The news swirled around us for the next few days. Some of our travel companions were keeping a close eye on the Budapest story, so I heard their thoughts but didn't explore the situation much myself. One of the travelers, Tom, has a passion for visiting train stations - seems his dad used to take him on outings to train stations, so he has rich memories of such experiences - and he visited the Keleti train station twice during our stay in Budapest. He saw firsthand what was going on there, though it had been several days since the height of the crisis. I thought about going myself, but when I looked at my motives I realized I had more of a voyeur attitude than a humanitarian one, so I'll content myself with a few of Tom's pictures.
On Wednesday, September 9 - five days after the height of the crisis - Art and I attended a 12-step meeting at a church in Budapest. This is what we saw just before we went upstairs to the meeting room:
The minister of the church asked us not to take pictures of this room or to identify the name of the church, which has been a refuge for over 70 years. The room was awaiting the arrival of women and children who needed a place to sleep. The minister believed that Hungary was getting a raw deal from the press, when the country was simply trying to do its job to take care of the paperwork for the arriving crowds. His concern was that the media would identify the church and swarm the place as part of the continuing drama, or that men would begin to arrive looking for a place to stay. Usually I don't take pictures when asked not to, but I decided instead not to identify the name of the church.
There's a plaque on the wall of the room - I took a picture of it but, again, am not going to identify the name of the woman honored by it. She was Scottish, and in the early 1940s she was headmistress at this place, which housed Jewish refugee girls. In 1943 the Gestapo came and took her away for harboring Jews. She was sent to Auschwitz, where she died.
I read a story in the online version of Time that provides a good summary of what transpired in the early days of the crisis. You can read about it here.
Katka, our tour guide, had these pieces to add, based on Facebook conversations with Czech friends of hers who had traveled to Budapest to help:
- When people enter the EU from outside, the first country they enter is required to check their papers. Hungary was trying to do that. Some people coming in did not realize they had to have papers. Some had left papers behind when they fled their country. Some spoke only Arabic and could not communicate at the Budapest train station. Some had never traveled or lived in a multicultural community.
- Many people at the train station were refugees, but others were people coming in to look for work in the EU. Officials had a hard time determining who the refugees were.
- European countries were not ready for the large influx of people from outside. Some Europeans were worried that immigrants would take their jobs.
- Germany opened its arms to the immigrants, so many of the people at the train station were trying to get to Germany. Then Germany changed its mind somewhat. EU countries disagreed on who should take how many refugees.
- Western EU members wanted the Central European members to take more people but there was some resistance. When these countries joined the EU in 2005, they were not allowed to go elsewhere in the EU to work for five years - so why, now, should they take in new people? Besides, the refugees had heard about Germany and Austria's willingness to take them in, so they weren't much interested in going to the central countries instead.
- Many individuals wanted to help out. People came in their cars from as far away as Norway to pick up families and take them in.
- People still at the train station may not have money to go on or may be too tired or sick. The Red Cross is helping with the issue.
At our 12-step meeting, one man was Brazilian, with a dark complexion. He said he had been at the train station, and the aid people there had thought he was from Syria and had offered him food!
I have a few thoughts based on this experience:
- The "us" versus "other" concept applies to immigration issues - whether in Europe with this latest influx of refugees and immigrants, or in the US. People are uncomfortable with other ethnicities joining their communities unless they have experience in a multicultural environment.
- "They may take our jobs" is a common fear.
- Governments may be unequipped to deal with a sudden influx of people, whether at a train station in Hungary during a war or at a sports stadium in New Orleans after a hurricane. We talk about crisis, but we may be ill equipped to deal with what actually happens. The actions of individuals may be just as effective. We can't expect government to have all the answers.
- The EU is a mixed blessing for its members.
I am so grateful to be learning so much about this part of the world. For me, that's part of the appeal of travel.