A group of people sit around a table, chatting. They're blurry. In the foreground is a white canvas shopping bag with the Hungarian words Ebben a táskaban esély ban.

An opportunity to change

The villages of Bag and Dány in Pest County lie about 26 km apart, both a little more than 40 km from the country’s capital. Both have populations of around 4,000 with sizeable, segregated Roma settlements.

I had heard of neither Bag nor Dány until recently when I ran across the non-profit BAGázs Közhasznú Egyesület, which has been working in the villages since 2011 and 2017, respectively. I checked their bilingual website and was immediately reminded of the lines written by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (daughter of the writer William Makepeace Thackeray)  in her book Mrs Dymond: ‘[…] if you give a man a fish, he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish, you do him a good turn.’

BAGázs doesn’t donate money or food or clothes; instead, they provide the opportunity to change.

Curious to know more, I contacted the organisation and spoke with their project coordinator, Orsolya Kovács. When giving of either my time or my money, I find it pays to ask some questions.

BAGázs owes its beginnings to Emőke Both, who worked for a time in Bag as a probation officer. In her words:

At the beginning I didn’t have a deeper look in the locals’ everyday life. I wasn’t aware of the depth of the problem – but I did feel that I had never been to a place with such deep underlying problems, such as Bag. Not the squalor, per se, more like the feeling of misery.

After a successful summer camp in 2010, the volunteers kept on going, tutoring the kids, and in 2011, Both founded the association. Over the last 11 years, a portfolio of projects has been developed and delivered. Some 150 volunteers regularly work with 86 families (48 in Bag and 38 in Dány).

The in-home development programme has volunteers spending at least an hour each week with three families individually, playing with the children, helping them with their cognitive and motor skills; really, they’re allowing them to be kids.

Kovács, a psychologist by training, had the good grace not to flinch when I asked what may well have been one of my less enlightened questions: ‘What makes a Roma kid from Bag or Dány any different from a majority kid when it comes to crawling, climbing, or walking?’ Given that I live a life without issue, I’ve not seen how kids grow and develop so her answer, which might appear obvious to many, was eye-opening for me.

Majority kids learn to walk on flat surfaces. They have space. When a whole family lives in one room, where can the kid go? There is no space to grow.

Added to that, she continued, is the level of stress they are under:

Stress comes from living in poverty, living with discrimination, with stereotypes all around them. It’s a very high stress environment. Higher stress means higher cortisol levels and higher cortisol levels can inhibit the normal development of executive functions in a child.

There is so much I take for granted. So much I don’t know.

For instance, there’s a magic number – 15%. If the disadvantaged students in a classroom make up 15% of the cohort, it’s beneficial for both. The majority kids, at 6 years of age can walk, talk, play, and socialise; they understand rules and consequences;  they’ve formed attachments and friendships; they’ve been to places outside their home and village; they’ve had access to digital devices and media;  they can tell this from that, left from right; they know their colours, their seasons, the parts of their body. These kids get to see that not everyone has had the chances they’ve had. Maybe they learn to appreciate, to share, to help, to befriend. The minority kids get the space and room they need to catch up, to improve. But if this swings the other way, and the majority kids make up the magic 15%, parents are most likely to pull their kids from the school leaving the others to languish. Segregated classrooms often result, in this, the twenty-first century.

Kindergartens and schools should equalise this early divide but sadly, all too often, they deepen the disadvantage based on living situations and socio-economic circumstances.

Three children chase a red ball down a dirt path. A wall of multicolour car tyres to their right in front of a wire fence strung between wooden posts. Behind them walks an adult man in brown pants and a blue tshirt with the words Mogan Stanley Volunteers
Common language: Football

BAGázs also runs afterschool activities. They have Boys’ Clubs, Girls’ Clubs, and a Women’s Group. All speak to empowerment, self-belief, and the willingness to grow. The women drive change: they manage the family coffers, take care of the children, and keep the family together. In Dány, the Bagázs Sewing Circle gives them the opportunity to earn money and gain work experience. The bags they sew carry a message: Ebben a táskában, esély van (in this bag, there’s a chance).  Check their webshop.

The adult mentoring programme works with adults in setting their own goals. They decide what they want to achieve and BAGázs volunteers help them do it. It could be finding a job, or even more difficult, keeping a job. It might be improving their parenting skills. Or learning to manage financially (the organisation has access to legal and financial advisors). Or improving their living situation. Or furthering their education as an example for their kids and grandkids (10 adults have finished primary school as part of the programme and 7 have learned to read and write).

 

A white door with a brass looking handle stands open. Inside we see a poster of the HUngarian alphabet on a wood-pannelled wall. At a white table sit two adults. The guy in a white shirt and dark pants is explaining something toa woman in a red tshirt and blue tracksuit bottoms. A bottle of diet coke sits between them.
Adult mentoring

Early school drop-out is one of the biggest challenges the communities face and they are rightly proud of their online study programme for kids who have reached eighth grade and beyond.  Some 48 volunteers tutor the students in subjects they need help with.

Of all the things Kovács said, one thing stuck in my mind: ‘We are not the ones who know what they need; they tell us, and we see it.’ Theirs is a complex, integrated approach, which involves children, parents, adults, teachers, and local institutions. They provide training to sensitise employees at companies that support BAGázs to the challenges faced in the settlements before they come in to help fix up houses and improve the infrastructure.

BAGázs volunteers are long-term. Each year, four full-time volunteers are funded through the European Solidarity Corps programme. They live and work in the settlements. Last year’s cohort were from Morocco, Turkey, France, and Spain. They always have a Hungarian volunteer with them and spend a lot of time helping out in the classroom where the kids have a chance to hear and see people from outside their world. The training is intensive. All volunteers, for every programme, receive training. It’s not a matter of showing up and helping out, no matter how good the intention might be.

They’re funded by private individuals and corporate sponsors. They don’t accept government money. It’s not their job to provide jobs and housing, fix the infrastructure, eliminate institutional discrimination and segregation, and address the lack of compensation for disadvantaged pupils in schools and kindergartens. Yes, these are the responsibilities of government, of the social system; BAGázs is saving the state millions by doing what the state should be doing.

BAGázs is in Bag and Dány because no one else is.

A hard winter looms. Purse strings are tightening, and the instinct is to keep what we have for ourselves as we may well need it. But it is in giving we get. This, methinks, is an initiative worth supporting.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 September 2022

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