That Time the Refugee was From Hungary

Hungarian kiflis – a family favorite

My close friends know that I am a super proud, chicken paprikash-loving, Hungarian.  I can play a chardash on the piano, and like a good Hungarian, most things in my life revolve around food.  It runs deep.  My grandmother immigrated here from Hungary, finding her way to the Detroit area where she raised her family, including my mother and her three older siblings.

My grandmother (R) and her sister, Marika

Recent headlines have put Hungary back on the world stage as the country has found itself central to the Syrian refugee crisis. But unlike it’s European neighbors, Hungary’s headlines have been mostly negative in its handling of the influx of Syrians trying to cross the border.  My Hungarian pride is being bruised with every kick and gassing of a refugee.  I have no intention of diving into the politics of border control or the even more complicated politics of what the heck the 28 nations of the European Union (EU) are going to do about this, but I am so frustrated with Hungary.

Other countries in the EU are rightfully panicking and trying to protect their nations’ interests while remaining somewhat humane.  But nooo – Hungary, one of the new kids on the block to the EU, decides to tout it’s xenophobic roots and throw up fences, close the Serbian border, and launch some tear gas.  Have these refugees not been through enough?  I think Hungary missed the memo that not all the refugees want to live there – they just want safe, legal passage on their way to seeking asylum in more welcoming countries like Germany.  I know I’m oversimplifying the situation, as how one country manages thousands upon thousands of refugees is beyond me.  What I’m frustrated about is the lack of humanity in Hungary’s response.  Even UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon is disappointed in them.

Fueling my anger is the fact that it wasn’t too long ago that Hungarians were the refugees.  More than 200,000 fled Hungary in the 1950’s during the Russian occupation that spurred on the Hungarian Revolution.  Most were met with safe asylum in Austria, and some made the journey to distant family in other countries…including mine in the United States.

My grandmother and grandfather took in an 18-year-old Hungarian refugee (a cousin of sorts) when my mother was only six or seven years old.  My Aunt, who was a teenager at the time, recounted the story and told me that he had fled Hungary because of the communist oppression.  He was from a high-profile family and the Russians had not only bugged his house, but eventually moved in with them.  Made to learn Russian in school, his Dad would whisper to him to learn English and not listen to the Russians. The situation was getting worse, so with his family’s safety compromised, he decided to flee.

During his journey, he was captured at the border and put in a camp in Yugoslavia where he experienced more violence.  He escaped again, and this time made his way to the United States, with my grandparents signing papers to take him in and sponsor him.  He arrived with no front teeth, and as my Aunt recalled, a mane of kinky, curly hair that was the embodiment of the physical disarray he was in.  Lucky for him, my grandfather happened to be in the dental implant business, so he made him some new teeth.  Through conversations with my mother, she mostly remembers that he would not eat much at dinner with the family, but would hide his food in the bedroom.  My grandmother would change his sheets and find chicken legs and other food from dinners past.  He was quick to tell his new “cousins” that he did not like the United States and fights would ensue with my Aunt yelling at him to go back home if he hated it so much here.  She regrets how mean she was to him, but teenagers are not known to have the best sense of empathy, even for a kid that just escaped war in his home country.

He lived with my mother and her family for two years.  Eventually, he dropped out of school and took a job selling magazines in New York.  In the years since, he has managed to have a productive life in the United Sates, retired from the Army, and is living in Oklahoma with his wife.  My Aunt stays in touch with him, but as you might expect, things are complicated.  Each time I hear the reports about the current refugee crisis, I think of him and how we are all much closer to the situation than we like to believe.

Beneath the political turmoil of the EU, beneath the chatter about what to do about the war in Syria, there are real people who are doing what any of us would do if our families were not safe – seeking refuge.  Flight has won out over fight and the world’s response needs to be rooted in humane policy making.  It’s hard to look at Hungary and not think of the Hungarian refugee that my family took in when they could have easily turned him away.

This is a micro example of one refugee and one family with an open door that can parallel to the macro level of one country with open (or humanely regulated) borders and policies.  Think about it – there was one family with an open door ready to take in Aylan, but there was no way into a safe port on the journey.  Who knows what would have happened if my family or our country had turned away Hungary’s refugee…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeanette says:

    Oh Emily you sure are a wonderful and creative writer. Thanks so much


  2. Vivian Ledbetter says:

    Beautifully written story about your family. Your mother was my best friend in high school and I spent time with your grandparents when visiting your mom. They were lovely people and I especially remember your grandfather’s sense of humor and kindness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s