Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Lesson in Courage at Keleti Station, Budapest

School starts in Budapest on September 1st. One of the most important lessons my kids will learn this year, however, happened the night before. My husband and I took my kids, ages 6 and 7, two metro stops down to see the refugees gathered at the Keleti Train Station. A few weeks ago we had given oranges to the Syrians we found gathered there as we boarded our train to visit Transylvania. We returned to the station this past Monday afternoon empty-handed. We had come to see with our own eyes and simply spend time walking among the refugees.

Did I second-guess our decision to take the kids to see the squalid conditions at the majestic 19th century station? Did I wonder about our safety in a frantic crowd of refugees traveling with only what they carry and desperate to find a safe haven in Europe? Frankly, no. When we passed through a few weeks prior, the refugees were a peaceful crowd. It was a sad campground set up in the modern corridor of the newly renovated metro station hallways.

We were in a hurry then as we had flown in from the States the day before and wanted to make the overnight train to visit grandma in Transylvania. I bought two shopping bags of oranges along with our snacks for the train and insisted we leave in time to drop the oranges at the Migration Aid station. Jet-lagged and cranky we lugged our bags through the metro and toward Keleti station. When we arrived, however, we didn’t see the volunteers (now they are fully organized) and instead I simply handed an orange to a family with small children. They smiled. I smiled. My kids, who had been reluctant about the idea, saw the exchange and reached for their own oranges to share.

It was my husband’s idea to leave the sanctuary of our neighborhood and return to the station the night before school started. I was more concerned with dinner time and a peaceful evening. Yet I agreed to go along. It seemed impossible to go about my calm, ordered, privileged routine while hearing the stories of their suffering at the station.

My kids didn’t have much to say while we walked through the crowds, stepping over discarded blankets and filthy toys. Weaving a path around piles of belongings, we made our way to the central crowd. Volunteers passed out food. Another group had brought blankets and art supplies and sat, their laps filled with warm, eager little people happy to play and color even though they didn’t share a common language. A musician had set up and soon a crowd gathered to sing, dance, and move their bodies in the release of dance.

We explained to the kids that these people were trapped at the station because the trains were not running to Germany. We said that they had left their homes and all their belongings behind because of war and poverty. They wanted to find a safe home and a chance at a better life. We didn’t say all of this at the station, however. This explanation had come out in pieces over the weeks as the refugee crisis grew. At the station we were mostly observant. It was a kind of reverence. We were in awe of these people who had risked their lives to escape war. Their futures were uncertain, and would be decided on the whim of which train might leave or which rumor they take as truth guiding them along their route.

These people, no matter your opinion about the correct political response to this worldwide migration event, define courage. This is what I wanted my children to see. Courage is not the larger-than-life, testosterone-charged American football hero. This is courage: the refugee family, clutching only what they can carry, in a foreign land. Courage is their powerful vulnerability, and their irresistible urge to seek a better life. This is deep down courage. This is what it means to be human. And our response to their plight also defines us.

I have no idea what my children understood or felt as they walked among the refugees. Some of our deepest emotions are ineffable. But when we returned from the Keleti station, my six-year-old son, entering the first grade the next day, set about constructing a project with paper, scissors, tape, and colored pencils. When he showed me the result, I was impressed. He had drawn, cut out, and taped together six sheets of paper to make a train. It was a long, beautiful train. He told me that he thought we should take it down to Keleti and give it to the kids there. He wanted to give the kids a train. Something deep down in him recognized the courage and dignity of those bedraggled kids. He wanted to give them what they deserve, a chance to grow up in a safe place.

In the following days, my son often suggested that we give some money or oranges to the destitute we see on the streets. Living in a modern urban city means my kids see the majestic beauty of Budapest's architecture and it's carefully cultivate parks as well as homeless people everyday. They recognize the local drunk who weaves down the sidewalk, wet with piss and talking rapidly to the sky.  We do often, but not always, give our spare change to those who ask. I have stopped and helped those in need of medical care. But I am left to wallow in the murky moral waters of modern urban life. We witnessed the courage and dignity of the refugees at Keleti station. How should I respond daily to the local people in need? And how do I explain to my kids the difference between the refugees and the destitute we see everyday? Is there a difference?

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