A Former Hungarian Leader Hosts Migrants, Despite Government Crackdown

September 16, 2015

Ferenc Gyurcsany is busy chopping onions and carrots to throw into a pot of boiling lentils. It’s not your typical Hungarian breakfast, but he wants his house guests to feel at home.

Gyurcsany served as prime minister of Hungary from 2004 to 2009. Today, he leads the opposition in Parliament. He says that his house, in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of Budapest, is big enough to share. And for the last few weeks, he and his wife, Klara Dobrev, have been doing just that — welcoming migrants into their home to spend what he calls “one normal night.”

While the Hungarian government has been hostile toward the thousands of migrants trying to cross the country, citizens like Gyurcany have come forth to help them.

The contrast couldn’t be starker than between the country’s current prime minister, Viktor Orban — who wants to treat migrants as criminals — and Gyurcsany.

“It grabs a couple of hours from our life, but what’s that compared to the fate of these people?” says Gyurcsany. “It’s nothing.”

He says helping in this way has given him an incomparable emotional lift — more than anything he’s done in several years.

The 54-year-old center-left politician says the conservative government’s handling of the migrant crisis is abysmal. But he says it’s mostly about internal Hungarian politics, as the government’s ruling party tries to attract voters from the far right.

“There is a very ugly rivalry between the Hungarian center-right and extremist right,” says Gyurcsany. “It’s a very dirty political business.”

Gyurscany and Dobrev, who have five children, moved their six-month-old baby into their own bedroom to offer more space for migrant families. They’re working with a charity group that helps identify particularly exhausted migrants to host.

On this morning, a family from Syria and two young Syrian men traveling alone are just waking up.

Dobrev serves them coffee on a back porch that looks onto a lush lawn. Thirty-eight-year-old Almoen, who fears giving his last name, fled Syria with his wife and three children. He says the journey was harrowing, and the family was exhausted and filthy after being in three different Hungarian camps.

As he sits and drinks his coffee, Almoen looks around in disbelief. “Everything was so bad. And here everybody is good. So nice. People smile. It’s so different here. I am happy,” he says.

One of Almoen’s little boys plays with the cat and dog. Dobrev believes the most important thing she and her husband do is simply to treat people like human beings.

“Sometimes I have the feeling that it’s not only the food or the possibility to use the bathroom or wash their hair,” says Dobrev. “But it’s the gesture itself, because these people have received so few human gestures in the past few months.”

The sounds of Hungarian, Arabic and English float across the table as the group sits down to a hearty breakfast. The lentils are a big hit. And Gyurcsany pushes his guests to try Hungarian pastries.

The couple asks me to turn off my microphone as they discuss where to take this Syrian family when they leave their house. There are no good options. The Syrians want to press on to Germany, but don’t know if they’ll be able to make it to the Austrian border — or even be able to cross it, if they do.

Hungary is cracking down on migrants and those who assist them by making entering the country illegally a criminal offense. Gyurcsany says his own family held a meeting to discuss whether they would continue bringing migrants into their home in the worsening climate.

Their decision was unanimous.

“There is a rule of life, and there is a rule of the government of Hungary. And if these two rules are conflicting,” he says, “we have to choose the rule of life.”

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