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In Hungary, Ukraine's Roma Find Refuge From War But Not From Poverty

Rozina, a Rom from Ukraine's Transcarpathia region, practices her writing with Agnes Pletser from the Taleta NGO.
Rozina, a Rom from Ukraine's Transcarpathia region, practices her writing with Agnes Pletser from the Taleta NGO.

BUDAPEST -- Rozina sits at a table, practicing writing her name in a school in the Hungarian capital's eighth district. She has freckles on her face, a bright smile, and she struggles with the letter "k" when writing her family name, Farkas. Her mother is at the other end of the table, doing embroidery.

Rozina is 38 years old and is one of the few thousand Romany Hungarian refugees from Ukraine, who, after Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, fled to Hungary.

The class is run by Taleta, an NGO that two Hungarians, Szilvia Moldovan and Agnes Pletser, set up just after the start of the war, aiming to help educate young Romany refugees from Ukraine's western region of Transcarpathia, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, millions of citizens fled for countries in the European Union, including thousands of the country's Roma, where, under the EU-wide Temporary Protection Directive, they were offered an expedited stay and residence and work permits for them and their families.

The Roma from Transcarpathia, however, were not treated the same. Despite Ukraine's ban on dual citizenship, many Roma from the region also hold Hungarian passports and identity documents and were thus ineligible for the EU's Temporary Protection, meaning that many of them ended up housed in mass shelters. One year later, however, thanks in part to Hungarian NGOs, many Roma from Transcarpathia are rebuilding their lives and making Hungary their new home.

Many of the adults that Taleta works with are partially or completely illiterate. "We try to keep the adults at a level so that their children have a chance," said Pletser, an education coordinator and manager. "These adults will have a slightly easier life than back at home."

"And their kids will have a chance to go to a good school," said Moldovan, who trains teachers at a university level, finishing her colleague's sentence.

At the school run by the Taleta NGO in Budapest, Anita (left) shows something on her phone to Rozina (right).
At the school run by the Taleta NGO in Budapest, Anita (left) shows something on her phone to Rozina (right).

Bordering Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Romania, throughout its history the Transcarpathia region has always been at the mercy of occupations, annexations, and diplomatic deals. In the first half of the 20th century, it was -- in quick succession -- part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, the Hungarian Republic, and then the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the U.S.S.R., it has belonged to Ukraine.

According to a 2021 census, there are up to 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia and tens of thousands of Roma. As the poorest, most disadvantaged group, the exact number of Hungarian Roma is unknown, but experts put it at around 30,000-40,000.

According to Hungary's biggest Romany organization, Romaversitas, the majority of Transcarpathia's Roma speak Hungarian as their main language, rather than Romany, Ukrainian, or Russian. Many live in poverty, in segregated, fenced-off villages, and around one-third live without running water, heating, and electricity.

Jobs for Roma in Transcarpathia are scarce. According to estimates by Ukrainian NGOs, only 38 percent of the Romany population was employed and, due to the lack of local opportunities, many of the region's men had already worked in Hungary before the war.

That didn't, however, prepare them or their families for the conditions many encountered in Hungary. "The refugees arrived to a very ruined system," Lilla Eredics, the spokeswoman for Romaversitas, said. "And the Transcarpathian Roma are in an extremely vulnerable situation."

While the Transcarpathian Roma were not entitled to the EU's Temporary Protection, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, notes that they were still eligible for some state benefits. Due to lacking information, however, many Roma were not aware of this. They also faced difficulties relating to accommodation, often facing discrimination and hate crimes.

"We don't know how many Romany refugees there are in Hungary, but probably thousands," Eredics said. And, according to her, most are still living in large, shared accommodation, which is not a sustainable solution in the long term. Most of these institutions are run by nongovernmental organizations, local governments, or religious groups, Eredics adds, which makes the experience of the refugees very varied, often depending on the resources and goodwill of the locals.

In one of the worst ones, in Csermajor, a village near Hungary's western border with Austria, dozens of refugees live in conditions described as catastrophic by Eredics. Housed in a long-abandoned school without heating, even in sub-zero temperatures in the winter, the refugees shared dirty communal bathrooms and toilets, often lacking warm water and electricity.

Despite the often-horrific conditions, some communities have rallied to help the Romany refugees, enabling them to leave the mass lodgings. A group of Roma from Transcarpathia secured temporary housing in a three-story building owned by the Budapest municipality in Fonyod, a resort town on the southern shore of Lake Balaton, some 90 kilometers from the capital. Properties around the lake are the second-most expensive in Hungary, with the average prices only higher in the capital.

The building in Fonyod was previously used as accommodation for Romany children visiting from Budapest, says Mario Kiss, a social worker. He currently lives there, alongside 13 Romany families, 56 people in total, all from Transcarpathia and packed into the three floors.

On weekdays, while the children go to school, the adults go to work, often working construction or cleaning jobs, or helping locals with household and garden chores. "Fonyod is a very welcoming settlement. I did not encounter any discrimination here," sais Kiss, who is himself Romany. At the weekends, the women and the elderly sit and relax, some of them smoking, while the children play in the spacious, if a little overgrown, garden.

"A million thanks to Hungary for accepting us, we are so grateful," said Margit, an elderly woman who lives here with her husband. Her granddaughter, who she raised, married a Hungarian man and lives nearby. "[In Ukraine], we hardly made a living," she said. "But we came here often to work. That was the only way to survive."

In Fonyod, two young refugees from Transcarpathia look out on the street from the library section of the house where they are living.
In Fonyod, two young refugees from Transcarpathia look out on the street from the library section of the house where they are living.

The opposite shore of Lake Balaton from Fonyod is hillier, a destination for trendy tourists from Budapest, attracted by the picturesque villages, boutique hotels, and delicatessens selling local, artisan dishes and expensive imported goods.

One Ukrainian Romany family has found a home in one of these small villages, Vorosto, not far from the lake shore. Ivan Nyerges has striking blue eyes and a tattoo of a bird on his neck. He is partially Romany and came to Hungary from Feketepatak, a village in Transcarpathia. He speaks Hungarian with a slight accent and some of his words are influenced by Ukrainian, but he has a habit of often correcting himself. He was only 17 when the war started and he left Ukraine with his grandmother, his partner, and her three children.

They ended up in Vorosto with the help of a man from Budapest, who volunteered to house a family in his holiday home for a few months. After this, residents of the village helped Nyerges and his family to renovate and rent a house next door. "It was difficult to fit in at first, [because] we didn't know anyone in Hungary. When we crossed the border, we didn't even know where to go, what would happen to us," he said.

They were first housed in a mass shelter, before being moved to Budapest, where they stayed in the homes of wealthier Romany families. It was there where they met their patron, who arranged their move to Vorosto.

"We didn't want to stay in the shared accommodation. If we hadn't found something, I think we would have gone back [to Ukraine]," Nyerges said. He found work in a factory not far from Vorosto as a translator for newly employed Ukrainian refugees. His partner, Kati, a Ukrainian Romany woman, takes on cleaning jobs.

"I don't want to go home. It will take a lot of time for all of this to be sorted out, so that everything can be as it was before," Nyerges said. They are looking to get citizenship, with the help of Nyerges's Hungarian grandmother, who raised him and fled the country with them over a year ago. "[Were we] lucky? I think so. I'm religious, so I like to say that God was with us," he said.

Not everyone is so welcoming. A shopkeeper near the local train station in Fonyod, where the refugees live in the three-story building, says how she always sees refugees walking around, spending their allowance -- the equivalent of $66 per month per adult -- on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes.

Just a few meters from her shop, a Romany family from a nearby village is enjoying some leftover pastries from a local cafe. They ask if they can have something to drink -- also for free. "You give them your pinky, and they want your elbow," the cafe owner remarked, using a common Hungarian saying.

Such prejudices against Roma are common in Hungary. According to research conducted in 2019 by the European Union, 90 percent said that in Hungary, discrimination based on ethnicity is widespread.

Not counting refugees, there are 876,000 Romany people in Hungary, making up almost 9 percent of the population, the largest minority according to a 2018 study. Living in the region since the 15th century, the Roma mostly reside in rural areas, especially in the poorer northeast and southwest. A high proportion of them are uneducated and unemployed, many living in poverty.

Pupils attend the preschool run by the Taleta NGO in Budapest.
Pupils attend the preschool run by the Taleta NGO in Budapest.

Only an estimated 25 percent of Hungary's Roma graduate from high school, compared to 75 percent for the non-Romany population. They also face significant discrimination in the housing market, in the workplace, and in accessing health care.

Some political parties openly advocate racist policies. The far-right Our Homeland Movement, which is one of the most popular parties for people under 30, supports the segregation of education -- dividing Roma and ethnic Hungarians -- and the cessation of state funding for NGOs that support Roma.

While the refugees in Fonyod were chilling in their garden, Legio Hungaria, a radical far-right group, was hosting the notorious European Fight Club in Budapest, an international combat event linked to neo-Nazi groups.

After the influx of Romany refugees following the start of the 2022 war in Ukraine, "only a fraction of the Romany families was able to get an apartment on the rental market independently," Eredics from Romaversitas said. This, she says, is partially because of the rising cost of rent, as well as discrimination in the housing market. "The most pressing problem is that many refugees are still living in mass group shelters after a year. And this problem primarily affects the Transcarpathian Roma refugees."

At a Soviet-style apartment block on the outskirts of Budapest, Levente Resz, the manager of a group shelter confirms this. The lodgings are provided by the Budapest Methodological Center of Social Policy and Its Institutions (BMSZKI), one of the largest providers of social services in Hungary. They provide temporary shelters for rough sleepers, housing for families, and gynecological services for homeless women. Since the start of the war, they have also provided refugee shelters.

"From the beginning, we had a lot of Transcarpathian Roma arrive," Resz said. "Everyone else had possibilities to move on, but this group had nothing. For them the world extends only until Budapest."

Currently, BMSZKI is working with 81 refugees in Budapest. The smallest rooms house three to four people, and 11 live in the largest. Here, the Romany residents receive three meals a day, and thanks to a kitchen paid from donations, can also cook their own meals. The shelter also offers psychological counselling, sexual education, and even baby massages. While some children go to school, it is a challenge to make all of them attend, Resz says.

"If this goes well, it may not be easy for them to go back to a segregated area surrounded by a 2.5-meter wall with one wired water tap," Resz said, referring to some of the living conditions in Ukraine. "This is an extremely deprived group. They are not part of Ukrainian society. Neither are they part of the Hungarian minority."

The BMSZKI building housing Romany refugees on the outskirts of Budapest
The BMSZKI building housing Romany refugees on the outskirts of Budapest

"It seems that they have not been socially integrated for at least 100 years, since the Austro-Hungarian monarchy," he said. "They speak Hungarian, they claim to be Hungarian, they cry during the national anthem on New Year's Eve, but they learned this knowledge at least 100 years ago."

Resz thinks that most of the Roma in the shelter will want to move back to Ukraine after the war ends. They have relatives there, who they still support financially, and many are worried about their houses being looted by internally displaced people from other parts of Ukraine.

Back at the school in Budapest's eighth district, just one bus stop from the Gypsy Musicians Square, Taleta founders Moldovan and Pletser talk about their biggest successes: None of the children here want to be nail technicians anymore, they say, and they have helped many families rent apartments nearby.

"These are very talented children. If they are getting the same as my own children, then they will achieve the same thing. If they are not, then they won't," Moldovan said.

Apart from helping them with their educational needs and preparing them for the job market, Taleta also cares for their mental and physical wellbeing. Rozina, who was learning to write her name, previously suffered from panic attacks. Anita, a 25-year-old with two children and a husband, suffers from epilepsy, which was worsened by stress. "I didn't dare to go anywhere by myself," Anita said. "But first, I got to know the streets, then the bus stops, and now I'm going to places I don't know."

Moldovan and Pletser say they are doing their best but admit they are "hopeless" when it comes to securing funds. Taleta, along with other Hungarian NGOs doing similar work, receives financial contributions and free meals from the municipality of Budapest. Taleta also received a one-off payment from Budapest's mayor and the Innovation and Technology Ministry. But this is still a drop in the ocean in terms of their needs as an organization, and both Moldovan and Pletser, along with the other educators, give their time and services for free.

One of the young men volunteering here is Romany, one of 11 children, and the first in his family to graduate from high school. He is now the only Romany person in his university class in Budapest. Apart from volunteering with Taleta and attending classes, he has to work to support his family. "If we had money, we would pay him," Pletser said.

It is a familiar story: not enough resources and not enough capacity to help. At the moment, Taleta works with around 20 children and their families, but "it could be 100, " Pletser said. "The support that we can provide is still much more than what the Hungarian state could give them. We're basically performing a state function here."

"These kids need the best of everything," Pletser said. "The most colorful, the most beautiful -- not a house with crumbling walls."

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    Lili Rutai

    Lili Rutai is a freelance journalist based in London and Budapest. She has previously reported for Vice, The Calvert Journal, and about social issues, culture, and politics in Hungary. 

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