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.

streetBut 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

Give us our Sunday bread

If I had a bottle of wine for every good idea I’ve had or heard in a pub, I’d need a pretty big cellar. There is something innately Irish about setting the world to rights over a few drinks. Creativity flows, innovation is at its best, and a sense of altruism pervades. And, it would seem, that the same thing happens in Hungary, with Hungarians.

I was introduced to Máté a couple of weeks ago down on Klauzál tér, in a little pub called Kisüzem (small business). It was Sunday, about 1pm. Inside, volunteers were putting food parcels together. Outside, in the park across the road, scores of people hung around waiting for the 2pm distribution. Each Sunday, about 200 to 250 of the city’s needy ‒ some homeless, some not ‒ are fed hot, restaurant-quality food, prepared by volunteer chefs from restaurants in the area.

At the heart of Budapest’s night life, about 40 or so collection jars for the project – Heti betevő (a rather clever modification of the idea of ‘daily bread’) – can be found in bars up and down Kazinczy and in the surrounding VIIth district. All money collected buys the much-needed ingredients, and much more food is donated.

(C) Kinga Sonnevend / Heti Betevő

(C) Kinga Sonnevend / Heti Betevő

It all started last Christmas, over a few drinks. Máté and some friends were in the pub one night, talking about how much money they spent on partying and enjoying themselves while next to them others were going hungry. One of them, a chef, said that he could cook some hot dinners if others would organise distribution. Instead of being logged as a nice thought, one that would languish with all the other good ideas inspired by palinka and beer, this one took hold. Just one week later, they were in business. It took just seven days to make it happen.

They have a ticketing system. They figure out how many meals they can make up and then issue a corresponding number of tickets at noon. The food is distributed two hours later. The group self-organises. There’s no trouble, no pushing and shoving, no getting out of line. For many, their lives have an institutional feel – they’re used to obeying rules, queuing up, waiting. Each person in line had a story. Their journey to Klauzál tér wasn’t one they chose. Life and circumstances dictated. A mother with seven children, two with Down’s syndrome. An elderly couple finding it difficult to survive on their meagre pensions. A youngish man with a vacant stare that looked into another world. A quiet dignity pervaded.

Volunteers serve those in need and some of the volunteers are also on the receiving side. That ownership is important for everyone. What is also important is that the food is good – high quality. We’re not talking leftovers and stuff that has reached its sell-by date; we’re talking restaurant-quality meals prepared with the freshest of ingredients by the finest of chefs. About 30 volunteers have been involved from the start. Another hundred or so drop by every now and then to help out. I saw some faces I might have recognised had I been more up on who’s who in this town. It was good to see those with plenty taking time to help those with not nearly enough. It was heartening to see that people are engaged, that people care.

There are other such initiatives in town. The Budapest Bike Maffia distributes foods on wheels. Food not Bombs distributes food on Saturdays over on Boráros tér in the IXth district. They all cooperate on fundraising activities and learn from each other’s experiences. If other districts need the same, the lads at Heti betevő are happy to help replicate. Their system works. To donate, check their FB page

First published in the Budapest Times 7 November 2014