In 1956, a group of individuals volunteered to help refugees escaping war on the Hungary-Austrian border. Years later one of those volunteers would go on to found VSO. The brother of another volunteer who was serving in Hungary at the time has chosen to remember VSO in his Will.
Over fifty years ago, an attempted revolution against the Soviet occupation in Hungary left many civilians displaced, forced to flee their homes in severe midwinter temperatures.
Responding to this in Austria, along the Hungarian border, an international rescue operation for refugees was mounted including relief from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, dozens of relief organisations and spontaneous groups of young volunteers who hurried to help.
One of these volunteers was VSO's founder Alec Dickson. At 41, he was older than most. He says, “The cold was so intense that the hairs in one's nose went stiff like needles. We worked at night for it was only under cover of darkness that refugees could make their escape. When we heard them approaching in the snow we would stumble towards them shouting 'This is Austria, this is Austria, you are safe here!' At the sound of our voices they would stop still in fright, fearing that this might be some trap. Then as we came out of the blackness and they saw that we were friends they would throw their arms around us and warm tears of relief streamed down their icy faces.”
When we heard them approaching in the snow we would stumble towards them shouting 'This is Austria, this is Austria, you are safe here!' Then as we came out of the blackness and they saw that we were friends they would throw their arms around us and warm tears of relief streamed down their icy faces.”
Alec Dickson, VSO founder
“Not once but a dozen times every night we would be kissed by children, old men and women as at long last they knew themselves to be safe. Often the babies that the men carried on their back would be drugged – so that no sudden cry could betray the position of the group to the Hungarian frontier guards. We had taken up a position beside a canal that marked the border in this area – and night after night, when we thought no guards were near, we would push across a small rubber boat to bring over refugees.”
The boat, it was later discovered, was neither from UNHCR with their trainloads of equipment, nor from any of the Red Cross organisations of twenty countries. A young student, who had been volunteering, had gone into a sports shop in Vienna, bought the boat with his own money and brought it by bus to the frontier area, where he had hidden it in the reeds beside the canal.
Thanks to his initiative hundreds of refugees made their escape to freedom.
So what ultimately counted was not what great national or global organisations could do, but the action of a single volunteer. The individual who cares can make a difference. Two years later Alec Dickson founded VSO.
Another volunteer named David Hoggett had also hurried to help. He was a builder and was one of the leaders of the work camp at Leonding near Linz in Austria. Tragically David fell from the roof of one of the houses which he was helping to build for refugee families and was paralyzed from the chest down. It was testament to his willpower that David lived through the first few days following his accident, and withstood the journey back to the UK.
Here he was confined to bed for all but six hours a day, when he would be out in his wheelchair. He remained very much involved with the work of the United Nations Refugee Agency, and he also learned to type making use of an appliance that his brother Christopher made for him which could be attached to his left arm.
In 1958, David Hoggett was awarded the prestigious Nansen Medal in recognition of his work with Hungarian refugees.
Who knows if David Hoggett and Alec Dickson ever met? But all these years later the ripples that David started are being felt by VSO today with his brother Christopher leaving a gift in his will.
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