Notes from the Underground: Facing the Refugee Crisis in Hungary
Notes from the Underground: Facing the Refugee Crisis in Hungary

Notes from the Underground: Facing the Refugee Crisis in Hungary

How do we know the capacity of our social architecture unless it's tested?

September 17 th 2015

Keleti: A Station of Refuge

Located in Budapest’s Eighth District, Keleti Station serves as a major public transportation hub in Pest, Budapest’s eastern side. Above ground, the grand nineteenth-century train station looms over the surrounding cityscape. Just outside its entrance a number of east- and westbound bus lines converge. This is just the start. Beneath the street, the sprawling metro station houses the terminal stops for lines 2 and 4. Between the vastness of the underground station and the multiple levels connected by towering escalators, Keleti serves as a constant reminder of the engineering and architectural feats required for subterranean urban transportation.

Yet while its grandeur and complexity speak to the resourcefulness of Budapest’s infrastructural planners, it has also, of late, unexpectedly come to house thousands of refugees fleeing the turmoil unfolding in the northeastern portion of the Middle East. For those seeking Western Europe’s relatively stable economy and peaceful nations, Keleti Station is the first respite within the European Union for those traveling to Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom. While Keleti is undoubtedly a springboard for advancing further westward, it also affords those who have made the long and arduous journey through Turkey and the Balkans a place to sleep in safety, to acquire a fresh set of clothes, or to possibly reunite with the loved ones from whom they have been separated.

Though I had been informed about the state of Keleti Station before going there, I nonetheless made my way through the station wide-eyed and gawking. Prior to the September 5 mass exodus of refugees to Austria via Hungarian buses, Keleti had reached its peak density of refugees. But though I was informed of the large number of people there, nothing prepared me for experiencing the full reality. Along the walls of the roofed sections of the station are hundreds of refugees; some alone, others in families, most lying on blankets, jackets, and various types of foam in a vain attempt to find comfort on Keleti’s unforgiving tile floor. Brows glisten with sweat in the hot summer temperatures. Empty water bottles litter the ground throughout the station. Toward Keleti’s center, a water-dispensing apparatus with multiple spouts connects to a large hose that snakes outside of the station, providing travelers with a place to drink, a means of limited bodily sanitation, a rudimentary washing machine. The handrails lining the stairs that descend into the station are draped with drying clothes.

At any given time, various news vans can be found parked above in the shadow of Keleti Station. Below ground, camera crews relay the scene that’s unfolding across the globe. The influx of refugees also attracts moonlighting photographers and would-be documentarians who roam the station hoping to capture this sociopolitical phenomenon. Some of these amateurs pause in their documentation to contribute to the humanitarian efforts, others skirt the action.

Though children involved in global crises typically garner the most empathy, they are often the ones who least exhibit the effects of tragedy. Toddlers and young children living in Keleti mirthfully bumble about, seemingly unsupervised.

Older children and adults play soccer or a game somewhat like volleyball in which a circle of people attempt to keep a ball in the air with their hands. This game in particular has a curious way of bringing refugees, volunteers, and residents together. Sooner or later, one of the players recognizes the interest in the people congregating around the game and promptly invites them to join with a kind face or welcoming gesture. In this way, the circle grows to include as many as twenty people at a time. Iraqis, Syrians, Afghanis, Americans, and Hungarians all join in.

Hope in the Kindness of Strangers

Although the Hungarian administration has acted rather coldly in the face of the refugee crisis, from what I’ve observed, many of the citizens treat the refugees hospitably. In addition to the flood of food and clothing donations, many Hungarians arrive at the station to volunteer with the various aid organizations stationed there. Others contribute to the effort by playing music, bringing decks of cards, or finding other forms of entertainment for the refugees stranded there.

Of course, the kindness of these Hungarians is tempered by the awful reality that others exploit the vulnerability of those who would do almost anything to secure a better life. Recently in Austria fifty migrants were found dead in the back of an abandoned lorry on the side of a motorway. Wary of this, many Hungarians walk about offering advice and warning those about to travel further west. On one occasion I saw a woman moving from group to group with a sign warning refugees about whom to trust.

Many Hungarians are well aware of the Hungarian government’s complicity in the hostility and fear fostered toward the refugees. One of my professors, after hearing that a friend and I had volunteered at Keleti Station, told us that she hoped the international community would understand that the citizens of Hungary don’t act in full accordance with its government. She seemed to want to convey that she, along with her fellow citizens, had a capacity for benevolence. We assured her we held none of the convictions about her and her fellow countrymen and women she feared we might. We had already begun to see the power that individuals and communities still possess to mobilize and bring order when the larger apparatus of the state fails.

Yet had we not witnessed the flood of aid pouring into Keleti Station, our assurances would perhaps have not been so forthright. As I stated earlier, the Hungarian government, and Viktor Orban’s party in particular, continues to staunchly oppose the influx of Middle Eastern migrants, a stance he justifies by stating the danger it poses to Europeans not wanting to become a minority within their own continent. Yet on the ground, the citizens of Hungary exhibit a far less exclusionary agenda.

Stress Testing Social Architecture

The influx of refugees poses long-term, systemic challenges not only for Hungary but also for Europe. And there are legitimate questions about whether the social architecture of European societies can bear the weight of this over time. We’re a long way from knowing the answer to that.

But the more immediate emergency situation also raises questions about the “stress testing” of social architecture. When examining the volunteer response at the station in terms of urban makeup, it turns out that Budapest is equipped with the proper urban software to complement the hardware already in use to house these migrants. By “hardware,” I’m referring to the physical structures and architecture of a city: its residential and commercial buildings, its streets and transportation networks, its parks and public lands. In this particular case, Keleti Station—its multiple levels, immense square footage, and shelter from the elements—has proved to be the most useful urban construction in Budapest for containing the thousands of refugees traveling west through Hungary.

But like any computer worth its salt, a city needs proper hardware and software in order to function effectively and to flourish. In regard to a city, its “software” consists of its people, social organizations, and the programs that exist within the city’s “hardware.” In light of the recent refugee crisis, the benevolence and hospitality displayed by its aid organizations and civilians indicate that Budapest is equipped with the necessary software to care for those exiled from their homes, at least temporarily—which isn’t nothing. Of course, we don’t often know our capabilities until they’re tested, yet when faced with the immense task of looking after the large influx of refugees, the Hungarians proved themselves highly capable. With local churches and grassroots programs such as Migration Aid working within the station, Hungary’s capital exhibited that it has both the architectural and spatial capacity to handle the crisis as well as the social initiative to supplement its physical structures.

Thus Budapest has become an intriguing and, quite frankly, encouraging urban phenomenon. While other cities across the globe undoubtedly have the physical capacity to house the flood of refugees coming from the Middle East just as effectively as Keleti Station, Budapest has exhibited a social capacity that is far more difficult to quantify. This difference between the quantifiable and unquantifiable stems from the simple fact that the heart and conscience of a city is not as readily apparent and observable as the size of its structural features or the availability of weather-resistant public spaces. The human propensity for social justice is a much more fleeting calculation, if indeed it can even be calculated. Through the advancement of science and technology, the weight-bearing capability or corrosion rate of a building’s frame can be obtained through various experiments and calculations, but the reaction of a city to such a large-scale crisis isn’t so neatly measured—there are no tools for measuring the experience of mass displacement occurring in our time.

Such realizations may cause anxiety about the social architecture of one’s own city. When looking to Budapest we may ask ourselves: would our city conduct itself as effectively and compassionately, or would we buckle under such a grave and enormous task? Do we have the capacity to handle a crisis of such massive proportions? And while much can be done with simulations and questionnaires about hypothetical solutions, the questions remain largely unanswerable until the crisis comes knocking at our door.

Until then we must instead ask: What measures do our cities have in place to handle the types of social injustices we see occurring worldwide and locally? Are we developing the physical and social infrastructure in ways that will enable us to effectively respond to unexpected strain on the system? I’m not claiming that North America is at risk of facing a refugee crisis on the order of the one currently underway in Europe. Rather, the case of Budapest demonstrates the unpredictability of any dire social crisis, such as a natural disaster or even the immigration and refugee situations facing us in North America. When these come, will we have built our cities and nurtured our personal relationships in such a way that we’d trust our social architecture to remain standing?

Coleson Smith
Coleson Smith

Coleson Smith currently lives in Toronto where, among other things, he studies literature.  Possessing a distinct fondness for life on the road and a network of hospitable friends, he can often be found in one of several cities in the northern midwest looking to understand more about a region that for too long he had so mistakenly written off.  


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