Friendly faces when they’re most needed

In a world where politics polarises people, where contrary opinions can ruin friendships, where ideological differences can result in being ostracised, it’s easy to forget that we’re all human. We all have feelings. We all bleed red.

Whether you’re in favour of the new fence going up between Hungary and Serbia or whether you’re against it doesn’t take from the fact that thousands of those it’s designed to keep out are already here. And more are coming by the day.

Where are the churches? Those pastoral institutions that purport to have the care of humanity at their core? Surely it can’t be true that they are sitting idly by and doing nothing? Admittedly the problem is so huge that it’s difficult to know where to start, but thankfully there are groups of motivated individuals out there who are banding together to make a difference.

maid2People like Zsuzsa and Patrick at the Caledonia Pub on Moszár utca who have offered their pub as a drop-off / pick-up point for volunteers going to meet the trains of incoming migrants arriving from the border towns. They’re in need of items like baby food, personal hygiene products, medicine, and food. They have cold storage facilities for fresh fruit and sandwiches and a network of distributors. Volunteers can meet there to plan and discuss who is doing what and what needs to be done next. Check out their Facebook page Caledonia Social Bite for details.

maidAnother group, Migration AID, has set up sub-groups to man each of the main stations so that those arriving see some friendly faces doing what they can to help. Volunteers give juice to the kids, toiletries to the parents. Many need plasters for their blisters, cream for their sunburn, and lots and lots of water. Some need medical assistance, or help finding missing family members. And through their social media networks, these volunteers put out the word and find someone who can help.

I can’t begin to imagine what it might be like to have walked for hundreds of miles, for weeks on end, from Iraq, Syria and even Somalia, in search of a better life, leaving everything I own behind me, and then to finally arrive and not see a friendly face. In some circumstances, a plaster and a bottle of water must seem like manna from heaven.

Reports say that about 1000 people cross the Hungarian border every day. Those who don’t slip through unbeknownst to the border officials are fingerprinted as they request asylum. They’re given entry papers and 48 hours to make it to their reception centre. If they don’t, and they’re caught with expired papers, they face jail. When they disembark in Budapest, the station staff shepherd them outside. So they head to the parks, where the police come and move them on. They’re left to roam the streets, waiting for their next train out. There’s no coordination, no infrastructure, no system in place to cope.

But the people have rallied. Hundreds of volunteers are readily giving up their time to help in a situation that is getting more nightmarish by the day. They accept the fact that for whatever reason these people are here and they need help. Each one has a story to tell, stories which many of us, accustomed to a life of relative plenty might find it difficult to empathise with.

And while it is important to debate the politics of it all, to find a policy solution that will stem the tide, we would do well to imagine ourselves in their shoes and think of how we’d like to be treated if, tomorrow, we found ourselves homeless, blistered, and hungry in a strange country, knowing that going home wasn’t an option.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 July 2015

Sitting on the fence

I have a slight tendency to obsess, to fixate, to let things I cannot influence worry me to a state of anxiety that then spills over into other aspects of my life. It rarely comes to much, though. But lately, with the media in Hungary seemingly devoting most of its air time and column inches to immigration issues, my stress levels are rising.

borderThe thought of Hungary building a 175  kilometre fence along its border with Serbia bothers me. It seems like such a massive step backwards. And for a while, as I gave vent to my self-righteous indignation, I ignored the issues that may have driven such a decision. While reacting emotionally is all well and good, I needed to be better informed. So I asked some questions.

Europe is basically divided between the Schengen countries and the non-Schengen countries. Once you’re in the Schengen area, you can travel freely within other Schengen countries. If you travel from a Schengen country to a non-Schengen country you will usually pass through immigration at your point of departure and at your point of entry.

Political asylum is granted to people who live in fear in their home country. Perhaps they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or political views, or are part of a persecuted minority or live in an area affected by civil war or unrest. The EU has agreed that a person can claim asylum at their first port of entry. And Hungary, sitting as it does on the Schengen border, is an attractive entry point.

Hungary would seem to be dealing largely with economic refugees, though, not political ones ‒ a subtle but significant difference. Apparently, only 8‒9% of refugees coming to Hungary are political asylum seekers and it would be a cold heart indeed who would advocate for turning away those fleeing persecution. But what of those moving in search of a better life? This is where I teeter.

Ireland has a history of economic migration. For years, we populated the world, as we searched for better lives. Hungary, too. So many young people today are moving abroad in the hope of finding jobs that will pay them enough to live and to save for the future – two things difficult to do in tandem at home. And are they being turned away?

Is there an argument to be made that those who previously conquered and colonised great swathes of Asia and Africa should be opening their arms to their former subjects? And if so, could Europe sustain the current level of migration from Africa, given the current dismal lack of any sort of cohesive structure?

Were the infrastructure in place to absorb so many others into the system, perhaps I wouldn’t be in the quandary I’m in. But the infrastructure isn’t there. Not yet. Hungary needs to get its own act together first. So what’s bothering me then?

Perhaps it’s the idiocy of it all. How much are the infamous anti-immigration billboards running to? How much did it cost to administer the recent national questionnaire on terrorism? How much will this fence cost? Orban is ‘personally heart-broken’ about every forint he has to spend on the fence. But wouldn’t that money have been better spent on building an infrastructure to cope with this flood of immigrants and working out ways that they could contribute to society from the outset? Am I being too naïve?

Or perhaps it’s the rumblings I’ve heard that neo-Nazi football heads are offering to assist in rounding up refugees at the Serbian border. Or maybe it’s that niggling suspicion being voiced that if these migrants were Christian and white, it would be a different story. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 July 2015

Propositioned on a Sunday

Do I look like the type you could strike up a conversation with at 1.15 pm on a Sunday afternoon and after a litany of no, no, no, to your offers to show me the Blue Mosque or the hippodrome or your uncle’s carpet shop. Do I honestly look like the type who would go back with you to your apartment  so that that you could show me all that special energy you have inside only waiting to get out? And no, I don’t care how big it is, I don’t want to see it…

That was the first of three propositions I had in an hour – each one raunchy and too explicit for my taste (lady, I won’t even charge you…). In my defence, the only bit of skin showing was my calves – and although they might bring out the latent maternal instincts of a nursing cow, they’ve never been known to excite such blatant come-hithers. Couple this overt sexual banter with the black-clothed eyes of the women here and it’s confusing to say the least. And a tad upsetting. Did I mention that it was  a Sunday?

You never get a chance to make a second first impression. I know that. And my first impression of Turkey (extrapolating from my first impression of Istanbul – which is dangerous to do, I know) is that it’s a country with a split personality. For every helpful, friendly, smiling citizen I met, I met an equally cranky, obdurate, streak of misery. And it started the minute I landed.

I went to passport control. I didn’t have a visa (Ireland needs a visa but visitors from the Czech Republic don’t. Or Switzerland. Or Serbia). The helpful immigration officer pointed me to the visa office.

Hi – I need a visa.
That will be €25.
I only have Turkish lire.
You can pay in US dollars.
I only have Turkish lire. Do you take credit cards?
Cash only. ATM is over there.
[I get the money and return]
May I have a receipt?
No. You only paid for a visa. No receipt.

But then a second lovely immigration officer let me skip the queue and fast-tracked me through the diplomatic lane.

IMG_4256 (800x586)

On the way in from the airport, the juxtaposition of conventional and modern, the contrast of box-like concrete tower blocks and ornate mosques all added to this impression. It was difficult to decide what I was looking at. What century. What region of the world. Add to that the confusion of crossing continents, from Asia into Europe. Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents.

At the metro, to an official

Excuse me, where can I get a ticket?
At the machine
Is there no ticket office?
Use the machine
I don’t have the right notes
Use the machine

To a young girl getting off the funicular, having finally managed to find a shop that would give me change if I bought something.

Do I have to get another token for the tram?
No – it’s too expensive – get an Istanbul Card and charge it
Where can I buy one?
Over there – here, let me show you…

Down at the bazaar, the personalities were also in action.

I have a particular colour pashmina in mind – and I don’t see it here.
Look at this one – it’s your colour
Nope – I want cream with an orange and green thread
This one?
Nope – that’s purple
This one is your colour
Nope – that’s pink
So what can I sell you?
Go away then

Then the next chap who tried to sell me one:

I have a particular colour in mind – and I don’t see it here. Cream with an orange and green thread.
Your mind’s made up? So I’d be wasting my time trying to sell you anything else?
Thanks for telling me – enjoy Istanbul (laughing)

What I did admire though is that they point out the fakes without any attempt to hide them.

These are silk. Those are cashmere. Those are a mix. And that shelf over there – all fake brands.
Fake. It’s all fake in Turkey.
Even the cashmere?
Yes – that’s fake, too. Except for these ones.

The honesty is refreshing.

Come, lady, come to my restaurant
I’ve already eaten
How could you? Without me?
You never told me you were waiting for me.
A beer?
No thanks. How expensive is a glass of local wine?
20 lire – that’s what everyone charges
I saw one for 9 lire earlier
That was vinegar – that’s what we feed dogs when we want to kill them
20 lire is mad
Hey – this country is ruled by people who don’t drink. All alcohol is taxed at 68%

Amazing what you learn.
So now I know what I need to know to get around. I have decided I won’t be shopping. I have resolved to clothe my calves in future. And I finally found some decent wine that didn’t cost 20 lire. Once the prude in me recovers, I think I’ll like this city.



And another year begins…

With twelve years of Catholic convent school buried deep in my distant past, September still represents the start of another year. But now, instead of covering my copybooks in brown paper and kitting out my pencil case with a lead-like despondency at the thoughts of upcoming battles with science and maths, I start making plans for the autumn – my favourite time of year. The influx of new blood into the city brings with it a vibrancy that lifts me out of my sun-induced coma and injects new life into a weary soul.

I was over at Immigration this week getting a new registration card. I whiled away the hours trying to identify the number of nationalities waiting for their number to be called and marvelled at the diversity of people choosing to make Budapest their home. I lit upon a trio of young Irish women, new veterinary students, who’d just arrived. Amused by their valiant attempts to pronounce their addresses, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that they’d already found the Irish bars in town. Some priorities never seem to change. Yet while having the craic was definitely on the agenda, their exhaustion, tinged as it was with a heady sense of excitement, leant an air of anxious anticipation to their chatter as they discussed how early they had to show up at class the next morning and the daunting workload that lay ahead of them. I don’t envy them the hard slog that lies ahead, but I do envy them their newness.

nemzetiI still have not tired of this city. I might not care for its politics, or the recent spate of what smells a lot like nationalism. I might not like the fact that while I can see through a sex shop window, the windows of the Nemzeti dohánybolt are darkened, leaving me to wonder which is, indeed, the greater vice. I might not like the fact that free market forces appear to be waning and that, as one amusing Facebook comment stated, we might soon see the occasional Nemzeti Sárga Festék Bolt as taxi synchronise their colours.

But for all its frailties, Budapest is still a spectacular city, home to much of what’s good about this part of the world. And for the new souls just landed, its hidden depths are waiting to be explored. Go n’éiri an bothair libh.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 September 2013