Tag Archives: Igazgyöngy Alapítvány

National Defense Action Plan for school officials

The other day someone called my attention to a note published on Facebook by Nóra L. Ritók, the legendary founder of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Pearl Foundation). She is the former public school art teacher who became disillusioned with the way her school dealt with disadvantaged, mostly Gypsy children. In 1999 she struck out on her own, establishing art schools in six very poor villages in Hajdú-Bihar megye, close to the Romanian border. She started her work in a so-called cul-de-sac village, the last locality right next to the border, called Told, where in the majority of the houses there is neither running water nor electricity. A large proportion of the 360 inhabitants cannot read or write, and only seven of them had a job in 2013. It is hard to fathom that this village was once the home base of the famous Toldi family. By now she has about 650 children under her care from 23 villages in the region. Nóra Ritók and three of her students were in the news a few weeks ago when they met Pope Francis.

Nóra Ritók’s Facebook note was about an official e-mail she received from the ministry of human resources, informing school principals about the introduction of a Honvédelmi Intézkedési Terv (National Defense Action Plan), or HIT. Attached to the e-mail were instructions explaining what the schools will have to do by way of  preparation before June 30, 2018. The document is 34 pages long. Nóra Ritók complained that half of the document, which is full of technical military terms, is pretty well incomprehensible to a layman, but she grasped the main point: that she, as the principal of the school, will be responsible for the organization and execution of the military aspects of the school’s defense in case of a terrorist attack.

The government-critical media looked upon this latest Fidesz idea as part and parcel of the scare tactics the Orbán government has employed ever since 2015. Since even nursery schools and kindergartens have to be military prepared, a lot of people complained that the government is including toddlers in its phony campaign against nonexistent terrorists.

The fact is that in the last few years several European countries have come up with action plans for schools in case of danger. In Great Britain, for example, Scotland Yard has been giving three-hour training sessions at schools and higher education facilities on how to improve security against possible attack. In France, the government announced in August, 2016 that 14-year-olds will receive training on how to survive a terrorist attack on their schools. Each school will hold three exercises per academic year, covering the “ability of schools to react and not be taken by surprise.” The French went so far as to teach three-year-olds how to play “silence reigns” if and when an attack is underway. And such precautionary measures are also being taken in the United States.

Getting ready — Saint Joseph Catholic Elementary School, Debrecen

What is happening in Hungary, however, is an entirely different story. In order to understand the possibly sinister nature of this new piece of legislation, we have to go back to January 12, 2016, when István Simicskó, the minister of defense, called together all the parliamentary parties to discuss new security measures that would involve the use of the army in the event of a terror threat. At that time there were already three situations in which the government could take varying degrees of extraordinary measures: (1) “emergency conditions” (veszélyhelyzet); (2) “preventive defense conditions” (megelőző védelmi helyzet); and (3) a “full state of emergency” (rendkivüli állapot). The government added one more category: “state of terror threat” (terrorveszélyhelyzet). In the event of a terror threat, the army can be used if “the employment of police and the national security forces is insufficient.” It nowhere explains what “insufficient” means.

Now, the schools will have to be ready, and not just by taking precautionary measures against a possible attack. They will also have to be ready for “the possible introduction of a special legal order” as a result of the four above-mentioned “situations.” This may include following military orders, being ready for military service, and assisting the military in its work. The government’s document includes a number of absolutely impractical rules and regulations. Among them, my favorite is: “in case of a terror attack, the school principal may apply for individual defensive instruments.” Yes, while the school is under attack.

The ministry of human resources hasn’t yet given an explanation for this latest burden on overworked school officials, but on Sunday Csaba Dömötör, the political undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, explained to inquiring journalists that the action plan must be introduced because it is a NATO requirement. It is possible that NATO officials suggested short courses and some routine exercises, but I very much doubt that what they had in mind was a 34-page military handbook for school officials. I also doubt that French or British school principals are required to have a regularly updated list of all chemicals on the property, including gasoline for the lawnmower and cleaning supplies. Or that they have to know the exact location of all teachers at all times.

While it is a good idea to have some rudimentary plans in place against a possible attack, be it terrorism or just a crazed person’s individual action, I must agree with the critics that what the Orbán government is proposing goes beyond a rational response to the terrorist threat, which in Hungary is really minimal. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that this latest “defensive action plan” is just another ingredient in the government’s anti-migrant campaign, which, I’m afraid, is the heart and soul of Fidesz’s election program.

January 1, 2018

A success story: The sole Roma student at the Benedictine Gymnasium of Pannonhalma

Let’s stay with the topic of the Roma minority but this time from an entirely different, more upbeat perspective. Today I’m profiling a remarkable young man who comes from a village called Hencida in Hajdú-Bihar County, population 1,200, who will graduate this year from the famous Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma. After graduation he will spend a year at a French university to perfect his knowledge of the language.

This is a remarkable achievement in and of itself for at least two reasons. One is that the percentage of Roma high school graduates is still very small, although the numbers have improved since 1990 when only 1.5% of Gypsies had a high school diploma. Today it is 3.4%. The other reason is that a fourteen-year-old boy, coming from unimaginable poverty, managed to adjust to and succeed in a world that had to be utterly alien to him. That is quite a feat. I have met young men and women who, encountering similar challenges, were unable to face the difficulties and turned their backs on the great opportunities that were being offered to them.

Yes, the difficulties. First of all, this particular gymnasium is a fairly tough one. It is an all-male boarding school where students can visit their parents only once a month. And there is not much time for such travel because Saturdays are still school days in Pannonhalma. Second, although children of modest means are eligible for financial assistance, most of the parents must pay about 590,000 forints ($2,000) a year for room and board. Third, in the last 15 years the gymnasium has accepted only four Roma students, of whom only two finished the four-year program of study in Pannonhalma. At the moment, the young man from Hencida, whose name is István Ötvös and whom everybody calls Pisti, is the sole representative of the Roma minority in the school.

I encountered Pisti’s story in Abcúg, an internet site specializing in the Hungarian countryside and paying a lot of attention to the problems of the Roma minority. From the story it becomes clear that the school administration is not itself engaged in trying to attract talented minority children but relies on the very few people who are active in assisting the Roma population. One of these people is Nóra L. Ritók, the director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Real Pearl Foundation). Pisti can thank Nóra Ritók, who got in touch with Father Titusz Hardi, the principal at Pannonhalma, for his good fortune.

According to the census, 7% of Hencida’s population is Roma, but I suspect that their number is much higher than this official figure would indicate because relatively few Hungarian Roma register themselves as such. The school Pisti went to was a segregated school. He was an excellent student there, but once he got to Pannonhalma the shortcomings of his education became apparent. He had serious academic difficulties in his first year and just barely passed math. By now, however, he has a solid B average.

Here is Pisti’s story. His parents divorced when he was eight. He and two of his younger siblings remained with his mother, who subsequently remarried and had another child. Three years later his mother died and his stepfather’s illiterate parents took the orphans in. Pisti, who is quite artistic, ended up attending the Real Pearl Foundation’s art school, where he impressed Nóra Ritók. As the reporter says, “with the help of the Foundation a new world opened” for the boy. He even had the opportunity to travel to Portugal for an artistic tour while he was still in elementary school.

Pisti (R) with his roommate Máté (L) from Budapest

This is how Pisti describes his life in Hencida. “I didn’t really like home. I yearned to get away. I wanted something new. I wanted to study. I didn’t want the fate of my former classmates. By now most of them are on public work and some of them already have children. A couple of my elementary school classmates are in prison. I didn’t want this kind of life. I wanted to learn and to live a better life than the rest of us at home.” His “parents” were at first reluctant to let him go “because, on the one hand, they were worried about me and, on the other, they didn’t really understand what an opportunity it was to attend such a good gymnasium and get a matriculation certificate. In fact, they still don’t understand.”

Pisti’s new classmates came from a world he knew nothing about. A large majority of the boys at Pannonhalma are the sons of doctors, lawyers, university professors, and high government officials. Yet his social adjustment was apparently quite swift. As he proudly says, after one or two weeks he was already feeling comfortable: “I knew how to behave, politely, like the others.” But this assimilation comes with a price. He no longer feels at home in Hencida. In fact, he rarely visits his “parents” and not just because the village is very far from Pannonhalma and the students don’t have both Saturdays and Sundays off. He often spends even holidays in the school or visits the family of one of his friends. “When I get home, I can’t find my place. I don’t know what to do. I became alienated from my family. I don’t know what to talk with them about.”

This alienation from his family is understandable. The opportunities at Pannonhalma are impressive, and during his stay there he has been immersed in a culture he cannot share with his family at home. On the other hand, he seems to have a close relationship with the principal of the school, who was keeping an eye on him even when he was living in Hencida. It is on the principal’s advice that he will study at a French university for a year.

Pisti gets free room and board. In addition, a foundation that works with disadvantaged Roma communities and individuals gives him 10,000 forints a month. He also has a private benefactor who sends him 20,000 forints every month. This is the money he can use to buy clothes. And, he says, he even manages to put some money aside for his move to Paris.

István Ötvös’s story is unfortunately all too rare in Hungary. It cannot be otherwise as long as the Roma community’s lot is so miserable and, for most, hopeless.

March 14, 2017