What I learned from volunteering with refugees

AFS Study Abroad Specialist Hillary Weinberger shares her experience on her adventures with AFS students in Hungary.

I’ve always said that the most important part about traveling is food. I travel to the Netherlands to eat french fries, to Mexico to eat fish tacos, to Taiwan to eat fried squid. I’ve traveled to Canada at least once in every year of my life so far with the exception of 1999. I really only go for the poutine. I go to Panama to eat pineapple and to Israel to eat humus and to Hungary to eat langos.

In the end of June 2016, I traveled to Hungary for the second time: this time, to lead a group of four American AFSers who were going to learn about the European refugee crisis of the summer of 2015, explore refugee policies in Hungary, and visit a refugee camp to facilitate a creative writing workshop for the children who live there. I was going as the creative writing workshop expert. I knew little to nothing about the details of the refugee crisis, and had no idea what to expect, but boy was I looking forward to my langos.

Arriving and getting settled

Home base was Budapest. We got off the bus in front of our Hotel in the city center, and we got right to work. Over the first three days we spent our time mentally preparing ourselves to be inside a refugee camp. My four students were amazing. All of them were incredibly enthusiastic and far more informed than I regarding current events and even the history of refugees in Hungary and the politics surrounding the issue. They asked all the right questions. I observed.

Brazilian instruments.

We went to the Keleti train station, the eastern train station in Budapest, where we saw an exhibit set up by the UNHCR of photographs of refugees who were moving through Hungary last summer. The train station had been a base for refugees during the height of the crisis. Tents were set up in the train station hallways. Men, women, and children were packed into the station, volunteers ran around delivering clean clothes and food. By the time we were there, the station was empty, save for all the regular commuters bustling about. We only had the photos to help us imagine what it had been like only a handful of months earlier. This was the first step in the trip where the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” resonated with us. In those moments, none of us had words.

We also met with the Hungarian Red Cross and an NGO called the Menedek shelter, two organizations that work directly with the refugees moving through Hungary. Through these groups we learned a lot of the back story. We learned about the facts, how the different European countries, Schengen and non-Schengen zone affiliated, EU members and non-EU members, have been handling the refugee crises.

Their goal was to prepare us for what we would experience at the Bicske refugee camp, an open camp just 40 minutes Northwest of Budapest. An open camp is one where the refugees can come in and out during the day, whether it be for a trip to the supermarket, the bank, or to seek legal counsel. The camp was also specifically for families. Bicske camp is used as a temporary shelter for both refugees and asylum seekers who are waiting for the paperwork that will allow them to settle in Europe. The camp has a capacity to hold about 250 people. It is run by the government, but mostly maintained by volunteers.

Visiting an “open camp”

The morning that we arrived in Bicske, everyone was surprised. My students had been expecting a tent camp, but what we found was a tree lined campus with real concrete houses and recreational buildings. There was an internet cafe, a social hall filled with ping pong tables and a basketball court. There was a playground with swings and see-saws and a zip line.

Then we learned that there were over 700 people living in the camp, about 120 of whom were children. The government prohibits the camp from expanding, so they get around this by setting up portable pop up houses in the back of the camp. These just look like boxes with windows, with 4-6 bunk beds set up inside each.

Brazilian instruments.

Volunteers go to Bicske everyday. We met four girls who alternated each day coming in twos to run informal “school” for the children. We met another girl who came every Thursday to do art with the kids. Other volunteers would come every other day to teach German, Hungarian, and English language classes to the adults. The people living at the camp were used to volunteers. All the programming was optional; no adult or child was required to attend any of it.

Setting up our workshop

When we showed up, the regular volunteers encouraged the kids to come hang out with us. Once we had a small group gathered, the kids would take our hands and pull us around the camp searching for friends who they could bring along to attend our workshop as well.

It became apparent almost right away that the absence of a common language was going to make creative writing very difficult, so thinking quickly on our feet we resolved to do an art project with the kids instead. After all, art is still storytelling.

The majority of refugees at Bicske were from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. We didn’t have much interaction with the adults, but the children were so sweet and loving, and quick to trust us. It was beautiful to watch them working so intently on their artwork, and they loved the attention we gave to them. A few kids were able to understand us enough to explain to us what their drawings were about, both with broken English and a lot of gesticulating. With others, I was sure they couldn’t understand a single word we were saying to them, but they would smile and nod and answer “yes” to everything anyway.

Brazilian instruments.

Throughout the three days of the workshop we collected the artwork from the kids. Most of the kids drew pictures of their houses. There were pictures of everyday joys like ice cream cones and tennis rackets. One loud little rambunctious boy kept stealing pens from the other artists. He traced out a Batman symbol for himself, and I helped him stick it to the front of his shirt, and then he was happy and left the other kids alone. Some kids drew pictures of their future plans to be watermelon farmers. Some drew pictures of policemen searching with flashlights in the mountains for fleeing locals. Some drew pictures of themselves and their families on boats headed for Hungary. Some drew pictures of their future houses in Germany. Everyone had a story, however complex.

Brazilian instruments.

Brazilian instruments.

Brazilian instruments.

At the end of the three days we left all of our art supplies at the camp for the children to continue to enjoy. They gave us hugs and we waved goodbye. The walk home was quiet and contemplative.

Continuing to create impact

Our project doesn’t end at the camp. The plan is to compile a book of art that we hope to send back to Biscke to help inspire future refugee children passing through. The AFSers all have great plans to go home and teach their friends and peers about their experiences and share their stories. Some are planning to send boxes of donated clothing and toys to the camp. If we can pass on the knowledge we have gained, and inspire others to do the same, perhaps we can make a difference.

I’m not going to assume we were able to make a long lasting impact in the lives of the refugee children we met. But for three days we made them happy. These kids were special. They were special because the world, the media, their circumstances, made them special. But they were really just like all other kids. In the moments we spent with them they were carefree. They were happy and they were smarter than you ever think kids are. Every day they woke up and they put on their shoes and they came out to play. Their challenges are different from those of many kids we know, but their dreams are the same.

My students had to go to Hungary to learn that. I had to go to Hungary to learn that. We weren’t going to get that experience at home. Traveling is for learning. It’s for expanding our minds, for teaching, and for sharing. Turns out, traveling isn’t only just about eating food.

But let’s not disregard the fact that I did get to eat my langos.

Brazilian instruments.

Click here to learn more about the program Hillary went on. Or, visit our Study Abroad homepage to explore our additional short-term and year-long programs.