Refugees, expats and fear of those in need

Nearly fifty years after my father fled Hungary to make his way west, I moved from the west to Hungary.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Peter Tkac


My father left the country to save his life and to look for a place where he could live in peace. I came to the country to live with a woman I’d met in New York and to relish the excitement of a newly post-communist world. My father was called a refugee, and I was called an expat. The difference in quality of life for people with these two labels is huge.

When the Second World War ended, my father was in medical school in Budapest and belonged to a pro-democracy student organization that was too political for the occupying Soviet government. After members of his student group started to disappear, my father knew he should leave before the authorities came for him. He stuffed his pockets with what money he could and some silverware and jewellery that his mother had stashed away. He paid a people smuggler, who pointed him in the direction of the border and then abandoned him. My father made it out of the country and joined the hoards of post-war refugees, roaming Europe without a passport, steady work or a home, until his sister was able to help get him into America. Though he never finished medical school, my father did get a graduate degree in computer science and had a successful career, a wife and seven children. He was ambitious and hard working, and made a real contribution to American society.

I have ambition and drive, though not as much as my father. When I arrived in Hungary, I met people who seemed able work hard without letting work take over their lives. Unlike New York City, where you might speak to your best friend on the phone once a month, Hungarians take the time to relax and socialize. I have made some wonderful friends and I enjoy a good life in Hungary. I earn much less than I used to earn in the States, but it feels like my quality of life is much higher in my current home.

Generally very welcoming, Hungarians are especially nice to Americans and other westerners, and I’m grateful for that. Those coming from the east traditionally have it harder. When I arrived in the country in 1991, authorities and some citizens showed open animosity toward people from Romania, Ukraine and China – economies that were considered worse off than Hungary’s. I was called an expat, because I could return to my homeland without much hardship. But people from the east were economic refugees, seeking to escape poorer conditions. They were in need, and that made Hungarians suspicious.

Last year, when the violence in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere spurred a historical wave of refugees to pass through Hungary, this suspicion was on display again. Hungarians were afraid of the sudden crush of outsiders in need. The ruling Fidesz party, which had been losing ground in the polls to the far-right, xenophobic Jobbik party, pounced on the issue. They built border fences and beefed up patrols, so that the asylum seekers travelling across Europe could not enter Hungary, even though the refugees obviously only wanted to cross this country quickly and continue on to Germany. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his cabinet made Islamophobic statements and whipped up fear of outsiders – and watched their popularity rise.

Given that waves of Hungarian refugees found homes around the world after World War II and again after the 1956 revolution, it seems wrong that this country should be so unsympathetic to the plight of today’s migrants. But Hungarians are hardly alone in taking a short-sighted approach to the issue. Back in my old homeland, Donald Trump is leading the charge among those who feel fear of outsiders, even though the United States was predominantly built and populated by foreign arrivals.

In fact, whether they come from Mexico, Syria or any other country, the immigrants who make the effort to come to America are the ones who are ambitious and eager to work. Anyone who is willing to cross a desert or an ocean – or to walk from Afghanistan to Europe – for a better opportunity is going to be a hard worker.

My father helped develop pioneering systems for electronic banking in the United States, provided jobs and opportunities for many Americans, paid his share of taxes – and became one of the most patriotic Americans I know. His children are contributing to American society through their work in environmental conservation, civil rights law, journalism and the performing arts. America gave him a home and American society benefitted.

I have tried to contribute to my new home, working as a journalist and covering issues that I believe are important to Hungarians. But I had nothing to prove and nothing to fear: If I failed or did not like my new living situation, I could catch the next plane back to America.

The people who leave behind true hardship, whether it is economic or political, and seek to improve their lives by becoming migrants, are the ones who care about their new home, who build the workforce and strengthen their communities. People in need should be welcomed, not feared. Given a choice, I’d take a refugee over an expat every time.

Tom Popper

Tom Popper

is the editor in chief of the Budapest Business Journal (bbj.hu).