Syria on your doorstep: a community response to refugees in Hungary
By rob hopkins 19th October 2015
Today we have a guest post from Tracey Wheatley, co-ordinator of the Transition Hungary Hub:
This is a response to the story recently posted on the Transition homepage about the Refugee Camp in Brussels and the role of Transitioners in getting it up and going. I’m not going to write much about the actual predicament of the refugees unfortunate enough to have made their way to Hungary’s borders, but rather the response to this. The article made uncanny reading, every paragraph reflected the Hungarian experience – the state’s lack of preparedness, the growing visibility of the refugees in public space, their clear needs, the ability and willingness of people to mobilise and organise to provide sustained, practical support.
Uncanny too, is how there was a similar solutions-oriented, self-organising, improvised ‘strategy’ in both countries – perhaps this is common sense organising; we feel the desire to contribute, we see and identify with the needs, we respond to them as best we can, with the resources we have, an opening up of space for activities that most people understand: cooking, sharing food, providing clothes and shelter, some kind of show of friendship and compassion.
“What can I do? – Make sandwiches. How?”. “Here’s the stuff, think it through for yourself”, its all self-organised…
There were also people who provided much needed expertise, creating Apps for up-to-date advice, providing medical care, interpretation, even hairdressing. There were companies who stepped up and gave vital resources, including the much-respected socially active local ‘start – up’, Prezi, that, when asked to help urgently with transport, went out and bought a fully equipped ambulance for the next day.
The ability to react within minutes to clearly expressed requests was amazing: when the refugees had enough of the Hungarian government’s unpredictability, they just got up and left, heading for the border three or four days away. The determination was impressive, the despair underlying it soul-destroying. People with kids on their shoulders, old people, someone in a wheelchair, a few people with crutches. Many strong young people with resolved expressions. Within minutes the call went out over social media, stating the direction and route people were taking and what needs they had. People from communities all along the first expanse of the motorway set out with prams, shoes, water, food, baby carriers. They posted in Facebook which ‘patch’ they were covering, to make sure resources were used well. Within a couple of hours the government capitulated and sent buses to take them to the border: later it turned out the drivers were on unpaid overtime, having volunteered to do this route.
The behaviour of the police was also an enigma: we witnessed extreme agression and equally extreme kindness from a police-force itself under pressure. One officer pointed out that the discussion we had just had about the government’s inhumane, ad hoc handling of the refugees could land him in prison. He admitted he had no idea what he was supposed to do: “it’s one thing in the morning, and another in the afternoon”. Should we sympathise with them? I’m not sure, but at that moment I was appreciative of the fact that they wanted us to ‘do our job’ – provide support and comfort as best we could. They could have closed up this space, but they didn’t.
Perhaps this is an insight into how resilience manifests itself: like a well-used muscle, previous organising experience is subconsciously energised, translated into a new situation. Perhaps there were lessons learned from recent events, such as when local people provided care for snowed-in car-drivers, when the state was unable to respond adequately. Or perhaps there were just some very good practices in place from the beginning by those excellent people who took the first steps, making it easy for those joining later. Whatever, this is bound to be the subject of many university thesis over the next year, as this organisational pattern was unprecedented.
The collective handling of the refugee crisis was very much an illustration of ‘there is place and need for everyone’. A chance to see just what people can do when, connected through social media, they self-organise, identify their own ‘niche’, and create, through trial, error, and refinement, life-sustaining systems. In a sense, this was an inadvertant gift from the refugees, and many people will remain rightly proud of how they stepped up in solidarity, creating a network of new contacts of very empowered people. Many will also remain traumatised by what they saw and the stories they heard, and how their friends and families chastised or isolated them. Not everyone was touched in the same way. Not everyone got beyond the mainstream media stories, the ‘shock and awe’, bombardment by a wave of refugees, threatening Europe…
The Hungarian government stopped the state-owned media from showing images of families or children, and avoided the use of the word refugee, sticking to the well-considered term ‘illegal border crossers’. Too much empathy is not a good thing for a government banking on an increase in support by moving to the far right.
There were outpourings of vile hatred across the media; the church and the large humanitarian NGOs failed miserably, with few exceptions. There is an ‘epidemic’ of un-friending across on-line communities and massive rifts opened up in families. But this wasn’t because of the refugees. This is a pattern that repeats itself, one of polarisation over identities defined as left and right, anger from unresolved past traumas being played out time and time again. As was poignantly pointed out:
“The refugees will move on, but the hatred will remain.”
Were part did those in Transition Hungary play? This is where our experience differs from Brussels; as Transitioners we were pretty much tied up in other things, and we were not the initiators of the core support work. We helped out, but it was just a random activity. However, as the number of people grew, the dynamics changed.
One Transition community became more directly involved due to a ‘sit-down’ protest at the local railway station by refugees refusing to get on the train to the camp and the realisation that smugglers from the border were dumping people on our streets, as the nearby motorway connects the southern border with the capital.
And this is where the insight becomes a bit more personal. This is our community, this is where we’ve been investing time and energy in community-building, in relationships, in trust and understanding, in goal setting and deliberative decision making – though most people only see the surface, the results – the farmers’ market, the organic box, the kitchen-gardens and so on.
How can a community react when 1000s of people are literally dumped at the end of their street by people traffikers? This is what we had to ask ourselves too. It can do loads:
- It can use its network of local contacts to organise food and clothing and blankets quickly to where they are needed – in this case the local station
- it can use its connections to the council to get drinking water
- it can use its facebook sites to quickly mobilise help in the vicinity it’s needed in
- It can organise ‘scouts’ to find people just ‘delivered’ to the local flea market, who havent a clue where they are
- It can help them get to the station, and to the train they want to Germany
- It can organise donations, collect money for 100s of bus tickets
- It can organise lifts for those people who are not able to walk anymore
- It can negotiate with taxidrivers charging obscene fares for their ‘risk’
- It can invite the refugees into their homes, temporarily, perhaps illegally
- It can create focus and debate, giving confidence to others to do a bit too
- It can make the refugees and their stories more visible, even to those who don’t want to see them
- And most importantly, it can make people feel as though some care about what happens to them. To make them feel like people
This was part of the motivation to be ‘out there’; we had the chance to be a little part of the story of these amazing people. Named border-crossers, migrants, refugees, depending on where you stand politically, for those who met them they were amazingly resilient, determined people. Smiling, inquisitive kids and babies. Fishermen and old ladies who are scared of the underground’s escalators. Little boys with cold, wrinkled feet and pretty women who trim their nails the first chance they get a quiet moment. People with terrible stories behind them, but determined to make life work for them and their loved ones. Was it selfish to want to be part of this life-affirming story? No, it’s not, it wasn’t; these small contributions are what will make a difference in the long run, to how people assimilate this story into their lives, their identity, and the story this country tells about itself. Clichéd perhaps, but when your kid asks you what you did in the refugee crisis, how do you answer?
Most people didn’t look for this opportunity, they didn’t create or have the chance to see beyond what the media presented them. They became and remained indignant, suspicious, superior, vicious, vulgar, ice-cold. Or sometimes worse, coolly rational, in ecological terms: these refugees are a threat to our resource base, send them back. It’s been disturbing to watch people throw away their humanity so cheaply, but we will have to learn to work with this, because these people are not going to go away, and neither is the need for global mobility. A very committed and solutions-oriented little part of our local community did its best, and felt better for it. We felt it helped, even if just a little. We were able to create ways for others to help too.
Some helped spontaneously, like the Roma man who stopped and offered a lift to the station to a Syrian family with three kids. He gave his 4 wheel drive to a friend to drive and walked back, overwhelmed, to his workplace. Or the caretaker who guards the factory gate where many traffikers stopped, who happily took maps of local bus routes to give to the refugees who frequently approached him for advice. Or the garage sale organisers who happily sorted out a special collection for blankets and shoes. These people all become part of a story that they will hopefully feel proud of. Little things, but they are important little fragments of a global story, where individuals, communities, citizens’ organisations did what the governments wouldn’t do. Could have, but didn’t.
It’s a daunting thought. If there is any good news, it’s that as transitioners we already have some ‘handles’ on dealing with reactions to overpowering issues. From actively engaging with community and climate change we know something about psychology of change, why people react the way they do when overwhelmed, what kind of approach we can have to different reactions. From thinking through the industrial growth system we know something of compensative behaviours.
That aggression is fuelled by fear, insecurity from the fear of loss, of scarcity…
Maybe this will give us the insight and patience to help our communities through these changes.