By Courtney Columbus / Cronkite Borderlands Project
Published July 11, 2016
BUDAPEST, Hungary — Nine years after arriving in Hungary, Iraqi refugee Layla Shaker can’t hold back tears while she describes the racial discrimination her 7-year-old daughter faces at school.
“She asked me to move to another school, but I’m not sure it’s better,” Shaker said.
Shaker’s light skin and dark hair blend in with many Hungarians, but her husband’s skin is much darker. Because of her daughter’s darker skin tone, Shaker said girls at her school don’t play with her and call her racial slurs. The family is Muslim.
Racial, ethnic and religious differences have very real meaning in Hungary and the country’s government has taken a hard stance against the tens of thousands of primarily Muslim refugees who were passing through the country. Critics called it a xenophobic response to an international crisis, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his supporters said it was a necessary move to protect Hungary’s “Christian identity.”
Efforts to integrate into Hungarian society have proved difficult even for longtime residents such as Shaker, 30. It has been so tough that after nearly a decade of trying to assimilate, she wants to leave Hungary with her daughter and husband.
It’s not only her daughter’s struggles to be accepted in school but her husband’s low salary — $800 a month. Also, Shaker has been rejected for so many jobs that she has given up looking. She said her most surprising rejection came when she applied for a position to translate Arabic, her native language.
“I’m sure they (would) accept me. After that, I’m shocked,” Shaker said. “We know the reason, it’s because (of) our nationality.”
Shaker and her husband are among approximately 3,600 refugees who have been granted residency and are living in the country. Most of them arrived before 2015’s massive influx of migrants to Europe.
Just 4 percent of people living in Hungary were born abroad, according to the 2011 census. The report showed fewer than 5,500 of Hungary’s residents — out of the country’s total population of nearly 10 million — were born in Arabic countries.
Refugees often find it difficult to navigate Hungary’s complexities — the language, for example, is quite complex — as they strive to set up new lives, according to Erno Simon of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Budapest.
In addition, Hungary took a hard anti-refugee stance as more than 1 million refugees and migrants, largely from Muslim countries, reached Europe’s shores last year, shaking the European Union’s policy of open borders within the 26 countries that make up the passport-free Schengen zone. Orban ordered a razor-wire fence erected at the country’s southern border with Serbia last summer, redirecting the flow of refugees away from his country.
Still, 177,000 refugees applied for asylum in Hungary, Simon said. In all of 2015, Hungary approved 545 applications for asylum, according to data released by Eurostat in April.
That low number of approvals wasn’t because nearly all of the applications were formally rejected by Hungary. Simon said many asylum seekers left Hungary before their applications were acted upon, heading for countries including Germany, with its stronger economy, more generous welfare benefits and more welcoming government.
However, the enforcement of EU’s regulations has forced some, such as Zakaria Ghali, an Algerian asylum seeker, and Pakistani student Hashir Ilyas to apply for asylum in Hungary.
Both were hoping to reach different countries when they were caught by Hungarian police and held as illegal immigrants.
Ghali said he had been riding on top of a train, hoping to make it to Germany, when Hungarian police boarded the train and took him into custody.
Ilyas was headed to Belgium, where he says cousins have lived for 20 years. He said a tire on his car blew out when he was fewer than 20 miles from Hungary’s border with Austria. He was apprehended by Hungarian police and while in detention, he applied for asylum. He said he didn’t feel safe in Pakistan.
Since Hungary is the first EU nation where they registered with the government, Ghali and Ilyas had no other legal option but to apply for asylum here.
In early March, both men were waiting in limbo amid international regulations at the over-capacity Bicske Reception Center, about 25 miles west of Budapest, for their asylum cases to be decided.
(Just days later, on March 17, the Hungarian government announced that it would close the Bicske camp and all other existing refugee camps in the country and would create two new tent camps near the border with Austria.)
Ghali was eager to leave Hungary. One of his eyes was severely bloodshot; he was injured, he said, when he was attacked and robbed in Serbia. Ghali wanted to leave the camp so badly he was hoping to make a deal, he said, to pay 200 euros, about $220, to a purported smuggler who drives a black SUV with a Croatian license plate to take him to Austria. From there he hoped to continue on to Germany.
Even for those refugees who want to stay in Hungary, their chances aren’t good. Anikó Bokanyi of the Helsinki Committee, a nonprofit that provides legal services to refugees, said Hungary’s asylum acceptance rate for those who waited for their applications to be judged was 12 percent during 2015.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a nonprofit that helps refugees, has criticized the government for what it calls unusually harsh standards for determining whether an asylum seeker has a valid case and for making a small but significant change to its laws during the summer of 2015.
Since August, Hungary has chosen not to approve the asylum cases of any applicants who passed through Serbia, arguing that the refugees should have registered and requested asylum in Serbia. While Hungary’s government argues that Serbia is a safe country suitable for refugees, international organizations say Serbia’s asylum process is not functioning. The Helsinki Committee said 99 percent of the refugees entering Hungary arrive from Serbia, meaning refugees such as Ghali and Ilyas are waiting as the dispute goes on.
Hungary has also come under criticism from the UN refugee commission for its attempts to encourage the public to think of refugees as terrorists, said Simon, who added his organization is trying to counter those claims.
“We put huge efforts into communicating that refugees are not terrorists. On the contrary, they are the victims of terrorists,” Simon said. “They are fleeing terror in their home countries.”
That was the case for Shaker and her family. She said they received a threat that they would be killed if they didn’t leave their home within 72 hours. They left their home the same day, and left Iraq a month later. And despite her wishes now to leave Hungary, she acknowledges she’s found more freedom there than in her native country.
“In Iraq, I can’t go even alone in the middle of the day. Here, I feel better,” Shaker said.
Still, she said she has never really felt at home in her new country except in the Reformed Church of Hungary in Budapest.
The building that houses the Reformed Church, called St. Columba’s Church of Scotland, has a long history of accepting and sheltering those in need. During World War II, Jewish families survived the Holocaust by hiding in this church.
Today, the church offers free services to refugees and strives to create a feeling of community among the foreigners that pass through its doors — a welcome change from the world outside.
“They are amazing people,” said Shaker, who has taken free English and Hungarian language classes offered at the church. “I really love them.”
But unlike the church, the government continues to be less than welcoming to refugees. In March, it proposed a new law that would make it harder for refugees to integrate into Hungarian society by allowing the government to re-evaluate a refugee’s residency permit after three years for anyone granted asylum after April 1, 2016.
“Why would you make the effort to restart everything and start up your life again and to learn a language you will not be able to use in any other place of the earth if you will be losing it all after three years?” said Dorá Kaniszai-Nagy, the head of the church’s refugee ministry.
The Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary, an activist group, also opposes the proposed law.
If the law passes, “I’m sure we’ll make a lot of noise about it,” said Migszol activist Aiski Ryökäs.
The government has already stopped providing integration support to people who are granted refugee status by cutting financial assistance, Ryökäs said.
Many Hungarian citizens support Orban and his Fidesz Party’s efforts to keep refugees out and want to send the signal that refugees are not welcome here.
Ilona Tarr, a Hungarian citizen and Fidesz Party supporter who lived through over 30 years of communist rule, likened the recent wave of refugees to the Ottoman Turks’ invasion of Hungary almost 500 years ago.
“It’s not possible for them to integrate,” she said through a translator.
However, Katalin Viktor Langer, Hungary’s deputy state secretary for social inclusion, said the country’s centuries-old culture doesn’t need protection. It’s a matter of migrants’ willingness to blend in, she said.
“Before the question of immigration, there were people here who weren't Hungarian. They learned Hungarian literature and language, Hungarian folk songs,” she said.
And there are those, including members of the Outlaw Army, a paramilitary organization that most closely identifies with Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party, who believe no Muslims should be welcomed into Hungary.
“Europe and Hungary have Christian values and Muslim areas have Muslim values, which is fine, but everyone should stay in their own areas,” Zsolt Tyirtyán, a leader of the Outlaw Army, said through a translator.
Tyirtyán draws parallels between his organization and the Ku Klux Klan, while saying the Outlaw Army doesn’t use violence because that would be a violation of Hungarian law.
But it’s harsh sentiments like those as well as more subtle ones that have left families such as the Shakers looking for new countries to call home.
“They’re having to build a life in a country that says, ‘We don’t want you,’” Kearstin Bailey, an intern at the Reformed Church in Budapest, said.
Shaker, who speaks English, Arabic and Turkish but has struggled to learn Hungarian, said she would prefer to live in America, Australia or Canada because those countries have more mixed-race people and more mixed skin colors. Anywhere in Europe, she fears she would continue to face the same discrimination.
“In Europe, it’s the same problem,” Shaker said, “the language and the skin problem.”
Others, such as Mohomed, a 21-year-old from Somalia who asked that her last name not be used, has also struggled to integrate into Hungary since she arrived four years ago, but she’s not ready to give up on it, yet. In fact, last October, she applied for citizenship and is waiting for a decision from the government.
When Mohomed fled Somalia at the age of 17 with a guide, she didn’t have a destination country. She only knew that the Somalian man who took her across the border to Ethiopia had promised her a “peace place,” where she could study and help her family. The journey would prove to be trying. After making it out of Somalia, she said the guide told her, “Don’t say anything, just follow me.”
She arrived in Ukraine without knowing what country she was in.
“If you ask, what’s this country? Nobody tells you because they’re afraid of police,” Mohomed said.
Police caught Mohomed as she attempted to walk across a wooded area of the Hungary-Ukraine border in April 2012. She said she had been walking in the cold with two Ethiopian asylum seekers for more than eight hours.
After her Hungarian asylum application was approved six months later, Mohomed enrolled in school for the first time in her life. In Somalia, she said, she never attended school. The nation’s public education system hasn’t been functioning since the mid-1980s — a casualty of the region’s ongoing conflict, according to a report by the UN.
“My mom started teaching us in the house, Somalian alphabet,” she said.
In Hungary, she’s currently in 10th grade. She said she gets along well with her teachers, but struggles to talk with her classmates.
“They talk very fast, and I talk very slowly,” Mohomed said. “It’s hard for me to learn Hungarian language, but I’m trying my best.”
Like Shaker, Mohomed said language classes with the Reformed Church are helping her to gain more confidence speaking Hungarian, to learn English, and to make friends.
Reformed Church pastor Aaron Stevens, a South Carolina native who has lived in Hungary since 1993, said the language classes and other services can help to fill in the gaps left by state support services and help refugees to not feel so alone.
A sign on one of the church’s common spaces reads, in 18 languages, “Peace begins with you and me.”
“All we do is offer community,” he said. “That’s a human need, too. It’s not just about food and drink.”
Mohomed said the Hungarian government helps support her by paying the rent for her apartment and that it will continue to do so until she’s 24. She can also travel on public transportation for free and receives a living stipend from the government.
Although she said it’s difficult to live in Hungary because of the language barrier, the economic and social support and educational opportunity that she has here make it even more difficult for her to think of leaving.
“Once you have a Hungarian handprint, you can’t go anywhere,” she said, referencing the EU rule that asylum seekers must apply in the first safe country they enter. If they continue on to another country, they risk being deported to the first European country they were in.
“I think, if they deport me back, what would I do, where would I go?” Mohomed said.
In Hungary, she has much more freedom to travel than she did in Somalia. However, travel has become more difficult for Mohomed, who is Muslim, since thousands of refugees crossed Hungary’s borders last year. More than 391,000 refugees passed through Hungary in 2015, according to the UN.
“When I go to the metro, they look at me different,” she said. “People look at me like I’m a terrorist or something. They look at me and talk to each other, and it makes me scared.” she said.
Kaniszai-Nagy, of the church’s refugee ministry, echoed Mohomed’s feeling that Muslims in Hungary are increasingly seen as people to be feared. She said the Hungarian government has equated immigrants with terrorists, and the public has become “very angry” towards refugees and migrants.
Mohomed now wears a smaller hijab than she used to, but she hasn’t stopped attending services at a local mosque each Friday.
“I am free to practice my religion,” she said.
Afghani refugee Parviz Khyber has been in Hungary as long as Mohomed, but he hasn’t struggled as much to integrate and feel safe, despite the current refugee crisis. Khyber, 20, is in 11th grade and hopes to apply for Hungarian citizenship within the next two years.
“I have a very positive experience here with the people, the country,” he said.
Khyber, his brother, and his father work together to run two small businesses owned by the family, an Afghani food and gyro restaurant and a 24-hour corner grocery store. Both businesses are located in District 8, notorious among Hungarians for being among the historic city’s most drug-ridden neighborhoods. A crumbling stone building, roof collapsed, stands across the street from the Khyber family’s corner store.
The shelves of the family’s store overflow with food and drinks. Cases of bottled water are stacked in front of the pastry and candy counter.
The Reformed Church also helped the Khyber family get settled in Hungary, giving them the financial freedom to be able to invest in a business. The church paid their rent for two years, part of a refugee aid program that is now suspended due to a lack of funding.
“Home rent in Hungary is a lot,” Khyber said, “if you pay 100,000 forints and 150,000 is your salary.” Each U.S. dollar is equal to about 275 Hungarian forints.
Language classes at the church also helped. Khyber said he learned Hungarian quickly, and was speaking it within seven months.
“My friends and my colleagues, they stopped speaking English with me,” Khyber said. He’s now an interpreter between Hungarian and other languages, including English, Pashto, Persian, and Hindi.
For the Khyber family, Hungary has now become home.
“Now we have our business here,” Khyber said. “We study, our home is here, which means we are doing quite well here.”
Buffett student projects include: Nicaragua: Channeling the Future | Chiapas: State of Revolution | Two Borders | Puerto Rico: Unsettled Territory | Stateless in the Dominican Republic | South Africa: At the Crossroads of Hate and Hope | South Africa Documentary | Borderlands Photo Essays | Divided Families (PDF) | Divided Families Documentary | Children of the Borderlands | South Africa Project
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