There is a story to tell here in Budapest. A story that’s quite long– so long that it may not capture your attention… too long and maybe too much for a blog like this that, generally speaking, is a pleasant place.
After my initial visit to the Keleti train station this week, I returned to my hotel room to find that the news media, hotel guests, even the hotel staff, were talking about it more than ever. As the week progressed, the situation was reaching a boiling point and yet no solution seemed to be in place.
So I went back.
I found a way to speak with many of the refugees personally–some were being interviewed by other journalists, so I listened in. Others saw me speaking English and came to speak with me, most asking if I thought they would be allowed on the trains. Others had a compelling, haunting look and I wanted to learn why.
This week in Hungary is a moment in history. And it is momentous for a reason.
The crisis here is not the first mass exodus (or the more sterile description “migration”), nor is this the first time war has driven a people from their homes. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that people all over the world, including me, have known about the problem but not really understood the depth and horror of the matter.
This is the sort of crisis that has lasting and profound consequences, even when it is no longer front page news.
The first time I went to Keleti, I felt a deep sense of shame in my privileged view of the situation there. Every time the shutter of my camera clicked, I had a profound sense that I was capturing a fellow human in their most vulnerable moment…That in a way, I was taking a bit of the last of their dignity. Their president had abandoned them for power, their country was a wasteland, they carried with them only the most meager of belongings to a country where they were not wanted and to a continent that was deeply divided over welcoming them or sending them back to the hell hole they came from. And I was documenting that.
The second time I went to Keleti, I went with a purpose. I WANTED to document what was happening, I want the world to know the faces of this crisis, I want them to feel a deep sense of empathy for these people and I want them to demand a fundamental solution so that the people don’t have to leave their home–their homeland–at all.
A young boy of 19 years fled Syria when he was conscripted into the Army to fight ISIS. His parents so feared for his life that they sold everything they owned to give him this one slim chance at a better life. They remained in Syria because they are too elderly to travel, and he is worried he will never see them again. He attended university but was refused his graduation certificate until he completes his military duties. He is worried he has no way to prove his education, and that he will not be able to find skilled labor. He doesn’t want to be a builder, he says, or a taxi driver.
A man and his wife, both age twenty-six, were traveling with their parents on a boat to Greece from Turkey. The mother was hurt during the passage and could not leave Greece. The father was taken to a camp. The couple, a doctor and a pharmacist who want to get to Germany to further their education and practice, are well-educated and privileged, by Syrian standards.
Even so, they are irrationally afraid to do what would seem the most logical: to simply register with the Hungarian government for entry to the EU and then to be on their way to Germany.
“The camps are filthy and horrible. Worse than this train station”, they said, although I am not sure how they could possibly know this because any migrants moved to the camps don’t return to Budapest to talk about it.
“They will registrate [sic] us and then keep us there.”
The truth is that according to EU law, the Germans could refuse the immigrants and they would have to be sent back to Hungary. None of them want to stay in Hungry. They are painfully clear on this point. “Hungary is poor, it does not have resources. I don’t want a wealthy life, I just want to build a simple life as a doctor, and I could not do that in Hungary”.
Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orban has been quoted in the news making very clear his own stance on the crisis. Basically, he tells the immigrants not to come. “Hungary doesn’t want you. Don’t plan to stay. Register and get out”, he blatantly states.
Orban’s right wing party holds two thirds of the seats in the Parliament and he enjoys a great deal of support from his countrymen, which means that many Hungarians support the idea that Muslim foreigners are not welcome in Hungary. Orban has ordered a wall built along the Serbian border. Thirteen feet high and lined with barbed wire, it was intended to be finished by November. Recently a state official was fired, ostensibly because the wall was not being built fast enough.
“Look, Hungarians are basically fascist, a Jewish Hungarian-American travling through Keleti told me. “Orban has said many times that he doesn’t want Muslims in Hungary, or in Europe.”
But Orban’s approach, that man’s generalized and jaded appraisal of Hungarians and Hungarian nationalism is not that simple.
And to say that Orban is the bad guy in this situation is to overlook the response (namely near silence) of other Balkan nations, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, rich Middle Eastern countries and yes, the United States to the question of how the civil war in Syria ended up in an unsolved humanitarian crisis that is by far the worst seen in my generation. This situation did not creep up on us. It’s just that now we are paying attention.
To blame Orban and more specifically Hungary is to misappropriate attention that should be spent on something else altogether: an international response to the root of the crisis. Namely, the end of civil war in Syria.
The fact is that it’s been just thirty years since Hungary emerged from Communism. This is a poor country struggling to provide for its roughly ten million citizens. The average civil servant makes about $12,000 per year. A teacher with a Masters Degree earns about $565 per month.
A political science student from the university described for me why some Hungarians seem, on the surface and in the press, to be unsympathetic to the migrants. “We emerged from Socialism with grand ideas that we would quickly become London or Paris or Rome, and instead we struggle for jobs, medical care and other basic necessities.” You can see this when you leave the tourists areas. Parks are patches of clipped weeds, buildings are crumbling…Budapest is not Paris or Vienna or Geneva.
The terrace in front of Keletyi palaudvar was recently renovated. Now it is the scene of a squatter’s stronghold with laundry hanging from railings and trash everywhere, people sleeping in the middle of the floor so that you literally have to walk over them to get to the trains.
“The sticky floor can be cleaned in a day. This isn’t a real issue. Really, some Hungarians are upset because it seems the migrants think they have a right to be here. They have a right to destroy this station because of where they came from and their horrible circumstances. But they are guests here”, a Hungarian commuter told me.
Is this insensitive? Absolutely! Is it acceptable? Is it reasonable?
From my perspective I hesitate to make a judgement like that. My own country was recently the scene of major riots, riots more destructive, scary and inhumane than what I see at Keleti.
I struggle to keep things in perspective as I mentally and emotionally move from generalized issues like war and economic disenfranchisement to hospitality and humanity.
Hungary was settled by a pagan nomadic tribe from Asia, Westernized and Catholicized by their first King, conquered and ruled by the Ottoman Turks from the mid 1500’s to 1718, ruled as a Kingdom by the Hapsburgs, invaded by the Nazis, occupied by the Soviets, Communized then Democratized. You can see the sheer will to survive and rebuild in their art, architecture, food and yes, in their response to the migrants. “We are not prepared to take care of thousands of new citizens who arrive to our country with little more than what they are wearing”, said my new friend. “We are still trying to figure out a way to take care of ourselves.”
While the migrants don’t have much luggage, they do have media savvy. As the immigration crisis peaked across Europe and in Budapest this week, the migrants have become increasingly bold for the cameras. They’ve staged protests, written clever messages on the train station walls, and have made signs to wave when they see TV crews walk by.
International media has been savvy in their own way, as they’ve used this sad situation to attract viewers. I read a headline in a major US newspaper that said Hungary has closed the stations and is checking passports for only dark skinned people. Another paper said the terrace in front of the station was filled with thousands of protestors, and that the people below were starving and suffering from thirst and dire conditions. I witnessed neither of these during my time at the station. I attended the protests. In fact, I was caught directly inside the melee of men as they marched back and forth across the plaza.
A German newscaster relentlessly presses a Hungarian to admit on camera that Orban is wrong for his stance. (Remember, this man grew up with Communism, AND a true journalist is in search of the truth, not a forced commentary).
A politician lines up in front of a few quiet and obviously bored policemen to talk about blatant show of force (the police here have shown remarkable constraint with the refugees, the media and the gawkers, especially compared to what I have seen in other countries).
A humanitarian admonishes the International Red Cross and United Nations for not responding to conditions inside the terminals. She says that if this were Africa, you wouldn’t be able to stop the flow of aid. I am not sure where she is going with this, as she gets actual tears in her eyes. She clearly is concerned, but this doesn’t seem the best approach to me.
But this is not the scene of a riot. This isn’t people burning down the town.
Most seemed to be in their twenties or even younger, and the energy of the crowd vibrated with excitement and anticipation rather than fear. While the papers reported hundreds of protestors, I estimated about fifty to one hundred. They raised their hands, shouting “I am Human” or “Germany” and clapped in a syncopated rhythm to underscore their chants.
Television crews and cameramen lined up on the edges of the crowd, following the ebb and flow of participation as the marchers played for the media. Sometimes it seemed there were more cameras and commentators than protestors. The terrace in front of the train station is quite large, but the migrants marched in the small corner where the television crews have set up their huge cameras.
This is a comparatively small group of people who have walked entire countries, survived a boat trip that thousands of others did not, and they are saying they want a chance at a life. Not only refuge. A chance.
The papers also said that Hungary is not providing humanitarian aid to the refugees. This is only a half truth.
The Hungarian government has set up camps along the borders for the migrants, but they refuse to go to them. They are scared absolutely shitless that they will be caught, sent to the camp and either exterminated, sent back to their country or left there in squalor.
I try to convince them that this is not true. But there is deep fear, perhaps irrational, perhaps founded–I’ve certainly never lived in their shoes, I can’t imagine what life must be like when your own president is gassing entire towns and ISIS is beheading your teachers, policemen, artists and community leaders.
Volunteers arrive daily with extra food and water, which are readily accepted. I watched a man pull onto the terrace with his car loaded with pita, cheese and meats. Refugees descended on him, and laughingly he pulled items from the car, trying his best to distribute one to each. Other locals brought strollers, clothing, toys. Still others stayed to draw with the children or to organize ball games. There was definitely a sense of appall and empathy.
It seems everyone has an opinion, every country has something at stake in this crisis, and yet so far, it hasn’t been enough to bring the international community together to find a viable solution.
Friday morning the terrace was quiet and nearly empty. Below ground though, thousands of migrants are crowded together, anxiously awaiting whatever will happen to them next. Men performed morning ablutions in a drinking fountain. Women face Mecca in prayer, surrounded by piles of shoes and garbage. Whole families peer out from tents and makeshift palates. Mothers feed babies and fold blankets. Young children made the best of an awful situation with bubbles, sidewalk chalk and soccer.
By the mid-morning, several migrants have decided they will rouse their compatriots to walk out of Budapest, to march to the border. “We will not go. We cannot risk being caught by the police and sent to the camp”, said the married couple. We do not know what will happen today, or tomorrow, or even next week, but we will wait patiently, because we know it will be worth it, and that it cannot be as bad as it has been so far”.
I found a perch above the crowds, away from the protestors and cameras to quietly observe, wondering what it would be like to sail in the night away from my family, walk across entire countries, and camp with 3,000 others on the concrete floor of a dirty train station. Wondering what it would be like to experience first hand this moment in history, to face it with absolute vulnerability, to summon from the depths of my humanity a hope for something better.
While excited at the opportunity to visit this amazing city, I am also grateful that I know I can go home, that I will be safe and sound, that my babies will be with me and I with them. I feel privileged and patriotic and unspeakably lucky.
You can find a nice summary of the current situation in this article: http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/nation_world/ct-europe-migrants-20150908-story.html
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