Opinion: Our Brothers, Refugees

Author: György D. FENYŐ Original title: Testvéreink, menekültek
Publication: nol.hu, Photo: MTI – Balázs MOHAI Date: 11/09/2015

Our Brothers, Refugees

The expression ‘refugee crisis’ has two meanings. One of them refers to the tens and hundreds of thousands fleeing their countries, their homelands and their homes in the Middle East and North Africa in the hopes of a life worth living. Europe is not ready to receive so many people and there is no common strategy, behaviour or plan of action to handle the sudden influx. 

I, however, would like to write about the second meaning of the expression, about a crisis formed in the moral sense in Hungary, and one which has been and is still being created with malicious intent.

The current events at Keleti railway station and the road leading to the situation that the atrocities at the beginning of September symbolically represent are a moral blemish that will take decades to remove.

Ever since official politics, the governing party, the co-governing party and the government took up the issue, they keep parroting that our country is threatened by some terrible danger, that refugees are economic migrants out to steal the local residents’ jobs, are unwilling to respect our culture or to abide by our laws. We are told they would make Hungarian families poorer and mean a danger to us all. We’ve been hearing for months that we need barbed wire to protect us from – let me quote – the ‘deluge of refugees invading’ the country. They speak of refugees having been ‘pushed out’ of the railway station, about decent Hungarian workers being obliged to walk through the crowds camping out there, about them bringing a ‘threat of epidemics’ and of ‘chances of contagion’ being investigated.

Government politics speak about them as if they weren’t human, as if they were the bloodthirsty warriors of an invading army. As if we were talking not about people whose homes had been destroyed and lives made impossible by a mad, fanatical organization. As if it wasn’t in the past few days that the treasures of their millennium-old culture had been blown up, as if their entire tradition wasn’t threatened… As if the refugees embarked on this journey for a better salary, not in order to save their own lives and those of their children’s, so that they would be able to eat and feed their families.

What kind of desperation does it take to leave one’s homeland, house, village, the graves of the ancestors, the elderly mothers and fathers behind, and set out to start a new life in a new continent, in a new cultural and religious environment! What kind of desperation does it take to climb on deck of a boat from its side, to squeeze into a crowded truck locked from outside, sell all possessions to buy a train ticket into an unknown city of an unknown country, to give the last dollars to people smugglers!

These people have left everything behind – not for fun and not intending to conquer, but looking for a better or at least a more decent life. So we shouldn’t be treating them like faceless soldiers of a military column in an invading army, but as human beings in need, who are in a situation that is much worse than ours.

It is the basic command of Christianity to support, care for and help those who are poorer or less fortunate than us. According to the teachings of Jesus, the poor must be supported, the lepers elevated and the sufferers comforted. Rhetoric and politics that foster fear and xenophobia and ignore the needy is deeply amoral, deeply anti-Christian and anti-culture. If people are made to believe that every foreigner of darker skin and non-Hungarian background is a potential threat, they will adopt the linguistic and emotional logic of war, become distrustful, reserved, egoistic and immensely defensive. This behaviour won’t stop at the refugees; it will spread to everyone and everything. Those who fail to look at people, who fail to look at those in need are pushing the country into a deep moral crisis.

Hungary should be very well aware of what it means to be an emigrant. At the turn of the 20th century, one and a half million Hungarians became immigrants in the US and they were taken in, not quarantined. But we also know what terrible misery made these millions leave everything behind and start a new life in a new continent. We also know that after 1956, hundreds of thousands were given asylum in Western Europe. We also know what the life of wagon dwellers was like in the early 1920s, what an unalterable shock it was for people in Transylvania to be displaced. All these are diverse situations, of course, but it’s worth considering how many different experiences of being a refugee the country has undergone.

The recently created image of a common enemy, the linguistic practice of politics and the mass media to degrade these people into enemies according to their better scenario or into animals according to the worse one will have its consequences. It wreaks havoc in human souls and morality. It creates an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust which digs not just trenches between people but also brings about chasms between religions and cultures. This in turn will strengthen the notion that everyone is an enemy to be feared and distrusted. We know that everything starts with the words. If the government allows itself to turn people in need into enemies, citizens feel justified or even encouraged to do the same. The prime minister sets a linguistic and moral example – whatever he allows becomes possible to think and do. And this can be followed up by actions any time.

It is natural and normal for refugees to want to eat, drink, take a bath and have a decent sleep even in an unknown city. The authorities of the country receiving them and letting them pass should provide them with help, information and basic conditions for life. Tens of millions of forints are mentioned these days in relation to setting up temporary camps. There were billions of forints considered when they started erecting the fence. All those billions spent on barbed wire and creating an atmosphere of fear would have easily paid for the infrastructure needed to welcome the refugees. Local councils and governments, non-profit organisations, churches and citizens should all have been called to unite – in helping. Not in shutting out the newcomers, but in helping them in accordance with the deepest and noblest traditions of European culture. The army should be erecting tents and distributing water, not chasing refugees. Police should be registering them with the help of English and Arabic speaking students and volunteers.

There are no valid policies without a moral foundation. The way the refugees are treated these days is a shame the like of which this country hasn’t experienced for decades. The way Hungary was morally rising in December 1989 and in 1990 by supporting the revolution in Romania has highlighted the emotional, spiritual and moral potential of the country. The way an atmosphere of manipulated fear is created, and the way a humanitarian disaster is now presented as a military emergency similarly equals emotional, spiritual and moral destruction.

We are mid-way in the crisis. We have the opportunity to take a different path right now. It is a must, however, to devise a different language and act upon principles and values that it is normal to refer to – at least in our own interest, and even more so, in the interest of those who had been wronged, those who are hopefully or hopelessly fleeing.

The author is a teacher and a literary historian

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