We met early – 6.30am at the garage warehouse where all the donations – collected and sorted – were stored. Within 45mins we had packed the three cars as fully as possible and set off. The drive was about two hours. Tomi (Horn), the founder of Charity Taxi, explained that the idea for this work first emerged for refugees during the crisis a few years earlier and when the flood of refugees was stemmed, the possibility of working with the Roma became obvious.
As we arrived in the village of Sajókaza a number of families were already waiting and very quickly many more joined in as the black bags of clothes, toys and some tins and packets of food were unloaded from the three cars. Our group was welcomed by Tibor, a Buddhist schoolmaster, who received us and had helped organise the Market (as it was called), and has run the village schools for 12 years.
My overwhelming impression was the energy of need…a frantic consuming desire to sort through whatever was available. If it could be put to use in any way, it should be acquired (people were charged 30 local florints and the total collected was then donated back to the community).
The market was held outside the unused village primary school for the Roma, as there were no funds available to pay teachers. Currently, discussions were taking place with a government minister about some funding for the re-use of the building. Tibor was optimistic, Tomi seemed rather less so. The political shift in power between the local mayor and central government complicated issues since the mayor was very much under the sway of the local population and supportive (and so not at all sympathetic to the Roma) while this particular Minister did have power.
During our visit there were children of varying ages everywhere. Tibor’s approach amazed me – he was delighted when the children took books (which they would not be able to read) and the plates of biscuits would have been entirely emptied as they found they were allowed to grab handfuls.
And then they were gone, like the whirlwind. There was little or no real engagement, just a clothes and food distribution centre, but as we saw later the conditions in which some of the Roma were living, it became obvious how valuable such a service was. The knowledge, trust, relationships of all sorts could be built only over time. This was the first visit to this settlement in close to three years and since the market trips took place only once per month, it could be years before the next.
Our visits to houses families and the settlement.
We later walked up into the Roma village. When we arrived in the area of ‘the settlement’ there were perhaps 20 or 25 houses in rows, all in the most desperate state of degradation – brick or even concrete buildings, somewhat reminiscent of refugee camps. Some of the walls had fallen and great gaps were visible. The buildings were clearly postwar, from the communist era presumably.
We divided into two groups. Ours of about six visited with a father of seven (from the ages of 22 down to seven) whose wife had recently died. The older children worked in construction in Budapest and he was able to live in an extremely poor state on the money they provided. The impression standing in his one main room was unforgettable. It was almost empty: two old television sets and presumably the settee was a bed. Though he spoke to us for a little while and answered a few questions, it seemed that he would’ve been willing or even happy to have spent longer with us, I think we were with him no more than 10 or 15 minutes. It was far too short.
As we walked through the so-called settlement what seemed most evident was how much repair the homes needed and how much might have been possible for people to have done helping one another, if any leadership and a small amount of funds were available. Of course they are not.
By contrast we visited with another large Roma family at the other end of the well-kept or even prosperous village. There seemed to be at least five children, one of whom had just had a baby. It seemed that she had been hoping to go to college but the birth of the baby would change her immediate future. The house was extraordinary – neat and tidy in the extreme. The children seemed genuinely happy, the flowers on the table fresh, everything was in its place and though there was extreme poverty there was also a sense of abundance. The family have just gained permission to cultivate the land around and there was excitement in the description of how they were about to begin to work the land and would be able to have fresh vegetables.
Incidental knowledge – the school in Miskolc
Tibor talked about the school, Dr Ambedkar School, that he had set up in Miskolc. Where increasingly the government was interested only in education as training for jobs, Tibor wanted his students to have a much broader curriculum. This would open opportunities for his young graduates to enter a far wider ride a range of jobs and to have a sense also what was going on in the world.
Though the school was a Buddhist foundation (and may even receive some funding from India) there was no insistence on meditation or Buddhist practices.
One of the small books (“Telihold”) included some fascinating analogies between the Dalit (Untouchables) in India (one of whom, Dr Ambedkar, had been Tibor’s inspiration) and the Roma.
As one paragraph reads, “[The Western Buddhist Order’s] members are youngsters brought up in Gipsy ghettoes and slum areas of Hungary, who study at secondary and Higher level and who educate, agitate and organise following the advice of Dr Ambedkar.” The booklet finishes with lengthy quotations from Pope Paul VI (1965) Nostra Aetate; Martin Luther King and Malcom X.
For Tibor, the potential of ‘changing religion’ was important. He seemed to feel this could offer something to Roma people, not as a sudden revelation of truth or light but as a studied learning and choice of practice.
Back in Budapest, we held our final meeting with Mia. We were all – as Mia and Tomi knew we would be – entirely overcome by the power of the day. It is, both the Sunday itself and the whole trip, an experience that will live with me.