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 before 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 them.
The reality is that I am a migrant too. I am an American living in Hungary. While I am here by choice and reside legally, the people we saw were trapped. They are not welcome here. That night a few trains were allowed to leave for Germany, but shortly the entire station would be closed to all migrants and international train service suspended as Hungary struggled to create a safe environment for all passengers. Days later they would start their march on foot toward Austria.
My kids didn’t have much to say while we were at the station. In the past weeks, however, we have often remembered the only family we know who had to flee empty-handed from war, but we don’t know their names either. It is the fictional family in Uri Shulevitz’s picture book “How I learned Geography,” published in 2008. I remind them that kids at the station are just like that little boy who had no toys and no food.
In Shulevitz’s tale, based on his own experience, the father spends their last coins not on bread, but on a map. The boy was furious and hungry. The next day the father hangs the colorful map, which covers a wall, and the boy learns to forget his hunger and travel freely to faraway safe lands as he stares at the map. The story ends when the boy forgives his father because he understands that it was right to choose the power of imagination over a few morsels of bread. If he had bought the bread, they would still be hungry. But now they had hope, on which they could survive.
The worst thing about the current situation in Hungary is that the government has no message of hope for the children at the station. They have not even offered bread.
The good news is that Hungarians have found the courage to respond to the refugees in an impressive act of volunteerism. Migration Aid asked for people to temporarily stop bringing donations because they ran out of storage room and capacity to organize and distribute the goods.
Was it gross of us to go to the station with our children merely to see? Was I conflicted as I reached to fix my lipstick in the metro before we arrived? Did I feel a strong sense of privilege as I left the station and took the metro home to my apartment facing a park? Yes. The only thing more uncomfortable would have been to go to school the next day, the kids gorgeous in their first-day clothes and new backpacks, having ignored the kids at the station.
My six-year-old son, entering the first grade the next day, came home from Keleti station and set about constructing a project with paper, scissors, tape, and colored pencils. When he showed me the result, I was impressed. It was a train he had drawn, cut out, and taped together using six sheets of paper. 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.