The story of two water polo teams brought together by war.

In May 2022, Visegrad Fund supported project 'Host of the U19 Ukrainian Water Polo National Team' as a part of the special grant call Visegrad 4 Ukraine that aimed at mitigating the effects of war on people from Ukraine. Read the story of two water polo teams, as seen by our Project Manager Éva Merenics:

“The U19 national male Water Polo Team of Ukraine arrived in Hungary in March 2022 with a special permission to prepare for the European Championship qualifiers in Tbilisi. Szentes Water Polo Club immediately welcomed the juniors due to the professional and friendly relationship with their head coach, Viktor Momot. As he commented about the athletes’ experience upon their arrival: “They have seen things, but now it is good for the boys to be here.”

The core of the team consists of 16-17-year old and a few 18-19-year old members, mainly from Kharkiv and Lviv, but also from Kyiv and Mariupol. Szentes Water Polo Club ensured professional support and infrastructure for their preparation for the qualifying tournament. Municipalities in the surrounding area have provided accommodation and the Visegrad Fund contributes to their meals. On a regular basis, they still mostly rely on local private donations. Despite all the support, the team’s enormous will power and efforts, they failed to qualify for the championship just by one goal due to some members’ injuries. After this misfortune, the members at the age of military conscription had to leave for Ukraine along with the trainers. The families of the latter and the team members under 18 years of age stayed in Hungary.

Despite having researched the social impacts of posttraumatic stress for more than a decade, it took me two days to understand the tensions that I experienced in Szentes. It immediately became obvious to me that the hosts strive to create an emotional safe space, but the young athletes act as if being in a regular training camp, refusing mental support. They are not open to communicate with people outside the team, albeit I could feel their internal emotional struggles merely while sitting among them. Only the older athletes and the coaches’ family members were ready to talk about their experience.

Their hosts were much more communicative and explicit. I had a discussion with Balázs Kis, technical director of the Szentes Water Polo Club and Péter Szilágyi, coach of the adult male team of Szentes. Both spend considerable time with their Ukrainian protégés, and dedicate demanding efforts beyond their daily work and caring for their own families. They are far not unique being overwhelmed by this complexity of tasks among refugee suppliers. I experienced though that they and the club’s whole community approach the Ukrainian juniors with a very high level of emotional intelligence. I find this exceptional in an utmost competitive top sports environment. After all, it is set up to boost their athletes’ performance, not to resolve any consequences of a humanitarian crisis.

Still the whole community of Szentes Water Polo Club proactively engages in this tough organizational learning process, prioritizing solidarity. As Mr Szilágyi pointed out: “If someone made me sign a statement now that I accept all of these guys to the adult male Hungarian National Team, I would. Even if by any chance our performance would drop and I would be taken responsible, I would not regret it. I would explain that this is about compassion, not about performance.” This approach supports them while learning to handle the issue of their protégés from organizing daily material supply over administration and employment issues to leisure activities or connecting the youngsters with the local society. Their other motivation to continue these demanding tasks is simple but powerful and is shared by many fellow volunteers: “How could we let them go if once we have already taken them by their hands?”

Indeed, it would be hard to let them go. Recently the Ukranian team has suffered a grave infrastructural loss, since bombing left the regional swimming pool of Kharkiv in ruins. That was the home of many team members. As Maksym Klunnyi of Kharkiv Region’s Junior Team shared his thoughts: “That swimming pool is my life, I used to go there for trainings every day. I learnt there how to swim, and I became acquainted with water polo there, too.” Coping with this experience while engaging with their host environment, keeping contacts with family and friends in Ukraine, improving language skills and studying online, Maksym shows outstanding social responsibility. He is one of the handful people with exceptional mental strength present in several refugee groups that our grantees care for. He rescued his mother with long-term impairments from Kharkiv, brought her to Lviv and he himself returned to Szentes to reunite with his teammates. He, along with his “senior” older peers and their coaches’ adult family members, take much responsibility for the team. Their strength often allows them to provide emotional support even for their hosts, being on the verge of exhaustion.

It is an honour for me to work for the junior team and their coaches’ family members, to learn from them and their hosts at Szentes Water Polo club. Similarly to all organizations I am working with, that contribute to creating a viable present and future with and for Ukrainian refugees.”