When a seven-year-old child has no idea what they want for Christmas, you might immediately think that they have so much already that there’s nothing left for them to ask for. But when that seven-year-old child cannot answer the question because it’s one they’ve never before been asked, it’s enough to make your heart break.
This week, I went to visit some families living in two tenement buildings in Budapest’s Xth district, not far from Stadion, a part of Budapest tourists and many locals never see, Hős utca 15/a and 15/b are home to some 600 people, about 130 of whom are children. These 300 one-roomed apartments were built back in 1939. The conditions are dire. A gas explosion resulted in higher common costs for tenants, only half of whom live in council-owned flats; the others are privately owned. The local development strategy seems to want the building levelled but there is no place for the people go to. Those who have council leases will not have them renewed on expiration. If they have kids, they’ll be taken into care until the parents can find alternative accommodation. The local government has ruled that it has first refusal on any flat offered for sale but the paltry 1.5 million huf (about €4800/$5600) on the table won’t rehouse the sitting tenants. The street, which translates into Heroes Street, is in the middle of an area bordered by the Anti-Terrorist Unit HQ, Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University, and a police station. The mind boggles. What should probably be the safest place in the city, is one that is anything but.
We got there about 4pm and met with Zsuzsanna Urbanovszky from Kontúr Egyesület. Zsuzsanna has been volunteering at Hős utca for about four years and it’s immediately clear that the children like and trust her. We were in safe hands.
This YouTube clip was filmed in 2012 and believe me, nothing has improved. It gives you an idea of what the place is like.
We met some other volunteers in one of the flats that Kontúr uses. The door was locked at all times, even though kids were coming and going. Kontúr is cooperating with the Letters to Santa initiative. In its third year, it’s probably one the most rewarding things I do each Christmas. The brainchild of Zsuzsa Bozo, kids fill out their letters to Santa and then volunteer Elves make sure that Santa delivers on what they’ve asked for. It’s hoped that 50 of the 130 or so children will participate, but it’s proving difficult to get the completed letters back. Parents are reluctant to let them visit the little community centre, and even more reluctant to commit to taking the kids to the party where the presents will be distributed on 22 December. More are suspicious about why the Zsuzsas are doing this. Gifts without strings are rare in their worlds.
We wandered upstairs and down, ably guided by a ten-year-old girl, who, if she had a magic wand, said that she would stop people robbing. Later I met a five-year-old who, with her magic wand, would change the windows in her flat into doors. A couple of young boys told me that they’d make people stop fighting. The doors are grilled, padlocked, and chained. The windows are boarded up. The passageways are dirty, smelly, and full of rubbish. There’s an air of abandonment and yet there’s evidence of life. Shadows flitted about the landings, silhouetted by the glow of a cigarette or the reflection of a phone. Everyone greeted us politely. No threats. No lewd comments. No smart remarks by the groups of young men that hung out in the stair wells. Three women and a child wandering freely in a part of town that the police are reluctant to patrol. Yes, Zsuzsanna has earned respect.
I was walking, head down, making sure I didn’t stumble or fall when I passed a pair of shiny leather shoes sitting beneath a pair of well-pressed trousers and an expensive woolen overcoat. I looked up in surprise. Definitely not a local but one who walked as if he knew where he was going. Drug dealer? Money lender? Who knows.
For some strange reason, the Hanoi Hilton came to mind. Perhaps it was the bars, the flittering shadows, the disembodied voices. Perhaps it was the poverty, the filth, the squalor. Or maybe it was that sense of imprisonment that defied freedom of movement. People are certainly free to come and go, but few, if any, ever truly escape.
And yet, there is a pride visible in the homes. Clean, tidy spaces, furnished with old furniture and hand-me-downs. The children are well turned out, polite, and friendly. They have a fascination with manó – leprechauns – asking if I’d ever seen one and if there was really gold at the end of the rainbow. They showed me their letters, explaining what they wanted, asking me to check on the Net to make sure Santa knew the specifics. I learned a lot about Hungarian YouTubers and Soy Luna 🙂 and today, we went shopping for five.
Hymnist Henry Burton wrote:
Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on.
’Twas not given for thee alone, pass it on.
Let it travel down the years,
let it wipe another’s tears, till in heaven the deed appears – pass it on.
If you want to get involved, check the Facebook page. Consider passing it on.
For the Zsuzsas in this world, who give so graciously of their time, and work tirelessly to better the lot of others, I’m grateful. Ladies, you do the world proud.
PS – the observant regular reader among you will notice that I’m out of sync on my grateful numbering – back to normal next week.