Tom Eblen

Lexington immigrant returns to Hungary to help shunned Syrian refugees

Activists of the Hungarian Red Cross give water to migrants who arrived by train from Tovarnik, Croatia at the railway station in Zakany, Hungary, on Sept. 22.
Activists of the Hungarian Red Cross give water to migrants who arrived by train from Tovarnik, Croatia at the railway station in Zakany, Hungary, on Sept. 22. AP

Lujza Hayes Nehrebeczky immigrated here from Hungary 14 years ago, but remained proud of her native country. Until September.

That was when Hungary’s nationalist government began actively persecuting Syrian refugees, most of whom were only passing through on trains from Greece to resettle in Germany.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, under pressure from corruption scandals and a rising neo-Nazi movement, had been speaking for months about the need “to keep Europe Christian.” As September began, rhetoric turned to ugly action.

Hungarian police cut off service to migrants at Budapest’s Keleti train station, a major stop for refugees heading north to Germany, which has taken in more Syrians than any other European nation.

Thousands of refugees fleeing ISIS in Syria were jammed into train cars without food, water or sanitary supplies. Hungary’s government had done nothing to help them all summer, and international aid organizations had their hands full elsewhere.

Nehrebeczky was horrified by news reports of Hungary’s callous behavior amid this humanitarian crisis. Then she noticed a Facebook group where average Hungarians were organizing to help the refugees. She knew what she had to do.

“A number of my friends were volunteering,” she said. “I honestly felt like it was my duty to go and help.”

But Nehrebeczky, 37, a translator and tutor in English as a second language, lacked the money for a plane ticket. Also, she said, “I thought if I could bring money to help, that could be a lot more useful than just being another pair of hands.”

So she created a page on Sept. 8 headlined, “Help me serve refugees in Hungary!” Within days, Nehrebeczky was on a plane with more than $2,000 in donations, which she gave toward the immediate relief effort and a program to teach refugees job skills once they are resettled.

While some of her 65 online donors were friends, including fellow worshipers at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, much of the money came from Unitarians across the country. “I was really astounded with the response,” she said.

On the day Nehrebeczky arrived in Hungary, Parliament passed laws banning Syrian refugees from the country and making it a crime for Hungarians to transport or shelter them. The impromptu refugee camp at the Keleti train station in Budapest was shut down. Razor-wire fences went up along the Serbian border.

“The refugees did not want to stay in Hungary,” she said. “All they wanted was passage to Germany. The Hungarian government made it extremely difficult for them to do so.”

It was an insane amount of people, mostly families and a lot of children. A veteran aid worker told me she had never seen this many elderly in a situation before.

Lujza Hayes Nehrebeczky

Nehrebeczky helped buy bulk food and supplies and repackage them to be handed or tossed to refugees through rail car windows as trains stopped at a station at Zakany, along the Croatian border, where aid efforts had been redirected.

“You could tell it was miserable in those rail cars; you could smell human waste,” she said. “It was an insane amount of people, mostly families and a lot of children. A veteran aid worker told me she had never seen this many elderly in a situation before.”

Heavily armed Hungarian police and soldiers didn’t try to stop relief workers, but they made it difficult for them. They also harassed them by demanding to see their passports and then sending their information into headquarters.

“This was borrowed straight from the playbook of the old Communist police,” she said. “It was clear intimidation by the government. But there was international media there, and seeing the media helped keep them in check.”

The grassroots relief effort helped restore Nehrebeczky’s pride in Hungary.

"It was really amazing that out of a tiny group of people this became a nationwide movement,” she said. “And it’s still going on.”

Nehrebeczky, who had done a lot of Christian mission work before immigrating to the United States, returned from her four weeks as a refugee aid worker in Hungary determined to bear witness.

While Kentucky has been welcoming to her, she has been appalled by some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric she has heard since she arrived here two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

“There’s so much intentional misinformation, so much propaganda that is, frankly, sometimes reminiscent of communism” in Hungary, she said. “I was 11 when the regime changed and I still can remember some of it.”

The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees from around the world since Sept. 11, 2001, but only three have been arrested for terrorism-related activities. Two of those were not planning an attack in this country, and the plans of the third “were barely credible,” according to the Migrant Policy Institute in Washington.

Still, after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the U.S. House of Representatives and more than half the nation’s governors have gone on record against the proposed resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, despite a rigorous two-year vetting process. As many people have pointed out, it would be much easier for terrorists to enter this country on tourist or student visas than as refugees.

Reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis has been fraught with irony, both in the United States and Hungary. More than 200,000 Hungarians fled communist rule after World War II and during the 1956 Soviet crackdown. Many were welcomed into the United States, including some of Nehrebeczky’s cousins, who resettled in Chicago.

Nehrebeczky said she now plans to get involved in refugee resettlement efforts in Lexington, which has taken in victims of violence and oppression from places such as Iraq, the Congo and even Syria.

“One of the best things about America is its willingness to welcome the stranger and to help,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here. Diversity is one of the best things about this country, the things that we learn from each other.”