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Government campaign stigmatizes Hungary’s immigrant community

An anti-immigrant campaign launched by the Hungarian government also sends a message to immigrants who have been living here for years or even decades, working and raising children in the country. Most of them speak Hungarian perfectly,  many of them have Hungarian spouses or partners. Meet four of them, people to whom Hungary could become a much worse place if the anti-immigrant campaign hits its target.

Many thousands of people are living in Budapest and in Hungary who were not born here, their mother tongue is not Hungarian, but for some reason they have decided to settle in the country to start a new life. They founded their families, opened shops in the ten or twenty years spent here. They do not think that Hungarians are prejudiced or xenophobic by default. Yet they fear that if the present politically generated hysteria lasts, it will make the country unbearable for them. Meet Mohamed, Dzavit, Elif Kaya and the owner of a Yemeni takeway from Hungary!

“Hungarians helped me, Arabs did not”

Mohamed opened his Syrian food store in Budapest, where he sells halal sheep besides regular goods. The merchant discovered Hungary as a tourist, grew to like it and, a year later, he moved here. He could have gone to Germany, as he had successfully settled there before.  To this day, he is grateful for Hungarians offering much help for him in opening up his business. His network of customers is mostly Hungarians without an immigrant background.

How long have you lived in Hungary?

It is almost exactly twenty years now. I moved here in 1995. But I first visited the country a year before.

What was your knowledge of Hungary before coming here?

Nothing.

Then what was your connection?

A Hungarian girl, with whom I met in Syria before as German interpreters in tourism invited me here. A year after, I visited her in 1994, and I grew to like the place. So I returned in 1995 under a work permit visa.

Did you open your shop immediately?

No. In the first one and a half or two years I was working in a small restaurant–more like a buffet. Then we started to do business between Syria and Hungary. I am a small-scale merchant. We bought this shop in 1999 and opened our business in 2000.

Mohamed Schumann / Photo: Márton Magócsi

 

So every supply comes here directly from Syria?

There has been a war in Syria since 2011, so not any more. Now I get my supplies from Lebanon,  either through Turkey, or Frankfurt, Germany. We also keep sheep in Hungary to produce fresh halal lamb.  We have a small farm in Jászberény.

Can such a food store function well in Hungary? I mean, is there a genuine demand?

When we set up the whole business in 2000 we suffered for the first three weeks, as Hungarians back then did not really know what Syrian food means.  But after three weeks demand strengthened, thank God, as we received a very good free marketing. And not even from Syrians or Arabs but from Hungarians. They helped us a lot in advertising, and in how to sell our stuff. Journalists also showed up, published articles about us, and so people started to notice our shop.

Who are your customers?

By now, mainly Hungarians.  But this was not always the case. Around 2005 out of a hundred customers, eighty was a foreigner living here but by 2008 the proportions turned around. This is when Hungarians started to frequent the shop. They like to take olives, rice, spices and seeds from here. Hungarians really like to eat, let’s not forget that! And they certainly have some interest towards oriental stuff. So they have accepted me.

Photo: Márton Magócsi

When I was looking for you in the shop, I thought it is your wife who was standing at the counter. Is she Hungarian?

Yes, and the mother of my three beautiful kids. My oldest son is 16, the other is 10. My daughter is 10 months old.

Where do you live?

Here, next door. This is why I am here until midnight or even later. I do not go out, not even at night. But after work, I often sit out here with a nargile (water pipe) and some tea. People pass by, and sometimes I sit down with customers to have a tea and a chat. Family and work are the only things that matter to me.

I presume that you are already familiar with the anti-immigrant billboards. The country is full of them, warning newcomers that they are not allowed to take jobs away from Hungarians, they have to abide the law and respect our culture. What do you think about this?

In Hungary there are only a very few foreign residents. Are they afraid of them? This is all nonsense, as most people do not want to stay here. Even Hungarians do not want to stay here. And they think that foreigners will come here en masse? I think this is just politics, nothing else.

Mohamed Schumann with his family / Photo: Márton Magócsi

Why wouldn’t they come here?

What are they supposed to do here? It is extremely difficult to find a job in Hungary. I have met a lot of foreigners in the last twenty years, but they all left for Western Europe: Germany, Sweden, Austria. Even friends, and acquaintances. This is mainly happening in the past three years. Nobody wants to stay here. So I have no idea what this hysteria is all about.

And why have these people left, what did they say?

There are no jobs.  The taxes are very high. You cannot work. As a shop owner, they will just try to screw with you. And the country is small, there are not much opportunities. In fact, this place is only good for you if you have loads of money.

You are tied here by your family. Your children are already Hungarian citizens, aren’t they?

Yes they are.

And you?

I am living here under my residence permit, but have yet to apply for citizenship. I might try it next month.

Well, I am not sure if this is the right time to be successful in this or not…

I have not got a penny in tax arrears, and I own an apartment. I have three kids, who are all Hungarian citizens. They are officially my children. Here is my wife. Okay, we are not officially married, but we have been together for 16 years. I think my situation is good enough.

Eszter Neuberger :