Today a friend and I started our day by heading to Nyugati Pályaudvár, (or Western Railway Station) in Budapest to get a first-hand look at the “transit zone” that was established there for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
“Transit Zones” have been set up in several of the large railway stations in Budapest to receive those who are arriving from outside Hungary’s borders and are “in transit” to another European destination. People wait at the transit zone until they receive the official papers and gather the funds necessary to buy the train tickets to continue on their way, usually to Western Europe. A civil service organization called Migration Aid, made up entirely of volunteers, provides food, shoes and clothing, clean water, medical attention, mobile toilet and bathing facilities, charging locations for mobile phones, and basic information to the men, women, and children staying in the Transit Zone.
We got off the metro, and before heading above ground, made our way to a supermarket below street level to pick up a few food supplies to bring to the Migration Aid collection center, for distribution throughout the day. We purchased the items we selected from the list of needs Migration Aid posted this morning on facebook, and after paying for several pounds of cheese and about 50 granola bars, made our way above ground to locate the Transit Zone.
Exiting the metro escalator, we had encountered one of the iconic landmarks of Budapest. Nyugati Pályaudvar, built by Gustave Eiffel and Company in 1877, is one of the architectural gems of the city. Bounded on one side by the upscale West End Shopping Center and Hilton Hotel, and on the other side by the elegant and modern Eiffel Tower office building, Nyugati is on the “must see” list of most visitors to Budapest.
My friend and I wondered where, in this picture-postcard setting, we would find the Transit Zone. We wandered past pedestrians on the street, passing by well-dressed shoppers making their way to the boutique shops, by travelers leaving the train station, and by business people exiting the nearby coffeeshop, until the sight of makeshift tents, shelters, and clotheslines in the distance caught our eyes. The dichotomy was striking. It was the collision of two different words.
Having been at Nyugati countless times in the six years I’ve lived in Budapest, I’ve never once imagined that I would see and experience what I did today in the Transit Zone. In what could best be described as nothing more than a desolate railway wayside area, hundreds of people are living, sleeping in tents and under tarps, on mattresses (if they are so fortunate) made of a single sheet of PVC flooring foam underlayment, using portable toilets, drinking water from a hydrant, and bathing in mobile showers using soap distributed by Migration Aid volunteers in paper cups. Police officers stand nearby, providing an ominous presence intended to encourage peaceful behavior. The police presence is no surprise – recent riots in other transit zones in Budapest give evidence to the need for a peace-keeping presence.
Those living in the Transit Zone, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, are doing their best to endure the nearly 100° heat while waiting for the next distribution of food — hoping that there will be enough food that they will be able to eat today. A few young men are playing ball, several children are drawing and coloring with supplies provided by Migration Aid, but mostly, people are doing absolutely nothing. They are waiting, enduring, merely existing.
With more than a small degree of embarrassment, we carried our measly bag of cheese and granola bars to a volunteer who accepted it with a wide smile and overflowing gratitude. This is perhaps the same volunteer, who several hours later, may have to share the sad news to the gathered crowd that there isn’t enough food for everyone to eat today. If only we had brought more than one bag.
After dropping off our groceries, we fell in with a group of young men who were standing in a circle and playing volleyball. My friend asked if we could join in, and the guys gladly expanded the circle and gestured to us exactly where they wanted us to stand. The honor they showed to us, by making sure we were served the ball more than anyone else, was just one of the deeply moving moments of the morning. Who were we, that we should be shown such honor?
Our game of volleyball was broken up by a group of policemen who accompanied a small crew of street sweepers. They told us we needed to clear the area so that it could be cleaned. My friend and I noted that the “street cleaning” took less than 30 seconds, and seemed to be more than anything else an intentional display of power, leaving no doubt that the local authorities were ultimately in control of the Transit Zone.
After the volleyball game broke up, my friend and I began to talk with one of the young men who spoke English. 16-year old Mohammed told us that he and his family left Afghanistan when their home was destroyed by a suicide bomber. Although they weren’t certain what motivated the bomber, it was the last straw for the family and they made the decision to leave their homeland. They hope to reach Germany, where some of their family members immigrated some 20 years ago.
Arriving in on the European continent in Greece (we forgot to ask how they got from Afghanistan to Greece), Mohammed and his family traveled by train through Macedonia and by taxi through Serbia. When they reached the Hungarian border, they encountered the recently constructed razor wire fence.
Mohammed was wounded by that razor wire in more than one way. He showed us the injuries on his hands which he acquired while climbing over the fence, but those wounds are healing, thanks in no small part to the first aid provided by the Migration Aid volunteers. But his heart was wounded in a way that hasn’t healed yet, because it was at the Hungary/Serbian border that Mohammed was separated from his father, mother, and siblings. He hopes that they will be reunited in Budapest, and he told us that every time a train arrives from the migrant camp in Debrecen (where the rest of his family is located), he stands on the platform, hoping for a happy reunion.
The promise of food distribution brought our conversation with Mohammed to an end, so my friend and I continued on our way, trying to process all that we were experiencing. Eventually our wanderings took us into the train arrivals hall, where we noticed that a train from Debrecen had just entered the station.
As passengers disembarked the train and the platform filled, we saw Mohammed standing at the end of the platform, anxiously looking for his parents and siblings. Moments later, just Mohammed, my friend, and I were left on the platform. Yet again Mohammed’s parents didn’t arrive.
I put my arm around the courageous 16-year old and told him I was sorry that his parents weren’t on that train. He bravely said that it wasn’t a problem, and that he had hope they would be on the train scheduled to arrive several hours later. He showed us on his hand, alongside the freshly healing wounds from the razor-wire fence, the phone number he had written in fading ball-point pen. It’s a number he can call and perhaps talk with his father. Whenever he has access to a telephone.
The immigration issue in Hungary and across Europe is complex. This wave of refugees has enormous implications for a country like Hungary, already riddled with problems of its own.
We’re concerned about the response of the state. We’re concerned about the response of the people. We’re concerned about the response of the church. We’re concerned about our own response, too.
But we can’t deny that the situation exists. That Mohammed and thousands of others are on our doorsteps. And that as followers of Jesus, we must do something. If you are here with us in Budapest, please pray about what God would have to be your part, and do it! If you are reading this from some other corner of the world, pray that the church in this city would rise up and meet these challenges with with Christ-honoring, compassionate obedience.
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ Matthew 25:31-40 (NLT)
posted by Mark Revell