Migration Aid: "They are the quiet heroes"

August 6, 2015

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There is a defiant streak in every socially sensitive person that prevents us from succumbing to hate.

I once saw a photograph of a Syrian family in one of the newspapers, and then a few days later I ran into them at Nyugati station.  The mother sat on the bench looking very thin and frail  I sat next to her and we started communicating.  Through hand and foot gestures she explained that they had been traveling for 30 days, came from Syria, and that she is very tired.  I embraced her and she turned to me and gave me a kiss.  That was a very nice thing.  From nothing, there a Syrian woman and me, she with two children, I with three.  You are tired, I am also tired. Without words we understood one another. 

The new law on refugees, Serbia as a safe third country, integration—these are all political questions beyond us.  I only raise issues that come up over the course of my work. These people are dirty.  They have diarrhea. They are locked into train cars.  They are not treated by doctors.  Solving these problems is my responsibility.  The rest belongs to politics…

– Zsuzsanna Zsohár, spokesperson, Migration Aid

Translation of interview with Migration Aid spokesperson Zsuzsanna Zsohár appearing in the August 6th issue of Magyar Narancs under the title “‘He who helps feels a little better’” (“Aki segít, az megkönnyebbul kicsit”).

Zsuzsanna Zsohár Photo: 168 Óra
Zsuzsanna Zsohár Photo: Magyar Narancs

Many tens of thousands of people distribute water, canned goods, and clothes to refugees gathered in stations without any special organization.  This is how Migration Aid works.  They reject political and financial support, relying instead on spontaneity.

Magyar Narancs:  Migration Aid was formed in June 2015.  It was organized on Facebook and continues to organize through Facebook to this day.  Already many thousands of volunteers have joined the effort.  How is it possible to coordinate the work of so many people?

Zuzsanna Zsohár:  We started on June 29th.  First MigSzol formed in Szeged, and then a few days later our group formed in Budapest.  The Entrepreneurs Club Association (Vállalkozók Klubja Egyesület) created it, but the organization quickly outgrew it.  The number of closed group members is 6,000 people.  Our Facebook page has received eight thousand likes in under three and a half weeks.   Around 5 percent of them are full time volunteers.  The so-called  “place masters” (placcmesterek) coordinate events at the Keleti and Nyugat train stations and the busiest intersections.  There are a lot of donors, everyone does what they can.  We would like for there to be more coordinators, but this is just the 6th week.  The entire organization is ad hoc, and for this reason each day is a miracle.

MN:  How can all of this work take place in a spontaneous manner?

ZsZs:  This many people share a common goal, specifically to lighten the burden of the migrants, taking into consideration the residents and the asylum seekers.  It is difficult for everyone.  It is difficult for them because they have to sit in the shadow of Nyugati station, they aren’t allowed to wait indoors.  It is difficult for us because here they are in the city, we are always running into them, and we know that these people are on the road possessing almost no information.

MN:  In the area of the refugee camps, train stations, and business crossroads important to refugees there are volunteers from your group, not only in Budapest, but also Debrecen, Győr, and Cegléd.   How are such cells formed?

ZsZs:  They write in the group that they want to form a group in Székesfehérvár, and they form it.  It is encouraging to know that there are groups and cooperation elsewhere.  One of our volunteers, for example, helped in Szeged for two days, and returned with the news that they have a lot of diapers, we have a lot of other things.  The train comes for them as well.  We have a person responsible for internal communications, where the coordinators agree on how many people are expected.  Then there are those groups that show up randomly out of nowhere, and those who don’t show up even though we were expecting 40 people.

MN:  What motivated you to join?

ZsZs:  My grandmother was a refugee in Germany when my grandfather was taken prisoner.  She was left alone with a small baby.  When the baby grew up, she took in a family fleeing the Yugoslav war.  I was a child then.  For me it is natural to help if there is a problem.

MN:  You gave up trying to distribute hot food.  You collect donations and distribute them, as well as information, which is especially needed.  There are a lot of organizations that help migrants.  Each one has a different profile.  How did you determine the main activity of this group?

ZsZs:  We thought about what it is possible for us to do, and what is not permitted by the law.  There was a time when we wanted to establish a group that would visit public areas, for example, the InfoPark group, but we stopped that, because our goal is not to erect tents in every public area, but for these people to reach their designated refugee camp.

MN:  It turned out that the Entrepreneurs Klub Association appears on the NAV (Hungarian tax authority) list and is being wound up.  Chairman Sándor Ujhelyi said that that the monetary donations were being handled by a supervisory committee made up of volunteers, and that the expenditures were made public.  Does the association continue to play a financial or moderating role?

ZsZs:  What I know about the association is that the chairman, Sándor Ujhelyi, founded this group, and that he is also a member just like anybody else.  By the way there are no longer any financial donations.  Around HUF 1 million (USD 3,500) arrived the first week, but then we stopped accepting them because the group was being attacked for it.  We withdrew the money, accounted for it, and since then we operate without money, and, see, the tension went away.

MN:  On the other hand you are continuously awaiting donations.

ZsZs:  We have two collection points for donations.  The place changes from week to week and month to month, as we move on just like the asylum seekers.  We don’t need a fixed place.  There is a dynamic to this migration that enables the whole thing to remain fresh.  Every day we post to our Facebook page what contributions we are accepting (bananas, BKV passes, sandwich ingredients), or we announce that we don’t need any more women’s clothes because there is a lot, and everyone donates what they want.  Last Friday, for example, the secretary to one of the ambassadors stationed in Budapest called to inform us that the ambassador wanted to visit the places, which happened, and just today (Monday) they called to say that the ambassador would like to contribute EUR 1000 (USD 1100) towards the goal of the project.  I suggested they use this money to install a portable toilet or two at the Debrecen train station.  The decision to operate without finances was the biggest step on our part, just as organizing without an organization worked out.  We operate with ordered chaos, and we we feel that we are starting to have an impact.

MN:  What effect does the government’s hate campaign have on the willingness of thousands of volunteers to help?

ZsZs:  The fact that they support us is a kind of quiet protest.  People are ashamed of themselves, and they do not like the negative campaign one bit.  I don’t know whether they are aware of it, but those who help feel a little better.  There are those who press a HUF 10,000 forint (USD 36) transportation pass in my hand and move on without my even noticing the color of their eyes, let alone learn their name.  They are the quiet heroes.

MN: Is this why you share the personal experience of volunteers?

ZsZs:  We share them because this is what is happening day by day.  It is not deliberate.  But at the same time it is starting to work as a positive campaign.   As I see it, a faceless crowd is turning into people.  This is important because we can only handle them in a cold and insensitive manner if they remain faceless.  Once they have a face, we cannot push them away.  It would be good of our detractors could put aside their preconceptions for just half an hour and help a refugee—if they were to pay attention and allow themselves to be drawn in.  Then they could certainly judge the situation objectively for themselves.  This is like when you have to placate a child.  There’s no reason to fear, son, because there’s nobody under the bed.   In this case we are saying, do not fear, dear person, for they are also people.

MN:  Is there story a that particularly affected you?

ZsZs:  When, for example, we put people on the bus to be taken to the Saint László hospital to be examined, I promised them that they could shower there.  In the end, they were not able to.  That was traumatic for me and for sure I will try to compensate for this.  I once saw a photograph of a Syrian family in one of the newspapers, and then a few days later I ran into them at Nyugati station.  The mother sat on the bench looking very thin and frail. I sat next to her and we started communicating.  Through gestures she explained that they had been traveling for 30 days, that they come from Syria, and that she is very tired.  I embraced her and she turned to me and gave me a kiss.  That was a very nice thing.  Out of nothing. There was this Syrian woman and me, she with two children, me with three.  You are tired, I am also tired. Without words we understood one another.

MN: What possibility is there to follow these families?  What is possible know about them after they get on the train?

ZsZs:  Everyone has their own family, new friends, ten minute friendships form that last a lifetime, because for some reason we were important to one another.  We met at a point in life that was definitive for them, but for me as well.  We do not perform any kind of follow up.  Those with whom we formed a closer relationship let us know that they arrived to the camp, but that’s all.   However, we are in connection with the refugee camps.  We know from the donation center which camp needs what—clothes, diapers, strollers—which we deliver to them. We do not distribute them at the stations.  There is neither room nor space for that.  At the beginning we tried to, but there was a lot of chaos, as though we had opened a large second-hand clothing store.  Of course, there are clothes that have been set aside.  We can provide shoes to those who need them, but that is only a treatment of the symptoms.

MN:  Do the volunteers burn out?

ZsZs:  There are always people who are on the edge of burning out.  For this reason we try to continuously speak about it.  Volunteerism is essentially based on self-exploitation.  There is nothing wrong with that so long as people know who is exploiting what and to what extent.  On the other hand, if somebody does not really know himself, then he can easily lose his balance, and then everything begins to collapse.   They are out there, they do their thing, then they become hysterical, and later the others notice that this is not about work but about something completely else.  In general it leads to conflict, there is an explosion, then we pick up the roof tiles and continue on.  The point is that we accomplish as much of our common goal as possible.

MN:  Do other problematic situations occur?

ZsZs:  People who would exploit the refugee show up from time to time, but basically our cooperation with the police is good, and in the long run they don’t usually bother us because the police shut them down.  There are sometimes small atrocities, but in general they accept that we are out in the streets.  They see that we play a large role in ensuring that the unorganized system works relatively smoothly.

MN:  Are you in contact with the Immigration Authority?

ZsZs:  No, but at least we are not in conflict with them.  Of course, it would be important and we would like for them to cooperate as well, because we very much need information about how many people are moving where.  Not only do we not know this, but the people in Szeged don’t know it either. We contacted them but so far the cooperation has yet to come about.

MN:  And what is the situation with (state train company) MÁV?  Several days ago in Cegléd they prevented civil volunteers from performing their work.

ZsZs:  Here we are dealing in part with the human factor.  There are those who, no matter what uniform they wear, cannot cooperate with civil society.  Or don’t want to.  Or for whom the stated goals are not acceptable.  And then there is the bureaucracy factor.  MÁV is a very large organization and it couldn’t gear up fast enough.  The situation probably took them by surprise and they were unprepared.

MN:  The fact that they lock the cars delivering refugees is not a question of being unprepared.

ZsZs:  MÁV’s attitude is very strange, as we know, but with them it is a standard practice to lock the doors of cars taking classes on an excursion.  They are doing exactly what we are struggling against. They are handling these people as a faceless crowd, so we couldn’t find a way to work together.  And of course the situation means additional work for them.  But it is still unacceptable that they do not allow them to enter the train station.  There is little space at Nyugati station.  They sit on the sidewalk or in the Eiffel park.   At Keleti station they wait in the underpass, because that belongs to the city.  Budapest reflects Hungary on a small scale.  Budapest is a transit city.  There is no objective here, as there isn’t in Hungary.  It merely serves a transit function.  And if we organize things well we could even speed up the rate with which they pass through the country.

MN:  How?

ZsZs: There is need for a transit waiting area where there would be a toilet, showers, disinfecting bathroom, and a place to lie down at night for those who are waiting for trains.  In this way you could prevent them from wandering about the city where they are prayed on by human traffickers.  This is a big problem.  For example, one taxi driver defrauded a family of EUR 2000 and then dropped them off in Budapest telling them that he had taken them to Vienna.  One evening a Syrian acquaintance of mine found a family at the tram stop in the Kosztolányi square.  They said that a taxi driver had brought them there for EUR 200 and telling them that from there they could catch the train to Vienna, and would he tell them when the train is leaving.  This is terrible, because by the time the families reach the Hungarian border, they have spent as much as EUR 5,000 or 7,000, sometimes per head, and they are easily fleeced of EUR 2,000 or EUR 3,000.  They are really down to the clothes on their backs, and they are happy if they still have their telephones, because often they is also taken from them, as well as their documents.  One volunteer met an Afghan male who had a permit to work in England for many years, but after he went home to Afghanistan to visit his family.  On the way back they took his English documents from him at the airport and demanded EUR 1500.  In the end, even though he paid, the border guard did not return his passport.  After that he walked all the way to Hungary, and is waiting in a camp for his workplace to validate his story.

MN:  Do the Syrians and Afghans who have lived in Hungary for a long time help?

ZsZs:  Initially a lot of them turned out, but I sense that it is traumatic for them to confront these new refugees.  There was a young man who was the product of a mixed marriage who currently lives in Egypt.  He came to Hungary on vacation for two weeks, and every night showed up to Keleti station to interpret.  Rather, those turn out who have already put down roots here, because they are shocked by what they hear about their homeland.  It would also be shocking for Hungarians to receive people from a Hungary destroyed by war, carrying news, for example, that Nyugati station had been destroyed.

MN:  Interpreting is very important given that the refugees are given a document in Hungarian at the border by the authorities along with a map of the country that is difficult to understand as it contains no distinguishable landmarks (rivers, cities). Apart from this, what information do they have about where they are and what the situation is here?

ZsZs:  Not much, but that doesn’t interest them.  They are moving on.  We are merely a transit country for them—one of many across which they must travel. A station.  What image do they have of the railway station in Lepsény on the Balaton train?  None. Of those who arrive, a small number want to remain here.  If we look at the statistics issued recently by the Helsinki Committee, so far this year 95,000 applied for refugee status, but not more than 10,000 remain in the country at any given time.  In other words, 85,000 people have disappeared.  5-6,000 of them are in refugee camps. Even if each camp accepts 1500 refugees, that is only 9,000 people.  Ten times more people came, and they are not here.

MN:  Have more people been coming since the Hungarian government announced that it was building a fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border?

ZsZs:   When we first started our work 600 people were coming a day.  This is now 1500.  But the fence has nothing to do with this, but rather the weather.  Those are arriving here now left in May, when the weather was already good.  I do not know if someone based their decision on news of the fence, but that this will not hold them back is for certain.  If they have to they will come through concrete walls.  Or simply go around them.

MN:  In connection with civil organizations helping migrants, claims are also made that, you see, the Hungarian people cannot help.

ZsZs:  But they are helping!  The moment we receive a donation, it goes to the homeless shelter, or if anyone comes to us and says they are thirsty, we don’t turn them away.  Among our volunteers are veterinarians, members of the Social Package-sending Movement, social workers.  There is a defiant streak in every socially sensitive person that prevents us from succumbing to hate.

MN: Is it possible for this organization to operate in the long run in the same spontaneous form?

ZsZs:  I don’t know. We’ll see.  So far nobody thought that this would work.  The entire Migration Aid is a large departure from reality.  We have plans, but basically we just want to survive the month.  A transit waiting area would be good, and a warehouse, and a client processing area where we could deal with the asylum seekers.  It would be good to solve the handling, packaging, and delivery to the camps of donations.

MN:  Are you utilizing any political power or assistance to achieve this?  In this regard, the Hungarian Socialist Party offered to collect donations in the party headquarters.  Your organization rejected the offer, saying that if they want to help, they should support the state taking over the activity.

ZsZs:  A political party cannot aspire to use civil means. Politicians use political means. Irrespective of this, they can participate in a civil movement, but not as a political party, because the goals are not the same. Theirs is ideological. Ours is is to solve a societal problem. The new law on refugees, Serbia as a safe third country, integration—these are all political questions beyond us.  I only raise issues that come up over the course of my work. These people are dirty. They have diarrhea. They are locked into train cars. They are not treated by doctors. Solving these problems is my responsibility. The rest belongs to politics.