Refugees in Hungary – a personal perspective

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Lutza Elek is the Regional Manager of MiNYanim, working on planning and implementing the educational content of the program. She is also a co-creator of the program Neve Cedek – a fellowship on Human Rights from a Jewish perspective. Lutza lives in Budapest, Hungary, and when her city began to receive widespread international media attention in recent weeks, we contacted Lutza to share her thoughts, feelings and perspective on the current situation.

I am not sure if I have ever experienced anything remotely similar to the so called refugee crisis of the past months.

When thinking about the situation the first thing that comes to mind is the horror, the suffering and at the same time, me being powerless and small.  

The first thing that happened – even before the masses of people arrived – was a hate campaign against refugees on huge billboards financed by the government. And soon after, once people actually started to arrive, thousands upon thousands, the government continued its campaign in an effort to “combat” a situation as opposed to resolve a humanitarian crisis.

After the anger and the frustration, the next thing that struck me was a sense of gratitude to everyone who helped and continues to help; people – mostly civilians – are standing up and taking action. They donate their time, energy and money. They decided to care. I would have never imagined it possible for individual civilians to set up a support system for 220,000 people who passed through Hungary this year without the backing of the state and without professional guidance.

One could fairly ask, “Where is UNHCR?” the UN Refugee Agency (which by the way has its regional representation in Budapest). Or, where was the Red Cross which only got involved recently. Or for that matter, where are the individuals or organizations that have experience dealing with humanitarian crises?

During these past months, alongside the horror, hate campaigns and violence, something unexpected and extraordinary also happened. While the Hungarian government seems to only care about getting rid of the refugees – which I have to admit they are doing quite successfully at present – many people have a different agenda: Initiatives sprung from the ground up; people kept bringing food, water, blankets and medicine to the train stations where at times, thousands of people remained for days. And in addition to the donations which made the situation a bit more bearable, were also pop-up language lessons, activities for the kids, medical support, translation and other volunteer services– people playing music and simply talking to the refugees.  People of all ages come to offer assistance, both in organized groups and individually, including many from the Jewish community; you could just show up, start something or ask what is needed at the moment and you were welcomed.

On the other hand, while there’s a lot of commotion, for those who do not pass the train stations or specific locations where refugees are stationed, it’s possible to not even notice that something is happening. Most of the country keeps living its day-to-day life and the majority of the population only get information from the media and the media portrays very different versions, almost opposite narratives, of the reality; usually to induce fear of the refugees, presenting them as the enemy.

As I write this piece my government is working hard, building a fence along the border and while they might succeed in closing off Hungary I believe that my home, Europe could and might significantly change in the next few years. There are two issues that I think should be treated somewhat separately. One is how to ensure that refugees arriving to Europe – and elsewhere – do not suffer and have better conditions. The other one is how to build together an open and inclusive Europe and here I feel that we even lack the adequate platforms for discussion. I have many more questions than answers and I fear segregation and discrimination instead of integration. I fear that while looking for an answer, Europe will forget about solidarity and human rights. And it feels as though instead of planning, we are just letting things happen to us.