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Hungary's Irregular Border Crossings
by John Feffer
Many leave Hungary and the rest of East-Central Europe in search of opportunity; others arrive in search of better lives
People have been leaving East-Central Europe in droves to get better jobs and opportunities further to the west. These diaspora populations are now very visible in the UK, France, and Germany. Considerably less attention, however, has been paid to all the people that have come to East-Central Europe in search of better lives. The region has long been a transit area for those seeking eventual safe harbor in Western Europe.
Hungary has been the second leading country, according to the European border agency FRONTEX, for detaining people attempting "irregular border crossings," to use the EU lingo. Those numbers went up dramatically in 2013, from under 10,000 to over 25,000. The top migrants are Kosovars, followed by Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Algerians. Today, about200,000 foreign citizens live in Hungary.
James Peter is one of these foreign citizens. He is originally from Sierra Leone. He had no intention of coming to Hungary. He only wanted to leave his war-torn country. But the ship that ferried him to Europe simply dropped him off somewhere on the coast – he doesn't know where. He and a few others walked in the direction of what they thought was Italy.
"We kept going," he told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013. "Four days. Four nights. Going back was not an option. It was too far. Going forward was too far. We just didn't know what to do at that point. It was so completely different. And it was so cold. I'd never been so cold in my life. We just couldn't talk. Everybody was just dead silent. We didn't know what was happening. Why were we even in this place? We didn't have anything to eat. There were no fruits in the forest like we have fruits in our forest that we could eat. We couldn't find anything to eat. And we heard the barking of big dogs. All the time we encountered animals in the forest. I don't know what kind of animals. When I reflect on that period of time, that's what I remember."
They eventually mustered up the courage to ask someone for help. But the person didn't speak English.
"I couldn't believe that a white person couldn't speak English," Peter continued. "I knew about United States, the UK, Canada. They all speak English. I'd heard about Germany, Netherlands. But they spoke English too. But this man didn't speak English. Oh my gosh. Someone showed us a sign where to go. We were very smelly. We went to the end of the bus station to catch a bus. We still didn't know where we were going. On the bus, we saw a black person. And we were happy to see him. We thought that he would understand our position. But we weren't able to communicate. We went to the end of the line. I tell you, we were so confused! We went to the police station. We said that we were lost. At that point we still thought we were in Italy. We had no idea that we were in Hungary. We got directions to go to the police station, and then we were told to go to the camp."
They went to the refugee camp at Bicske. There, Peter began to put together a series of remarkable initiatives, starting with the Migrant's Help Association of Hungary. Starting with practically nothing, Peter was able to cobble together a computer-training course with the assistance of a number of different organizations, including the Open Society Foundation.
"For a small organization, it was hard to keep going," he confessed. "People want to give money to a more known and recognized organization. But I gave it my heart. And we were as economical as possible. But you could see the satisfaction on the faces of the refugees when they learned something. You could see their happiness when they accomplished something. "Ooh, we didn't know how to do this before," the said. There was this one girl, when she started she didn't have any knowledge about computers. But during the training it wasn't only her computer skills that got better. It was her communication skills overall that improved. She just developed in so many ways."
And now Peter is working on his next project: One Chance. "Many refugees and migrants are qualified to go to university," he told me. "But they don't have the opportunity. When I was at the camp, many people I met already had degrees from their home countries. But a university degree from a Third World country is not a ticket. Here they don't care. The system here just doesn't accept them. So, it's just a question of setting up the system to accept those who already have degrees. I set up a project called One Chance in which all the universities in Budapest give one free space to a migrant or a refugee to do a degree program."
Do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and what you were thinking on that day?
I'm not very good in history, that's one problem. Perhaps it's because of the way I was brought up. There are a lot of things I don't know that younger people here in Hungary talk about, which I can't talk about. It's about the environment I grew up in and also the education I had. Some people had the opportunity to get more education, and I didn't. That's why I struggle now to see how to get these educational opportunities, which is not easy.
We were more concerned with how to survive day-to-day, getting something to eat. We lived in a poor society. We didn't have any other options. It's different when you live in a society where you go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have time to watch television or listen to the radio, these kinds of things. You can get an education. It's not just about going to school. It's about having the necessary tools and knowing how to study. I didn't have any outside information. I couldn't buy a textbook to read and get broader information, or watch films connected to that study. If the government in your country doesn't provide you with the tools to learn about the world, you're not going to get this kind of information. You're not going to learn about important events like the Berlin Wall falling, which is very important history. Young people here can tell you a lot about that. That's the difference between where I come from and here.
How did you come here to Hungary?
I was born in Sierra Leone. I don't think of it as my country, but Sierra Leone is where I was born. I've been in other places. We don't have a family place in Sierra Leone, since my parents have also been in various places. Without a family place or property it was difficult to get an education. We had to fight for this. And it was difficult to live in Sierra Leone because of the war.
I have always thought that I would like to have a place to call home. In Africa, I've been in different places, but it was just living. In Sierra Leone, the crisis there changed everything. Everyone was looking to leave. It was difficult to leave. I had to leave, but I never planned to leave. I didn't know that one day I would leave the country.
How did you leave?
I came by ship like so many other people. It was an arrangement that had nothing to do with me. It was an arrangement by people who lived abroad and had money and arranged to get their relatives out of the country. It was a big scheme. I ran into one of the guys organizing it. It was difficult to know who was who, and they ended up not letting some people into their scheme. But I had a chance to join. I thought we were just going to go to a neighboring country. I didn't even know how we were going.
The journey took so long that…well, too many things came into my head. I got confused. I thought that maybe we got into the kind of trouble I didn't want to get into. I thought maybe the whole scheme had been arranged by the military. There was no information about where we were going. And it took many weeks. Finally we got to a particular place at night.
After all that time, we finally left the ship. We were forced to leave the ship. At that point we were told to go to Italy. Some people remained on the ship. They knew where they were going. They were the ones who had been in on the real arrangement and knew where the ship was going. The rest of us were put off the ship. We were given directions.
Where were you put off the ship?
I can't remember where we were. After 10 years here, after I got my residency, I decided to research where we were put off. I can't remember anything. What I have in my head is just what I saw: a yellow petrol station. That's all I remember. I can't remember the area. All I know is that it wasn't Hungary.
We had to walk. We saw people on bicycles. And I'd never seen so many white people in my life. There were too many! We thought we were heading to Italy. It was very cool, the temperature. We kept going. We had our directions. They told us: go in this direction and you will get to Italy. But I didn't know where Italy was. I never looked at the map. I never checked the map. I knew completely nothing.
We kept going. Four days. Four nights. Going back was not an option. It was too far. Going forward was too far. We just didn't know what to do at that point. It was so completely different. And it was so cold. I'd never been so cold in my life. We just couldn't talk. Everybody was just dead silent. We didn't know what was happening. Why were we even in this place? We didn't have anything to eat. There were no fruits in the forest like we have fruits in our forest that we could eat. We couldn't find anything to eat. And we heard the barking of big dogs. All the time we encountered animals in the forest. I don't know what kind of animals. When I reflect on that period of time, that's what I remember.
Finally we arrived somewhere. At that point we believed that where we were supposed to go was not where we were going. But we kept going. We kept going. We saw cars. We just walked. We saw many places that were not for us, and we had to get out of there, because it was dangerous. Then we saw lights, and it was a bus station.
The first person we met, he said something. Today I know Hungarian, but then I didn't know what it was he was saying. I didn't even know nem tudom (I don't know), which is what he was probably saying. We thought, "He doesn't want to help us?"
I couldn't believe that a white person couldn't speak English. I knew about United States, the UK, Canada. They all speak English. I'd heard about Germany, Netherlands. But they spoke English too. But this man didn't speak English. Oh my gosh. Someone showed us a sign where to go. We were very smelly. We went to the end of the bus station to catch a bus. We still didn't know where we were going. On the bus, we saw a black person. And we were happy to see him. We thought that he would understand our position. But we weren't able to communicate. We went to the end of the line. I tell you, we were so confused! We went to the police station. We said that we were lost. At that point we still thought we were in Italy. We had no idea that we were in Hungary. We got directions to go to the police station, and then we were told to go to the camp.
The camp was called Bicske. We went there. It was closed. But at least we could see where we were going. It was difficult to find someone to speak English. But finally we got into the camp. The next day we went to the refugee camp in Debrecen. That's where I spent a long time. And there was a lot of conflict there. A lot of fighting. That's how our organization Migrants' Help Association of Hungary started. That was how it was born.
When I got to the camp I was confused. I'd never been in this part of the world before. There was a lot of conflict between Muslims and Christians, between Arabs and Africans. It was a very multicultural place. Iraqis, Pakistanis. But they were fighting over little things. What was dangerous was when more and more people started to join in the fight. Somalis and Iraqis would have a dispute. Then all the Somalis joined the Somalis and the Iraqis joined the Iraqis. The rest of the camp was left to try to separate the fight. That's what made me think of organizing this group.
In Debrecen there was so much conflict, the authorities started to separate people and send some to Bicske. I was thinking, during that time at Debrecen, that I didn't know who to talk to. I was trying to put myself together. I made friends with some of the Arabs; I made friends with some of the Africans -- but why should I join one or the other? I started thinking about how to solve these problems. Then when I was in Bicske I was still thinking about what to do. I was thinking about the importance of educating people in those camps. But I wasn't sure how to do that.
Fortunately I met this American woman: Berne Weiss. She was working for an organization dealing with people who came from different places and had different problems. When she came to me, I wasn't interested in talking with people. This woman wanted to talk to me, but I was afraid of talking to people like that. At some point, however, I decided to talk. And that's when I discovered she was exactly the kind of person I was looking for.
I told her my ideas. Some of the things I imagined, I didn't even know what to call them. I didn't know the topic. She's the one who understood what I was talking about. She said, "Ah, that's what we call conflict resolution. And that's peace management."
I said, "Yes, yes, that's what it is."
She asked me what I wanted.
I said, "I'm interested in mathematics."
So she provided me with a book on mathematics. That's how I got to know her. She helped me a lot. She introduced me to a man named Mathew, professor who developed organic gardens. He's British. So, this American woman introduced me to a British man. And he took me to get training for organic farming. And that's how I got a job doing that kind of work with Matthew. I worked there for seven years or more. I didn't have my status at that time. I had to work like that to get my residence permit.
That took quite a lot of time. Matthew helped me a lot with the papers. That's when I went to court. And many other friends from Budapest, Hungarians and Americans, supported me. That appeal was a very difficult time. I had no papers. I didn't know if they were going to send me back home or not. It was the eighth year of my time in Hungary when I got my papers. If you don't have papers, you see, you just don't know what your future is going to be. You don't know what they're going to do with you: send you home, force you to leave the country. You can't really do anything. You don't have any rest.
I went through that stage. Then I got the papers. I worked a little bit more at the organic farm. Before that happened, though, we did a workshop on alternatives to violence in 2007. I got the contact here of a trainer. That worked out. We did another workshop, a nonviolence communication training in Budapest. We moved to the refugee camp where many refugees got involved. I enjoyed that. I was happy that we were able to put that together. But we didn't have money to continue.
The refugees had no jobs. And that contributed to conflict in the camp. When you're there day in and day out, that contributes to conflict. I was thinking, "If you have some work, something to do, there will be fewer conflicts." But many in the camp didn't have formal education, didn't have training. It was very difficult for them to get jobs.
So, I decided to ask the refugees in the camp what they wanted. They said they wanted to learn computers. I asked them if they had any background in that. They said no, but they would like to learn. Others said that they knew how to use the Internet and that's all. Before then, I'd gone through a program learning how to use Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, Access. So, I thought maybe we could train them in that. But how? We would have to register our organization as an NGO in order to ask for money. I thought, okay, let's do it. Then we can get money to do what we want to do. We can bring our friends together to help out. We registered. Friends like Michael Simmons really provided a lot of support.
So we'd already started the organization with the training on nonviolent communication. Now we were looking for a way to set up a computer center for Bicske. I decided to ask the embassies here in Hungary. My English is not very good. It's hard for me to call people up. So I wrote letters. I sent applications by email. Every week I had to contact them. I live 40 kilometers from Budapest. I had to go there to get on line to talk them every week. In the end, we got support from the U.S. embassy -- the computers and the printers. I also got support from the Canadian embassy and the Dutch embassy. We got a lot of equipment, some of it good, some of it not so good. But it was okay. That's how we put this all together.
We talked to the refugee camp and the immigration authorities, and they gave us a space in the camp. We had to pay for Internet. We had to buy a projector. I asked my boss Matthew to lend me some money. And he gave me 50,000 forints! Over time, I paid it back. But I was really crazy about this. I really wanted to make this center happen. With that money, I added a projector. The members of the organization -- and Bern also got some money from American friends – put together enough to pay for the software licenses, which were cheaper because we were an NGO. We got a volunteer to put all the computers together. He sometimes had to use two computers to make one good one! After that, I talked to my boss again, the British guy, and he volunteered his van to move all the stuff into the space.
We had no teacher, no trainer. To do this well, we needed a qualified trainer, someone who was approved. Also, we wanted everyone who went through the training and passed the exam to get a certificate. I went to the OSCE office. The woman there asked me, "What is your aim?"
I said, "We want to have this computer training center at the refugee camp. But we don't have the money to pay a trainer."
She told me about an association called Menedek, an association that works for migrants. That was how I got trainers. When I said I wanted to have a center in the camp, I didn't know that it could ever be real. I was so driven. And the woman I talked to ended up finding us a trainer. She was quite sympathetic to the situation of refugees, and in the end, they did it for free. They offered to provide education for free to 20 refugees. It was great. We got a teacher who had a license and was approved. He decided to work as a volunteer.
I left my job many times to do organize this center. I just don't know what was moving me at that time, to be honest. I just wanted to make a difference. I was working all the time to get the money to keep the center going and manage it. Getting the money was difficult. But we got money from the embassies, from the Open Society Foundation. We wouldn't have survived, we wouldn't have been able to do everything else if not for that foundation we built at that time. For a small organization, it was hard to keep going. People want to give money to a more known and recognized organization. But I gave it my heart. And we were as economical as possible. But you could see the satisfaction on the faces of the refugees when they learned something. You could see their happiness when they accomplished something. "Ooh, we didn't know how to do this before," the said. There was this one girl, when she started she didn't have any knowledge about computers. But during the training it wasn't only her computer skills that got better. It was her communication skills overall that improved. She just developed in so many ways.
There was another guy, from Pakistan. Every Saturday morning, I'd look out the window and see this young man walking through the camp. He looked depressed. One day, I decided to talk with him. I introduced myself. I said I was a former asylum seeker and I had lived here. He looked down. I said, "I'm like you. I have a lot of problems. For seven years I was an asylum seeker. That's the number of years it would take to get a PhD." This is what I'm trying to do -- to stop such a waste of time. I told him what I'd accomplished during that period of time. "Look, you're healthy," I told him. "You're being fed." The most important thing is to use the time you have.
The computer training center was doing well. We had support from OSF and permission given by the immigration authorities. A lot of refugees wanted to participate. But we didn't have enough equipment. I started thinking that Microsoft Office, considering what the job market looked like, might not be enough to get hired. So, what else could we do to support refugees, provide them training, make sure that they use the time they had?
I was at a conference in Budapest where I met a professor who taught at McDaniel College, an American college that has a branch here in Budapest. My aim was to get in touch with people connected to IT. He had a nice laptop, which he was carrying around. I thought that this might be someone in IT. I waited for him by the door when he came out of a presentation. I told him about my plan. We wanted to set up a center to provide advanced IT training for refugees and for migrants: to give them skills so that they could improve their chances of employment. He said, "Okay, let's talk to the program director."
It just so happened that Berne Weiss was also a professor who taught at McDaniel College. As I talked to the program director, I realized that I'd met him before at Berne's house party. And he said, "Yes, yes, I remember you." And then I explained what I wanted to do, to give refugees and migrants IT skills to increase their chances of getting employed. He told me to send him a request and he would try to put this together. And he invited me to meet him again to talk about it.
That's what always happened. We were always able to find someone who believed in what we were doing and was willing to convince others to do the same. He convinced the top people at McDaniel College. We got some money to do a trial. During that period, the president of McDaniel from the United States came to Hungary. He said that the professor was telling him about this, so he too was supportive of this project.
The McDaniel people told us to gather together a group. We brought together 30 refugees and migrants. We decided to give an exam to select the best of them. Not everyone had the necessary background. To do design, you need to have some background in computers. They were eager to learn. But they never had a chance. And this was their chance.
It wasn't possible to do this training at the camp. It was important to have the computer center in the camp. But it was difficult to get the permits and to move the large equipment to do the more advanced training in the camp. But Budapest is very expensive to get a place. I had to look around for a new place. I went to the Menedek organization. I again told them of my dream to add a center in Budapest. I knew it was not easy, but this was the dream. We looked at one place, but it was too small.
There were a number of computers at our center, but only two of them had licenses for software to teach advanced IT like web design and basic programming. Menedek told me that the office of UNHCR was giving out money and I should see if they could give me some. Of course they should fund me because they are the office for refugees and I am working with refugees and migrants! I applied and asked for money for computers. And I got the money. But it's one thing to get the computers and another to find a place for them.
I had another idea. I had a friend, an Iranian medical doctor who studied here, a very kind guy. I met him and told him what I had in mind. And he gave me a space in Budapest – a big space! We had no chairs or tables. But he gave us that and an Internet connection as well. And I had another friend, a Canadian, who was able to call up the Canadian embassy and explain the situation and ask to help us get the computers more quickly. Within two weeks we were able to set up the place with computers.
When did you start this up?
August 2012. We already finished the one in Bicske. And now we were already starting with the advanced course on web design and computer programming. My idea was to give a larger number of people the opportunity for job stability. We set up that, a number of migrants started studying.
So, then I was ready to start another project. I went to the board members of my organization. We had very kind and very professional board members. When I speak to them I get more and more motivation. I get inspired.
This was my idea. Many refugees and migrants are qualified to go to university. But they don't have the opportunity. When I was at the camp, many people I met already had degrees from their home countries. But a university degree from a Third World country is not a ticket. Here they don't care. The system here just doesn't accept them. So, it's just a question of setting up the system to accept those who already have degrees.
I set up a project called One Chance in which all the universities in Budapest give one free space to a migrant or a refugee to do a degree program. But it was hard to make this happen. I went to one of the biggest technical universities in Budapest and I met this guy whose contact I got through the Internet. He was in the IT department. He was a very fine man.
He asked me, "Are you a student?"
I said no. He was surprised since I was not Hungarian. I asked him whether he would reserve one spot in his department for a migrant or a refugee to get an IT degree.
He said, "Well, give me time to think about this."
He didn't know what to make of me. I gave him time. I sent him a couple of emails. I went back. I continued to explain to him. I told him, "You know, there are a lot of problems here with refugees and migrants. I think I can prevent those problems from happening through education." I told him that I learned from my own experience in Hungary that we can't wait around for the government to do something for us. We have to do something ourselves.
I kept in touch with him. I continued to explain the situation. And then finally one day, I received a letter that said we had been granted one space at the department for a refugee or migrant to study IT. It was a like a dream! I don't really know how I got the courage to make this happen.
He also gave me the courage to get more contacts from the Internet for departments at technical universities in Budapest. And I was able to tell people that this first technical university had already granted a space to one migrant or refugee. Then I started to go to the medical universities, and I did the same thing.
Our organization is not well known. We don't have any money. Many organizations, year after year, they get a lot of money to do work with media, for instance. But they don't do a lot of real work. We try to do something different. We try to work directly with refugees and migrants, and reach everyone in order to provide them with a chance, an opportunity. At the computer centers, they are getting trained.
And now we're looking to go to the next level: mobile phone programming. We're also talking to an international body to approve our centers so that we can do a higher level of training. When you go through these trainings, you have the courage to jump into the labor market. You have the skills.
It is still so difficult to get employment. You have to be really educated. You have to have a skill in high demand. We come from Third World countries. We face a lot of racism. But we find ourselves in these societies, and we have to acquire these special skills. A lot can be done. It doesn't require a lot of money.
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Article: Courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus
"Hungary's Irregular Border Crossings"