My thoughts about the Hungary trip are still quite unformed but I’ll throw together a few observations and images into this final post…
The teachers in my group seemed impressed with many aspects of the three Budapest schools we visited during our trip – we were there to learn from and share good practice, not to criticise or dig out dirt. Like most Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary has a troubled past when it comes to integration of the Roma. There was of course the Holocaust, when huge numbers were rounded up and killed alongside Jews and other “undesirables”, and more recently there has been formal and informal (through white flight) segregation of many of its schools. There is also a huge and rising problem with right-wing extremism – with instances of uniformed paramilitaries attacking Roma homes in parts of the country.
Hearing Hungarians I met talk about what was happening in their country was a bit depressing. I sensed a real foreboding about what was going on – the country’s political system is inching towards the far right, and the economy seems to be doing very badly. Just like in the UK there is high and rising unemployment among both graduates and the lower-skilled. At all of the schools teachers talked of how their pupils’ families – Roma and poor Hungarian – are increasingly struggling to get by, with the predictable knock-on effects on school attendance and attainment. Several people said that in some of the poorer districts of Budapest the ethnic divisions are less of a problem because poverty now binds families from across the spectrum. However, that does not seem to be the case elsewhere. A sociology professor we met told us how gentrification and poverty is pushing the most hard-up families out of the traditional Roma neighbourhoods, with some moving into villages on the city’s fringes, leading to conflict with their new neighbours. Others are moving further away – he talked of hundreds of villages close to Hungary’s borders with Slovakia and Ukraine which are now 100 per cent Roma. None of these places have much employment so people are living on benefits, and social interaction with other communities is reduced. This doesn’t seem good for Hungarian society.
One day we caught a bus to a village an hour outside Budapest where one of our group had been last year to talk to Roma residents. We had a student interpreter with us but no official guide, and so had to find our way there. The reactions of people on the bus (driver and passengers) when she asked where we needed to get off to get to the Roma hamlet were striking – cue looks of shock, horror, and quips about whether we had taken out life insurance. When we got off the bus and stopped at the local shop to buy food and drink to take with us, things weren’t much better. This shop was a 10 minute walk from the Roma part of the village. It’s amazing and troubling how people can live so close to one another and yet so far apart…When we were leaving a few hours later to return home, a couple of policemen were hanging about at the start of the Roma neighbourhood. It may have been a coincidence but it left us feeling very uncomfortable. Were they watching us? Were they watching out for us? Would the Roma think we had brought them with us? Would our visit bring the Roma people trouble later on? In the context of the political climate in Hungary it left a bitter taste in the mouth.
In this village we stopped off at the home of the pastor. I can’t help but notice how strong the Evangelical Christian church is in many Roma and even English Gypsy communities. The pastor was quite open so we took the opportunity to ask how long ago they had converted and how it had come about. He told us how his family and some of the others from the village had converted 12 years ago, after a period of trouble during which they had been physically attacked by some local officials and not taken seriously when they complained to the police. They had been at quite a low ebb when a Hungarian Roma missionary turned up and asked if he could preach the Bible to them. After a time a group of them became born-again Christians and their lives began to change – they stopped drinking alcohol, some people who had been using drugs stopped doing so, etc. I am a sceptic admittedly, because I fear that missionaries often prey (pun intended) on people when they are at a vulnerable point in their lives, and I know many Gypsy people who are also skeptical about this movement. However, we also spoke to a Romanian Roma activist who travelled with us in Hungary about this, and his opinion of the effect on these churches seemed to be quite a positive one – that often religion is getting Roma people to read, that it often reduces alcohol use and other destructive behaviours etc. As an agnostic person it’s something I don’t really understand and probably never will.