2019 Grateful 9: Yellow Roses

Tonight in Budapest, 4 November 2019, protestors marched from Clark Ádám tér to the Constitutional Court where they laid yellow roses in solidarity with victims of domestic abuse. Two particular cases have been highlighted in the press. Read more


Paying tax is a duty, an obligation. Taxes pay for our medical care, our education, our roads, the infrastructure on which society is built. Even so, few of us pay them with a smile, confident that our money will be put to good use. But taxes, like death, are supposed to be unavoidable.

So, having accepted that I have to pay my taxes, it is nice to be able to divert even the minutest portion from the government’s coffers and into a cause that is far needier. Hungary allows us to donate 1% of our taxes to a church and 1% to a charity. My church 1% goes to the Hare Krishnas because of the tremendous work they do feeding 1500 homeless and in-home poor in the city almost every single day of the year. Rain, hail, or snow, the lads from the Food for Life programme are out there, dishing up hot foot.

The other 1% needed more research.

I only discovered this second 1% last year and then I gave to an art gallery working with those with psychiatric disorders and mental illness. But as I buy from them fairly regularly, I needed to choose another recipient.

I’d heard tell of Menedék Alapítvány (the Shelter Foundation) and their work with the homeless but I hadn’t heard of their work with victims of abuse – mothers and kids in particular. Abuse, in all its guises, is something no one should have to live with. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.

Through the good auspices of a friend, I went to visit the Menedék Mamásotthon, their mums’ home in Budapest. I’m being deliberately vague about the location as many of the women there are seeking refuge from their abusers.

Space is limited and the waiting list is long. Right now, there are 11 mums and 29 kids in the home. Last year, they had 300 registered applications with 34 families passing through. They are unique among shelters and homes of their kind in that each family gets its own room with a private bathroom and a bed for everyone. The two largest families (one with seven children) occupy self-contained apartments on the premises. The others share a communal kitchen and living area with a communal laundry facility.

When accepting applicants, those in physical danger get priority. Then mothers with children who are facing life on the street with no other option. Hungarian law says that no child should be homeless or living in an unsafe environment. Children are often removed from their parents and remanded to the care of the system. At the Menedék Mamásotthon, mums and kids get to stay together.

Families can stay for no more than 18 months. By this time, it is hoped that mum has a part-time job and that they’ve managed to save some of the children’s allowance (13 700 huf /€45/$47) and her salary to set themselves up in social housing (if they’re lucky enough to get one). Clothes and food donations play an important part in the Shelter’s provision and they heavily rely on public support. Government funding goes to pay building maintenance and upkeep and the salaries of the seven employees who provide the support and counselling the families need.

As I sat there chatting with the director, I couldn’t help thinking, on a theoretical level, that it all sounded rather good. Mums are taught parenting values, the importance of routine in a child’s life, the value of nutrition and personal hygiene. The kids go to kindergarten and to school. They have access to a computer for homework if needed. All rather lovely.

Then I saw the rooms. Bright and airy but small. I can’t imagine three people living in one and not killing each other. One mum I met – let’s call her Kati – shares a room with her two children, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 16. They’re at that age where space is important and moods are frequent. Yes, they go to school, but they’re home by 7 (a house rule). Kati says she’s lucky. Had the home not accepted them, they’d have been split up. They’ve been there close to 18 months. She has a part-time job as a sales clerk and the kids are doing well in school. She’s managed to save some money and is hoping to be rehoused as part of the social housing scheme. She’s there because of a bankruptcy. Her husband left. She had nowhere else to go. Her kids have adjusted well. They’re old enough to know what life could have been like. They’re good. They manage. But they are looking forward to having their own space. Soon.

Not for the first time, I stopped and gave silent thanks for the blessed life I lead. And I thought, once again, about perspective. Kati and her kids are happy – happy they’re not on the street, that they’re together, that they’ve a clean bed to sleep in that they can call their own, however fleetingly. I was looking at the room unable to get beyond the size of it and the horror of living in such close quarters with anyone. If circumstances dictated, I’m sure I’d adapt. But man, am I grateful I’m not there.

The bridge that Menedék Mamásotthon provides is incredibly important to the lives of those families fortunate enough to get a place. Given that the connection between the various municipalities in the city and those in need of their services is tenuous at best, all too often these families have nowhere to turn.

The foundation itself, Menedék Alapítvány, under which Menedék Mamásotthon operates, has other places, too. This home was once a Baptist church, renovated in 2005, so it’s been in operation for a while. I’m a little wary of religious institutions. I’m not comfortable with the idea of conditional giving: I’ll help you, but only if you attend prayer services and bible study groups or only if you share my beliefs. And while the Baptist foundation and Christian beliefs are very much evident in their literature, neither colour nor creed play any part in the application processes. Attendance at bible study and prayer groups is voluntary rather than a condition of acceptance and support. In a sermon last year, Pope Francis talked about the deception of ‘saying and not doing’, of talking piously but not actually doing anything good. Menedék Alapítvány is an example of doing a lot, with very little by way of saying.

Also in Budapest, they operate a weekly TeaKlub for young people in need of support. And a home for self-sufficient, homeless young men aged 18-35, those who need time to get themselves together. Sometimes, all people really need is a break, for something to their way, a chance to right themselves. This respite keeps many off the streets and that can only be a good thing. Down the country, in Kiskunmajsa, a renovated former Soviet barracks now provides temporary housing for 30 families in Menedékváros (City of Refuge) [and there are plenty of these dotted around the country that could be put to similar use].

So, having done my due diligence, I’m happy to redirect my 1% and work also towards getting them the heavy-duty washing machines they so badly need (40 people makes for a lot of laundry and their current machines just ain’t up to the job). If you want to help them out, and redirect your 1%, this is the number you need to quote on your tax form:  Kedvezményezett adószáma: 19004909-2-43. They’ll also accept in-kind donations of food, clothes, and furniture (delivery by prior arrangement to the main office). And cash donations, too. Specify on the transfer which home you want the money to go to. Details available on their website.

As poet and philosopher Samuel Decker Thompson said:

We are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever.

Kati and her family dodged a bullet when they got a place in the Mamásotthon. They were lucky, she said. We can be part of creating that luck for others, too.

When domestic abuse goes beyond violence

Way back when I still enjoyed the luxury of youthful ideology, before the onset of cynicism, and the failure of idealism, life was very black and white with few, if any, shades of grey. I had strong opinions on most things. Abortion – a definite no. A woman’s right to choose – a definite yes. In vitro fertilization – a definite no.  A woman’s right to choose – a definite yes.  Divorce – a definite no.  A woman’s right to choose – a definite yes. I never inflicted the decisions I’d made for myself on anyone else. I tried hard to understand and accept that friends of mine could make choices I would never make for myself. They, too, had the same right to choose. I learned to see most things from someone else’s perspective… except one.

Sticks and stones

I found it very difficult to understand why any woman would go back to a man who had beaten her. A man who had broken her bones, fractured her limbs, or blackened her eyes. For me, it was beyond reason. I always promised myself that if ever a man so much as raised a hand to me, I’d be gone. I would never, ever, ever, accept any form of domestic abuse in my relationships.

Earlier this year the European Court of Human Rights handed down a verdict in Kalucza v. Hungary. It awarded the Hungarian woman more than €5000, because the responsible authorities had not done enough to protect her from domestic violence. [Can you put a price on this, I ask myself?] Over the course of five years, thirteen medical reports recorded bruises on various parts of Kalucza’s body. Yet she stayed in the flat they both owned because she couldn’t get the court to kick him out. And it’s not always the man who is at fault. Instances of domestic violence by women against men are also on the rise. In the UK, for example, the number of women convicted of perpetrating domestic abuse has quadrupled in the past six years, from 806 in 2004/2005 to 3494 in 2009/2010 [I couldn’t find figures for Hungary but their absence doesn’t make the violence disappear.]

The government recently met at the ungodly hour of  2am to discuss the possibility of crimalizing domestic violence. And, apparently, when it was proposed by the LMP that these discussions be held at a more visible time of day, House Speaker Laszlo Kover said that the issue wasn’t weighty enough to warrant more attention.

…may break my bones

Not weighty enough? Last week, Veronika Gulyas, writing in the Wall Street Journal, mentioned that 70 women die each year in Hungary as a result of domestic violence. The answer to this problem, at least according to Hungarian politician István Varga, is for women to have more children. ‘If three or four or five children were born, members of the family would respect each other more and then the question of violence within the family wouldn’t even come up.’

This sort of thinking beggars belief. But let’s not forget that domestic abuse can go beyond medical reports of physical damage.  While the popular media and the general public are right to be enraged about domestic violence, it would seem that if the physical results are not visible, if the abuse is not manifested in bruises and broken bones, then it doesn’t get attention. When we talk about domestic violence we think of physical damage and the resultant psychological ramifications. But it can be a lot more subtle than that.

…but names will never hurt me???

When my youthful bubble finally burst and I realised that the world wasn’t black and white but full of greyed-out opinions, visions, and attitudes, it hit me hard. I had to face up to the fact that while I had seriously considered my opinions and hypothetically taken a stance, when reality hit I wasn’t beyond reproach.That promise I made to myself that I would never, ever, ever, accept any form of domestic abuse in my relationships? I, too, was thinking of flailing fists.

Yet I was one of those women who stayed instead of leaving, who went back for more time and time again. But there were some key differences in my case. It wasn’t a hand or fist that was raised, but a voice. My bones remained intact but my self-esteem was shattered by constant criticism and derogation. The bruises caused by unrelenting belittling went deep, scarring the very essence of who I thought I was.  And even though I knew better, I stayed. Even though I knew I deserved more, I made excuses. And while my friends kept their counsel, they cast a silent vote: invitations to us as a couple dried up. They may have seen what was happening but it was never discussed. The questions  – the difficult questions – were never asked.

My heart goes out to anyone who is a victim of domestic violence of any sort. To them I say, find the strength to leave. To their friends I say, ask the questions. And to the politicians I say, there are few issues indeed that are weightier.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 October 2012