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Putting together the Hungarian puzzle

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CEU graduation ceremony, 2017. Courtesy of the author.

Since 2002 I have studied or worked in New Zealand, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Portugal, and Hungary. I have always thought that the culture and society of every country I lived in was a riddle to solve, like a puzzle I had to put together using the places I visited, the research I read, my conversations with locals and other foreigners.


I landed in Budapest in September 2015 to study a two-year master’s degree in public policy at the Central European University (CEU). I did not know Hungary before moving there, but I was drawn by a full scholarship. Over the course of one month, I left my job at an NGO in Buenos Aires, collected my degree certificate in Anthropology, moved to another continent, started a masters programme with students from over a hundred nationalities, and met my Hungarian boyfriend, who would become my husband five years later.


‘This does happen in Europe’: a different kind of cultural shock


Hungary’s social reality was like a thousand-piece puzzle that I could only assemble after many months of reading, talking to my classmates and professors at the CEU and to my colleagues, and taking into account different points of view. Putting together hundreds of pieces, I was able to build an explanation for the government’s attitude towards migrants who tried to pass through Hungary – in order to continue their journey to Northern and North-Western countries, where they would seek asylum – during and after the ‘long summer of migration’ of 2015. The hostility shown by the Hungarian state and many media outlets toward the columns of men, women and children from war-torn countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) hit me like a high-speed train. How could it be possible that a country from which hundreds of thousands had left in search of peace (especially during the two World Wars and the communist era) would now close its doors to other people fleeing war?


Over the months I learnt that this hostility towards migrants was the consequence of the political climate created by the government of Viktor Orbán, who had started his second term as Prime Minister in 2010. Sharing the same inclination to authoritarianism as Jair Bolsonaro, and the same ability to discriminate against migrants as Donald Trump, Orbán is, however, a well-educated politician, bold and intelligent, and equally unscrupulous.


In 2015, the government built a barbed-wire fence, four metres high and 523 kilometres long, along the Serbian and Croatian borders, to prevent migrants from entering, and opened two detention camps where it locked up asylum seekers (including families with children) in containers, up  until a few months ago. Every year since 2015, the Hungarian government orchestrates xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-EU media campaigns that feature conspiracy theories and fake news.


In 2017, the year I finished my masters in public policy, the Prime Minister’s graduation ‘gift’ for me was the slow eviction of my university from Hungary, by means of a new higher education law, as the CEU was considered the government’s ‘public enemy’ and one of the pockets of progressive thought in Hungary. In 2017 and 2018, Hungary passed laws to hinder the work of non-governmental organisations that helped migrants and refugees, or even criticised the government, also accusing them of being ‘public enemies’ – the government even published a blacklist. In 2018, the government shut down the gender studies programmes at the CEU and the state university ELTE. As a result of all these and many other policies, Hungary became the only EU country that does not qualify to be a democracy in 2020, according to Freedom House, and it is today a less tolerant place towards those who are different or dissent. This was the main reason why most of my friends from university, including the Hungarians, left Hungary after finishing our master’s degree.


Life in Budapest after university


After finishing my studies, I started to adapt to the new circumstances little by little. One thing that helped me was understanding that it was possible to have different, even contradictory thoughts and feelings about the country and about my life over the course of one day.


Just as I am able to chew gum and walk at the same time, during just one stroll I can wonder at the Danube and Budapest’s bridges as if I was seeing them for the first time; feel alone, like the little houses on the mountain that we see from a plane, missing my CEU friends and Buenos Aires so far away; feel like I am the luckiest woman for having met my husband; feel isolated because of the language barrier that leads me to misunderstandings with Hungarians; and appreciate that, thanks to Budapest’s architecture, a thousand-year-old history has become my daily reality. Furthermore, the memories I made during the two years I spent studying make me smile when I pass by the spots in the city that I visited with my CEU friends.


Ever since I arrived, the main difficulty to understand what was going on around me was the towering language barrier. I went through months when I tortured myself with intensive classes and months when I gave away all my books, up to a point when I settled for communicating through the same sentences that a four-year-old girl would use. When I talk to my Hungarian family and want to tell them that ‘the hostility against migrants is the result of the instrumentalisation of xenophobic narratives by Viktor Orbán’s government in his quest for legitimacy’, I have to narrow it down to simple words: ‘government: bad; Viktor Orbán: evil; migrants: sad’.


I also had to adapt to all those things I hated so much about winter: the temperatures below zero that transform the water falling down from the roofs into stalactites, the grey rainy days, the sunsets at 4 pm, and the lack of energy to do anything. I reconciled myself with the idea that there are four well-defined, transitory moments of the year, and that one of them allows us to dedicate ourselves to more analytic and reflexive activities.


Eventually, the CEU moved to Austria in 2019 to escape the government’s harassment. In October 2020, the EU Court of Justice ruled that the 2017 higher education law is contrary to EU law, but there is no turning back after a move of such magnitude and complexity. Besides, freedom of education deteriorated during and after the CEU’s relocation, as evidenced by the reorganisation of several higher education and research institutions in the country (the latest being the University of Theatre and Film Arts). 


On the one hand, since the 2017 higher education law only targeted the CEU, the other universities are still operating and receiving international students. In fact, national universities traditionally offer prestigious programmes that attract international students in various disciplines (such as life and health sciences). In addition, despite its xenophobic rhetoric, the government continues granting scholarships to students from the Global South. According to Dr Elżbieta Goździak, a professor of migration studies at Georgetown University, these scholarships advance further the government’s goal of controlling immigration, since they allow to ‘choose what type of person is allowed into the country and, crucially, how long they can stay’.


On the other hand, the relocation of the CEU is likely to have erased Hungary from the list of some international candidates. The CEU attracted students from over a hundred countries and of many origins, cultures, religions and social classes, who otherwise would not have chosen to study here. For many of us, what brought us to Hungary was the opportunity to access a cosmopolitan, high-quality education in English, in a wide range of subjects, and accompanied by scholarships and Budapest’s low cost of living in comparison to other European cities. What is even more important, the CEU was one of the very few entities opposing the government (together with other educational institutions and some national NGOs and international organisations), where there was in-depth research, discussion and resistance to the advances of a nationalist conservative right that is xenophobic and anti-rights. Its role will be very difficult to replace.

Mara Tissera Luna

Mara Tissera Luna (@maratisseraluna) is Argentinian and lives in Hungary since 2015. She studied at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and at the School of Public Policy, Central European University. She works in refugee-related projects in a Hungarian NGO dedicated to human rights.

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