Although there are many truly depressing news items coming from Hungary today, I decided already yesterday that in order to balance the picture I would write about those Hungarians who have rallied to make the lives of the asylum seekers a bit easier. There are thousands of volunteers who under very difficult circumstances are helping the new arrivals. They are filling a void because most charity organizations, such as the Hungarian branch of Caritas International, have been conspicuously absent. The explanation is that the government didn’t ask for their help because everything is going splendidly.
According to the director of the Catholic charity Caritas, in the two camps he visited the people are fed every five hours, toilet facilities are more than adequate, there is 24/7 medical care, and the camps are well equipped to handle even small babies. All this sounds idyllic until you read some of the reports in the media about the misery of the asylum seekers and the general confusion that exists in the government-organized refugee service.
Today’s Népszabadság had an article about the strange fact that until now charitable organizations acted as if they hadn’t realized that there was a refugee crisis in Hungary. My suspicion is that they were reluctant to get involved on their own, all too aware of the Hungarian government’s anti-refugee policies. But now that they’ve been given the go-ahead signal, they suddenly discovered that they should be working alongside the self-organizing volunteers.
At the moment there may be as many as ten thousand volunteers hard at work day and night around railroad stations in Szeged, Debrecen, Cegléd, and even Pécs because the government agency handling the flow of refugees has of late been sending some of them from Szeged to Debrecen via Pécs and Budapest! Mighty strange logistics. While the socialist mayor of Szeged is helping the volunteers, in Pécs the Fidesz-led municipality is doing nothing. In Pécs, as elsewhere, refugees can stay in a small, cordoned-off area next to the railroad station. There are only a few benches where they can sit down. The volunteers are totally in the dark as to how many people will arrive on any given day, which makes their work very difficult. From Pécs, the refugees’ next stop is Budapest, where a well-organized group of volunteers is waiting for them.
A description of the work of the Budapest MigSzol (Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary) was published by Júlia Mira Lévai, an old friend from Galamus days when we were founding members of this excellent but by now unfortunately defunct internet site. She is convinced that the visible disorganization is intentionally orchestrated by the government. The hundreds of refugees sitting and sleeping on the ground around railroad stations serves the government’s purpose. It shows the population what is awaiting them if these people remain in the country. If they were expeditiously moved into camps for registration and from there left the country in a great hurry, as they did in the past, it would be much more difficult to create a panic.
Lévai tells the story of an Afghan boy who seems emotionless. When he shows his papers it turns out that he is only fourteen years old and therefore should be going to Fót, where unaccompanied children are sent. Eventually the volunteers manage to find someone who speaks Pashto, and they learn that only one of his relatives is still alive back in Afghanistan but that he has an uncle in Budapest who has been granted refugee status. After some difficulty they locate the uncle. One success story. But Lévai learned that there are several Afghan children in Fót who are in total shock after seeing their parents being beheaded. Someone who knows the situation in Fót claims that there is no psychologist on the staff. But one can’t verify this claim because the director of the facility refuses to grant the media access to the place.
While these volunteers work day and night, a group of “Nazis,” as Lévai calls them, yells on the square in front of the Eastern Station:”We want a white Hungary!” And naturally they call the volunteers “the enemies of the nation.”
I read a very moving story about a teenage Afghan boy who arrived without his parents a year ago. By now he speaks Hungarian. He has been looked after by the Saint Agatha Child Welfare Service in Hódmezővásárhely. The child welfare service can look after 30 children at a time, but most of these children are in transit. They come and a few days later they leave to find their fortunes elsewhere in Europe. Some of them wait to be united with their relatives who have already made it to Western Europe. Our Afghan boy is different. He would like to stay in Hungary. He was about fifteen years old when his parents sent him off, saying, “You have to leave us so you can live!” He spent eight months in Turkey and a month and a half in a camp in Bulgaria, after which he ended up on the streets of Sofia. His parents have since disappeared. He tried to get in touch with them via the internet but had no luck. He even phoned the neighbors, but they don’t know where his parents are. “Maybe they went back to Persia,” the boy says. Now he is in a school for slower children in Szeged, not because he is slow–in fact, according to the head of the child welfare service, he is very bright–but because “they refused to admit him elsewhere.”
The thousands of Hungarians who are trying to help the refugees are joined by Pashto- and Arabic-speaking volunteers who have been living in Hungary for years. Many of them came to Hungary to study and, after marrying a Hungarian, settled in the country. By now many of them are Hungarian citizens with Hungarian-born children. They are indispensable as interpreters.
Not long ago I heard a radio interview with one of the directors of Wikipedia on NPR (National Public Radio) about the millions of anonymous volunteers who contribute to the project without any pay. Why do they do it? What is their motivation? They think their work is important. They take pride in their accomplishment. They know that they are doing something worthwhile.
It was this conversation that came to mind when I read about a young, unmarried thirty-year-old man who signed up on MigSzol’s Szeged Facebook page. An hour later he got a call: they need him. There were some rough guys who were showing too much interest in a Syrian refugee family. From his picture he looked like the kind of person who could handle them. He arrived a few minutes later and managed to get rid of the screaming men. The sobbing four-year-old girl was so grateful that she embraced his leg. As he said, “I got hooked.”