The Hungarians, Uncovered

HEILIGENKREUZ, AUSTRIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Refugees are seen on the border camp as they wait for bus transfer to Graz, Austria on
HEILIGENKREUZ, AUSTRIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Refugees are seen on the border camp as they wait for bus transfer to Graz, Austria on September 14, 2015 after they crossed Hungary, Austria border. (Photo by Ales Beno/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I live in a quiet California suburb just north of San Francisco, and on the surface it seems that my days are occupied with serving my consulting clients, planning an upcoming women's conference, and managing my young children's back to school transition. I am literally thousands of miles away from Europe, from the Syrian war, and from the refugee crisis, yet I'm deeply impacted and concerned with what's happening over there.

Given that I grew up in Hungary, at least once a day someone confronts me with "What are your people doing back in Hungary?" My people? Meaning my family? My friends? Fellow Hungarians? Some of my friends who I grew up with are at the country's borders or at the railway stations feeding the refugees or driving them to safety. Others are likely at home or on Facebook complaining about them. Fortunately, I don't think I personally know anybody who is actively kicking or hurting any refugees (as depicted in the most recent global media coverage).

Most people I know are doing what they can to help. My aging parents who barely scrape by from pension check to pension check picked 30 pounds of apples from their garden and -- as they don't drive -- begged the neighbors to deliver the baskets to one of the railway stations in Budapest.

"What are your people doing back in Hungary?" These words keep ringing in my head. I don't think anybody here in the U.S. can fully understand the complexity of today's situation, combined with 1000 years of threat and survival in that part of the world.

I remember reading Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghost many years ago, and realizing that the only way to explain today's situation is to seek the explanations from the past. Chances are that any Hungarian you will meet sooner or later will mention something about our history...how it was the Hungarians who stopped the Tatars ravaging through Europe in the 13th century. Or a few hundred years later it was the Hungarians who stopped the Ottoman Empire expanding further west. It was sheer strength and determination and some clever alliance building that allowed the Hungarians to resist and survive time and time again.

And these patterns run deep. The country is once again confronted by what some perceive as an external threat to its survival coming once again from the Muslim world. The amygdalae of these people are activated, and they do what our ancestors have done time and time again -- they fight and resist to keep the threat at bay and to keep the "enemy" out of Hungary and out of Europe. Protecting our own (i.e., people, land, culture) is not a Hungarian instinct -- it is a fundamental human instinct, but it runs particularly deep in Hungary.

The truth is that tiny modern-day Hungary has been at the crossroads of turmoil since the beginning of its existence. And the fact that Hungary actually exists today is a miracle on its own considering that it is a tiny "island" of people with an unrelated language and DNA that is not shared with the sea of Slavic and Germanic peoples close to its borders. To understand this you need to understand the Hungarian psyche. More than 10 million strong but immensely resourceful and proud, Hungarians have never assimilated into their ruler's and conquerors' culture. It baffles linguists how Hungarians have managed to keep our unique language, identity, and culture against all odds.

"What are your people doing back in Hungary?" Well, for starters, everybody is complaining about one thing or another. Hungarians have a collective psyche of deep underlying pessimism -- the "glass is always half empty" attitude, which is best summed up by a few lines from the first verse of the Hungarian National Anthem, which translates roughly to something like this:

Long torn by ill fate Bring upon it a time of relief This nation has suffered for all sins Of the past and of the future...

In most surveys Hungary is among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of alcoholism, divorce and suicide. Hungary's citizens are among the hardest working in Europe, yet most report a lack of satisfaction with the quality of their lives. Fear mongering politicians on all sides are spewing propaganda which just adds more fuel to the fire of deep-seated paranoia in Hungarian culture.

The current migrant and refugee crisis in Europe is a complex one with no easy answers. While governments are scrambling to develop solutions, while Schengen borders are temporarily closed, the people of Hungary and its neighbors are left to come up with their own answers. Regardless of political or religious beliefs, how we treat other human beings and how much empathy we have for each other seems to be what is deepening the divide.

Before settling in Northern California, I lived in several countries and I have traveled in about seventy more. Some of the most narrow minded, prejudiced and nationalistic people I have ever met were from Hungary. At the same time some of the most open minded, giving, kind, empathetic and tolerant people I know are also Hungarians - and they are everywhere. These are the people who stepped up to fill the void left by the Hungarian government's inaction. These are the women and men, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons who are delivering basic services, donating whatever they can part with, collecting and distributing essential supplies, opening their homes to refugees, offering and organizing transport despite the very real threat of government prosecution.

So when I get asked the question "what are your people doing back in Hungary", these are the people whose stories I tell. Because they are MY people.