No man is an island: Syrian refugees in Budapest

No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,

any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

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Several contributors to this site were in Budapest last week at an international research conference. We were only three Metro stops away from the main railway station, but in terms of human experience it was worlds apart.

The majestic 19th Century facade of Keleti Station had become the backdrop to the mass exodus of 21st Century refugees from Syria. I emerged from the escalator into something between an urban campsite and a giant jumble sale, with several thousand people waiting anxiously to board trains.

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A situation like this is hard to imagine without witnessing it happening. These people in front of me had left everything behind except a rucksack or suitcase to embark on a journey into the unknown. They all wanted to reach Germany, which promised a welcome.

Hungary was just a gateway, a stage on their journey. The Hungarian government knew this, yet they had chosen to lash out to prove their right-wing nationalistic credentials. Although basically they simply wanted rid, they had sent many back southwards towards Serbia where they would have to start again. On another day, they stopped all trains headed towards Vienna, even though this meant decanting tourists into hovercraft along the Danube. Some of the refugees had been lucky, having made it to Budapest in two or three days; many had been on the road for ten days.

The politicians’ message was clear: refugees not welcome here. But equally clear, the solidarity and empathy of railway workers, around a hundred volunteers, van drivers bringing in large donations of food and clothing. Even the police were ‘off message’, to my surprise, following various media reports; they showed no sign of animosity but worked with the volunteers to ensure a safe movement onto trains. It was amazing how well the volunteers coped with providing for thousands of people a day in transit: somehow they had created a safe space, had organised a place to rest, supplies of food, replacement clothes and shoes, washing facilities, free phone and email access, and comfort for the most distraught individuals.

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I had identified with the slogan ‘Refugees are welcome here’, but here was something more immediate: the vulnerability of these people who could be my family, my children, my grandchildren. Then I asked these parents if I could take a photograph of their little boy for a teachers’ website in England. They agreed; as it turned out, they were also teachers, of Arabic and history.

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In our own country, popular concern has forced Cameron’s belligerent gang to make some concessions and admit a limited number of refugees from war-torn Syria. That will be only the start.

Many schools will have the challenge of welcoming and supporting traumatised children and families, often without much help from local authorities who have shed all their advisory staff.

Our challenge is also to speak out against those who will try to cause these people yet more misery – the overtly racist trouble-makers but also their ever-so-reasonable fellow travellers in the media. We can help turn the tide against a small island Britishness and towards solidarity and internationalism.

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