Jewish Responses to Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Photo courtesy JDC
Photo courtesy JDC

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Luca Gelleri had just returned from a fact-finding mission to the refugee camps of Hungary’s borderlands when we met.

“We wanted to check what is the reality now,” the 26-year-old who works for the children’s NGO Pest Megyei Gyermek told me about her visit to Opatovac in Croatia among other places. “It’s really hard to get realistic information because every organization is saying different things. You can only see the whole picture if you go and see it,” Gelleri said, adding that she and other members of her collective, which originally organized through Facebook, also brought donations to the refugees.

At summer’s zenith, Budapest was the center of Europe’s refugee crisis. Having traversed across continents, thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere found themselves bottlenecked at the city’s main railway stations. Their ambition was safe passage onto more open and hospitable countries such as Germany – the goldene medina in this particular episode of mass migration – and Sweden. But Hungarian government policy, or a lack thereof, meant that these refugees became stuck in Budapest without aid or shelter.

It was left to individuals to fill the space left by the absence of the state – including members of Budapest’s Jewish community. Perhaps because the official Alliance of the Jewish Communities of Hungary did not offer a formal response to the crisis, one point of organization became Aurora, the alternative Jewish community center that is also a hub of social activism in Budapest. Located a few minutes walk from Keleti railway station, Aurora used their space as temporary housing for refugees, among other things.

Budapest’s Jews also threw themselves into the wider effort. “I saw on Facebook that at Keleti station, there was a pregnant woman who needed clean clothes: a long shirt and a long skirt,” Gelleri told me. Since she happened to have this in her wardrobe, she thought she would donate them. In the end, she never found that woman “but I stayed, and I was there for eighteen hours. I just felt I had to stay, and after that, everything happened really quickly,” describing how she fell into the system of volunteering at the stations.

“It was in June that I was walking in downtown Budapest and I saw a large Muslim family in obviously bad condition, wandering around and trying to find out where they were,” András Léderer, 31 and employed in ethnic conflict resolution, told me. The father showed him a piece of paper, in Hungarian and without a map or directions, which said the family had to get themselves to a certain refugee camp within twenty-four hours. Directing them was his first encounter with the refugees and the practicalities of their ordeal.

Subsequently, Léderer found out from an online news portal about a group organizing efforts to help the refugees at the train stations and joined them through Facebook. “There was no established organization, or registered charity for that matter,” he explained. “It was a bunch of Facebook groups and people who didn’t know each other beforehand but got to know each other doing this work.” They bought sandwiches and apples for the refugees, bottles of water, tickets for public transport, and became better acquainted with the official documentation the refugees had to grapple with.

Over time, their efforts grew – with people volunteering for half an hour here, an hour there – but Léderer formed part of a reliable core who were there regularly at the stations throughout the summer. He described becoming addicted to the work of helping the refugees, sometimes working sixteen to eighteen hour shifts, acquiring knowledge and learning how to deal with legal matters like the rights of unaccompanied minors and registration for babies born of refugee mothers. Léderer would go so far as to shelter refugees in his own home.

“When two Syrians stayed at mine, it turned out that one of them was Christian and one was Muslim. I didn’t have time to clean my kitchen properly and I had a used mug on my kitchen table with Hebrew letters on it,” Léderer recounted. “They saw the mug and the Christian asked, ‘So, you’re Jewish?’ I said, ‘Yes I am’ and then the Muslim guy smiled and said, ‘Well, then, we are cousins,’” he said laughing.

“I’m not sure I had another option,” Gelleri told me when I asked why she chose to volunteer. “There are those who always try to help, and there are others who don’t really, and the biggest group is in the middle who aren’t usually involved but if there is a situation and can see what is going on, they would try to help. I am in the first group – I always try to help. I’m in love with volunteering and I believe it makes society better, but the important thing about this refugee crisis was that this group in the middle moved,” she concluded.

She compared the reaction of those who went to Keleti station and felt moved to help the refugees to the shock of visiting Auschwitz. It made the tragedy unavoidable and it compelled people to understand, to search for answers, and to find ways to help and alleviate human suffering. “I think it was shocking for many people because the people were right at our front doors,” she said. “We were in the middle of everything.”

Léderer looks at the legacy of the Holocaust in a different way. “When you see that the state purposefully abandons groups of people, especially extremely vulnerable people, then you have an obligation to do something about it.” Refugees, he said, are the most vulnerable “in the sense that normally there is a state behind us that nominally protects us. At the end of a day, a passport can guarantee us certain rights.

“That is not the case for these people – there is no-one to protect them. There is no-one they could turn to and that is a tragedy on its own even if you don’t think of the stories that they had to live through or the reasons why they left their countries. For a state that receives these people, to abandon these people is probably the most outrageous thing,” he concluded. “Precisely because of what I see as a consequence of the Holocaust, you cannot just pass by these people on the street.”

The refugee crisis has, for now, passed over Budapest. The ad-hoc responses of the Hungarian government – including the sealing of its southern borders by way of a razor-wire fence – now mean the flow of refugees has been stemmed and diverted. Refugees are on the one hand moving from Serbia into Croatia, to places like Opatovac, before onward passage to Slovenia. On the other hand, those who make it to Hungary still are to be found in camps or processing centers erected at the border itself.

Summer has now passed and autumn is upon Europe. The refugees, Gelleri told me, are in need of tents, warm clothes including winter jackets, and shoes to see them through the changing of the seasons. The shifting focus of the refugee crisis from the cities to the borders means that it is harder to find volunteers. On the one hand, the loss of immediacy also means the loss of compulsion to help. On the other, it is a task to find people who can take leave from work or study now that summer is over and normal life intrudes once more.

“It’s really difficult to find good volunteers who are willing to go to the countryside for days or weeks. And it’s a financial issue too, to find someplace to live down there. The people who are typically flexible are students but they are in school now,” Gelleri said. “I’m really curious to see what the future will be.”