Other ambassadors on the honorary committee are Radovan Javorçik of Slovakia; Marek Magjerowski of Poland; Maguy Maccario Doyle of Monaco and Oksana Markarova of Ukraine. The nonprofit Azar Foundation is co-organizing and supporting the event.

So, we asked Szemerkényi, how can other ambassadors help?

This miniature Statue of Liberty at the entrance to the French ambassador’s residence was recently draped with the colors of Ukraine’s flag. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“They can put this on their calendars and come to the event,” she said. “Some of them have also offered to give supporting messages which we can post on our website, so companies can see we are behind this. A third thing they can do is donate auction items.”

In the meantime, Szemerkényi has reached out to Ukrainian artists and painters to donate their works, as well as Ukrainian-born hockey players and other athletes who’d consider donating their jerseys for the cause.

The former Hungarian diplomat, who visited the western Ukrainian city of Lviv this past spring, said that despite the war, “I was very impressed to see the management and absorption of people. The influx took place in a way that even the regular crime rates came down.”

Szemerkényi conceded that corruption is still an endemic problem that threatens the proper distribution of humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

“Especially in Central Europe, where companies have been working with their Ukrainian counterparts, this is a massive problem they encounter on a daily basis,” she said. “My mission is to give this aid directly to those who need it, without any intermediaries. The point is to make sure those schools who are actually doing the work will get the aid.”

Longer term, she said, the United States must not back down from its commitment to help Ukraine because the consequences would be dire, not just for Ukraine but for all of Europe.

“Ukrainians need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that they’re not going to be left in between. The question is not how we can convince the Ukrainians to stop fighting, but to convince the Russians to stop fighting. That can only be done if we stand firmly with Ukraine.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.