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Other people’s lives

There is a growing discontent in the air in Budapest. Something that goes beyond the normal level of human complaint. What I’m hearing now is more systemic, more worrying.

A friend announced recently that he planned to leave Hungary. To emigrate. I was surprised. I asked why. Why now? He said his friends are polarised, on one side or the other. Lines are being drawn. Sides are being chosen. His career has been stymied. He’s been branded by those in power as being pro-Jewish, one who surrounds himself with liberals. He feels he’s left with no other option. I heard strains of the Hollywood cliché: you’ll never work in this town again.

Another told me of hearing friends of their 14-year-old daughter talk about how bad Brussels is, about how dangerous it is for Hungary to be a member of the EU, about how we need to detach ourselves. When they asked the teens why they thought this, they said they’d read the billboards, they’d seen the advertisements, they’d heard the government speak. They are 14. They are our future. And whatever they are being taught in school apparently doesn’t involve critical thinking.

A third, a lecturer at a higher-level institution, told me of a student walking into the classroom with twenty minutes to go in the tenth of a twelve-lesson series. This was his first time to come to class. He wanted to write the four essay assignments he’d missed because he needed to pass the class. In twenty minutes? No. He expected my friend to stay that afternoon and supervise. To work, for free, to accommodate his schedule. When they said no, he accused them of being inflexible. He was a sportsman. These lessons were interfering with his play. They needed to be more accommodating. That my friend had already extended the deadlines for each assignment to accommodate the litany of excuses from a body of students who didn’t seem to understand the concept of deadlines was neither here nor there. After a tirade of abuse, he left, promising to take it further.

Another lecturer-friend told me how their bonus (an extra payment on top of their pittance of a salary) was tied to the students’ appraisal of their teaching. I was gobsmacked. So, if you are lax in your teaching, flexible with your deadlines, kind in your marking, you will make more money but your students will be ill-prepared for the world that awaits them. But if you are rigorous in your teaching, steadfast in your deadlines, and critical in your marking, you lose out. The students will gain, but you will lose. Why are teachers in Hungary undervalued so? They are responsible for producing the minds that will govern tomorrow. Education is a crucial part of shaping our future. Why is it being undermined? The new laws affecting CEU are high-profile, but the problems appear to run right through the education system.

But the most disturbing conversation I’ve had in recent weeks struck me as encapsulating the palpable frustration of a society that seems to be imploding. There’s a building in Buda where one tenant has been intimidating his neighbours for years. House meetings are no longer attended because of the abuse he hurls at the other tenants. He has sabotaged plans to improve the building so it’s decaying. It’s a small house. Many of the tenants are retired couples who have lived there since it was first built. They’re good people, another friend told me. They want little more than a safe environment in which to live. One free of harassment. A community that works together for a common cause.

They tried hiring external companies to manage the upkeep of the building and the common cost each of them pays towards its maintenance. In the last seven years, five such firms have quit because of this one man and his bullying behaviour. Now, the word is out. The monthly common cost has spiralled upwards because each new company wants an exorbitant fee to manage this one tenant.

His life is consumed with filing lawsuits against the tenants’ association, petty suits that don’t stand up in court. And while he might lose, it costs the other tenants money to defend themselves. Pleas to the courts to recognise what he is doing have gone unheeded. The courts have seen his record. They know what he’s at. But they keep hearing him out.

Time is being wasted. Reputations are being ruined. General funds are being depleted. And his attacks are not limited to his fellow tenants. When individually they hire someone to work on their flats or to fix, say, lights in the hallways, he harasses these workers, too. Like the management companies, they also require what amounts to ‘danger money’ to work there. He has physically assaulted one tenant, verbally abused the others. The police were once called to forcibly remove him from the Management company’ office. His verbal rants have been documented on video, to little avail. The nightmare continues.

The courts have let them down. The property management companies are reluctant to get involved and charge exorbitant prices to do so.  The legal system isn’t helping. And a group of people who simply want to live peaceably with their neighbours is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As long as he’s in residence, their flats won’t sell. So, they can’t move. With little option but to stay and persevere, they’re forced to live in the shadow of a blustering bully who picks on the vulnerable, stands in the way of development, and is seemingly determined to ruin his own little fiefdom.

These people are at their wits’ end. If you’re a lawyer, and have a suggestion, let me know. If you’re a tenant with experience of handling such a situation, please comment. If you can help at all, get in touch. Doing nothing shouldn’t be the last resort.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2017

Not in our town

What makes people join neo-Nazi groups? Why do they want to purify the American northwest? What is it about us, normal, everyday folk, that lets us be selective about the causes we support and the oppression we resist?Isn’t one injustice the same as the next? When will the media stop classifying crimes according to colour, creed, ethnicity – isn’t a crime a crime no matter the pedigree of the perpetrator?

On Monday last, I attended a symposium at the Central European University where filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, founder of the Not in our Town movement spoke about a PBS documentary she made back in 1995 in Billings, Montana. The townspeople, faced with racial attacks on Jews and Native Americans, banded together and spoke with one voice telling local neo-Nazi groups that they would not tolerate hate crimes in their town. This act of solidarity was a catalyst for similar actions across the United States, and indeed all over the world. The success of the people of Billings prompted others to stand firm and say No! You bite one, you bite us all.

nOITNIOT’s mission is to guide, support and inspire people and communities to work together to stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all. In Hungary under the sponsorship of CEU’s Center for Media and Communication and the US Embassy, with Hungarian translation provided by the Embassy of Norway,  O’Neill’s presentation was shown in the face of what Norwegian Ambassador Tove Skarstein called ‘a burning challenge for Europe’ – Roma inclusion. Her visit will also include a trip to the Police Secondary School in Miskolc, and to the University there, and to the teacher training college in Nyiregyhaza.

The Hungarian government was represented by Dr Zóltán Kovács, Secretary of State for Social Inclusion, Ministry of Human Resources. He spoke of Roma inclusion as something that has been ‘put aside […] not dealt with’ for the last 20 years. He also referred to Hungary’s role in developing an inclusion strategy for the EU and the move to legislate for social inclusion at home. I found this hard to take seriously, particularly in light of the Parliament’s recent approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal. One has to wonder how social inclusion is defined.

O’Neill described herself not as an expert, but rather a ‘story carrier’ and indeed NIOT is a film that has a lot to say, even 18 years after the fact. In it, then Police Chief Wayne Inman talks of silence being akin to acceptance. When a Native American’s woman’s house was vandalised with swastikas and hate slogans, the local painters union came to her aid to cover the damage. One painter pointed out that her kids were old enough to read, but not old enough to understand and while they could paint the house and cover the damage, nothing could paint over the kids’ memory.

After watching the 30-minute documentary, audience members were asked to turn to those next to them and share which person they identified with most in the film. For me, it was the painter who said that for years he’d stood on the sideline and not done anything; but now he was standing up for what he believed to be right. I’m relatively new to activism – so new in fact that I’m still teetering on the first syllable. But I do know right from wrong, rational from irrational. And I have all but given up trying to understand antisemitism.

I was rather surprised this weekend to be asked why I wasn’t racist. I was in conversation with someone I hope will become a good friend – an American Jew of Polish ancestry who is working hard in Hungary to enable inclusiveness, not only for Roma, but also for Jews. She asked me how many Jews I know and I had to think a while. I know three… now. Perhaps more, but three that I’m sure of. That, too, gave me pause for thought. It’s not something I ask of anyone. And I was amused at one intervention during the symposium, from a Roma woman who spoke of a gay friend wanting to confess something to her. She said – hey, I’m Roma and I know you’re gay – what more is there to confess? But as a teen, he’d been a member of a skinhead group. His reason? He simply wanted to belong.

Good parenting and good education are two powerful weapons against racism and intolerance. A third is good example, as another intervention recounted. It’s not enough to stand by and do nothing. Speaking up and saying how such talk/action/behaviour offends you and that you’d rather it stop, is just one small step yet if enough people take that step, then it can have a huge ripple effect – just look at NIOT and what people and communities all over the world are accomplishing in its name.

There is talk of establishing tolerance towns in Hungary, where all society can co-exist, peacefully, without fear or hatred. There were a number of mayors present in the audience on Monday night, and admittedly, their interventions were subject to translation so I can’t repeat the intent with certainty – yet when I hear of Roma being talked about as ‘them’ and ‘they’, I want to scream. As one activist said: give us our names as it’s the faceless mass that gives rise to racism.

More on this as the project unfolds.