The city is awash with conversations about immigrants and migration. Those in charge have launched a rather dubious poster campaign with billboards admonishing migrants not to take Hungarian jobs should they come to Hungary. This has bred a volume of vitriol on various expat forums that borders on vicious. When those at the top are calling for no ‘mass-scale’ mixing of different creeds and advocating an end to multiculturalism and diversity, the future looks stark. When they maintain that ‘economic migration is a bad thing for Europe […] it only brings trouble and danger’ and that the EU should restrict access to people of ‘different cultural characteristics’, I’m left wondering how long it will take for this to get nasty, really nasty.
But on that dark horizon sits a beacon of hope in the form of twenty-three-year-old Szabó Ákos and his StreetCalling initiative. Trained in tourism and economics, now working as a chef, Ákos volunteers with the Food not Bombs movement in Budapest. For three years, he’s been collecting fruit and vegetables from market stalls around the city on Saturdays, cooking them, and then serving them to some 200 hungry souls on Boráros tér on Sunday afternoons.
Through his work on the streets, Ákos has gotten to know a lot of people. Not all are homeless. Many are faced with a choice between paying utilities and eating decent food. One day, he got chatting to a chap who was looking for a job but had come up against a serious problem, a need that many of us take as a given. He needed a phone. The whole ‘We’ll call you’ only works if you have a number to call. Ákos posted a question on Tumblr and got a lot of feedback – all positive. So many old phones are languishing, unused, in drawers, left them to gather dust and idle away their usefulness when to someone else they could mean the difference between queuing up for food on a Sunday afternoon and cooking at home.
Ákos is no one’s fool. He’s been around. He’s heard the stories. He knows enough to recognise a genuine ask from a schemer who is planning to sell the phone to buy a litre of wine. They get a phone if they have the money to buy a SIM card (can be as little as 500 ft) and have somewhere they can charge it. They also have to sign an agreement that they won’t sell it on. And there are plans to recycle old laptops in the same way.
We take a lot for granted. Too much. We get to shower, to eat, to sleep pretty much as and when we want to. Those living on the street get to choose – either they go to a day hostel for a shower and to wash their stuff, or they go to a night hostel to sleep. And that’s only those for whom there’s room. The likes of Food Not Bombs, Heti betevő, and Street Angels (who collect soaps and clothes for those in need) aren’t wasting their time on useless rhetoric. They’ve seen how they can make a difference to the lives of others less fortunate and they’re doing something about it. To them people are people and some people need help.
I asked Ákos why he was so passionate about StreetCalling BP. He said: ‘I don’t want to give money; I want to give them an opportunity. I was lucky. I grew up in a well-to-do family. I need to give back.’ If we all thought in those terms, in terms of sharing what we have rather than keeping it for ourselves or for those with ‘similar cultural characteristics’, just imagine how much better the world would be.
First published in the Budapest Times 12 June 2015