Up Close and Personal: the Refugee Crisis in Hungary

It's complicated. I was in Syria in 1987 as a religious scholar. The previous Assad regime had recently consolidated the iron fist of the Ba'athist party by crushing an insurgent uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result it had become even more totalitarian and corrupt, giving rise to the more radically fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood we see today.

American visitors were rare back then. Even more rare was a woman traveling alone. Yet they welcomed me, an American woman from an "enemy state" with open arms. "We know you are not your government," they said. I nodded gratefully and told them the same. Now, 25 years later, I am in Hungary and they are coming, expecting the same sort of open arms. Instead they find fences and fear.

I take a large shopping bag full of food and blankets to Keleti Train Station in Budapest a few miles from my apartment. The scene could be a floor display at a REI or any large camping goods store except for the sea of people. The station is strewn with lightweight tents. Drawings in colored chalk cover the outdoor plaza. Children play on toddler trucks and tricycles, eating hydrogenated packaged cookies. I'm glad I brought real food and made sure to include nothing made of pork. Looking around I marvel at the human spirit of adaptability. Would I be so orderly and flexible, I wonder, if my country were destroyed by war?

In addition to the families and women in headscarves, I pass small cabals of young men skulking and pulling hard on cigarettes. They don't look like the others They are not in family groupings. I wonder if they are the Bosnians and Balkans I have heard are trying to slide into Europe on the coattails of the refugee crisis. They want me to give them the food; I tell them it will be given first to the women and babies. I give one insistent young man a bottle of Kefir. He curls his lip.

Stepping over people I find the Green Cross office across from a spigot with running water from which people are filling their bottles. Inside I can see bins of bananas, packaged food, canned beans and piles of clothes. Most of the people working there seem to be Hungarian. I ask the English-speaking volunteer at the door if they need more help. They don't. They also do not need more clothes. They can scarcely deal with what they have. I unload my blankets and portion-size packages of yoghurt, kefir, cheese and fruits.

A young Hungarian man arrives with a bag of food, which he deposits directly with a family. He tells me he is from a non-denominational Evangelical church and asks me if I am a Christian. I tell him yes. He is speaking to a young Kurdish woman who is occupying one of the tents with her father. Her mother and sister are stuck in Turkey while her brother awaits them in Germany. Mohammed, the father, does not understand. They have been there five days, he tells me. Angela Merkel promised asylum; why are they not being allowed to travel to Germany? Have they passports? Yes. Have they been registered? Yes. What is the delay?

I sigh and say it may take time. Surprisingly, it doesn't. The next day the border is opened and tens of thousands cross into Austria. How will they cope? I think of refugees from Somalia, Sierra Leone and Sudan in a camp just outside Budapest, waiting for years to start a new life, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust waiting to be resettled. Leaving the station I see a small group of people on the street with a Jobbick banner, "Hungary for Hungarians." They fear the people who want to come in -- another invader group in their long history of invaders. Nationalist media circulate the rumor that most of these people are not real refugees from Syria, but have falsified documents purchased at great expense. Where they would have gotten such sums I wonder? Many Hungarians seem to believe this, however outlandish it sounds to me. I have heard it on several occasions from people who also tell me that the immigrants are burning their papers in order not to have to show them, and even burning their fingers with acid so that cannot be finger-printed.

I chat with an elderly woman on the tram, a Hungarian-American here visiting relatives. I ask if she was a "56-er," part of the large group of emigrants who left Hungary in 1956 when the Russian tanks rolled in to quell the democratic revolution. She nods. "I know what it is to flee, to be a refugee. I was 15 then," she tells me. "But we had papers, and we were willing to follow the rules of the countries where we were going. We spent months in a camp in Austria waiting, getting registered. Then my brother came to the camp and got us out," She has made a life in America now, but she is still Hungarian in her heart. She has mixed emotions. She, too, fears the large influx of people from a very different culture overwhelming the fragility of civility and national identity.

Her fear is not entirely without reason. Muslims are not Western Europeans, and there are many examples of cultural clashes, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and overall refusal to abide by the laws and customs of their hosts among immigrant populations in Europe and North America. It is not clear how Europe will integrate these waves of people with different cultural assumptions or how the immigrants will adapt. The migrants here seem to think their acceptance should be instant with no paperwork and no difficulty. I think maybe they have seen too much Western television.

There is no simple, obvious solution to this situation. Even if there is a bold resolution to this instance of migration,as in the island of immigrants being proposed by Egyptian billionaire, Naquib Sawiris, and being ignored by the governments of Greece and Italy, migrants will keep coming. I would do the same. So would you. More arrive every day, and we can expect it to continue for so long as the conditions that give rise to it remain unmitigated despite Donald Trump's proposed wall and Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban's determined efforts to speed up construction of the razor fence on the Serbian border to defy the EU's mandate for the European nations to accept the refugees. But a wall and a fence will not stop people who do not want to leave their home but are forced to by war, the growing gap between rich and poor, corruption and now the growing environmental degradation due to global climate change. Today it is the Syrians and the Afghans. Who will it be tomorrow?

The Bible commands: "...you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19). In our increasingly interdependent world created for better and for worse by the globalization of economics and culture, in some way we all foreigners, or, as Blanche Dubois says in the ironic final line of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." We hope we fare better than Blanche.

I contemplate this from the safety of my soft bed with clean sheets in Budapest and the café where I sip a well-made cappuccino. I wish the refugees well on their journey. I wish us all well when such time comes. I am sure that in one way or another, it will.