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An advocate for refugees trying to find their footing in Hungary

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When Babak Arzani fled Iran and reached Hungary in 2010, he found himself in a foreign land where he didn't speak the language. He helped found a group that supports the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.

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    Babak Arzani fled Iran after its disputed 2009 presidential election. After he reached Hungary, it wasn’t easy.
    David Karas
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Babak Arzani was one of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who participated in what became known as the Green Movement, taking to the streets of Tehran, Iran, to protest the official announcement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the nation’s 2009 presidential election.

But what began as a movement centered on civil disobedience and peaceful protest turned violent. As regime forces moved in, members of the movement were beaten, arrested, or killed. Many, including Mr. Arzani, fled their native Iran – their hopes crushed and their lives in shambles.

“You are basically leaving everything behind, and you are escaping,” he says. “You are thinking that the world is ending.”

Although Arzani successfully made it to Hungary in 2010, his path forward was anything but clear. He had fled alone and was in a foreign land where he didn’t speak the language.

“You don’t know what is happening,” he says. “You try to get your information from English-speaking sources or [in a] language you understand, [but] knowing and understanding how things work is more difficult.”

The problems he encountered in his own experience as a refugee – along with the challenges surrounding the present influx of refugees to Europe – have fueled his passion for the work of Migszol, the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary.

Formed in late 2012, Migszol is an informal, independent group made up of immigrants, refugees, and Hungarians who serve as advocates for the political and social rights of refugees and asylum-seekers in Hungary. It stands as one of the only English-speaking civil society groups in the country.

“There was no other grass-roots movement that was in solidarity with migrants,” says Arzani, a founding member of the organization who is now in his late 20s. “The only NGOs that existed were commissioned by government,” and services did not align with needs, he says.

Migszol’s initiatives change as the needs of migrants shift – encompassing everything from organizing free Hungarian language classes to monitoring regulations related to refugees and asylum-seekers.

Some of its advocacy work has consisted of visits to refugee camps and transit zones to document experiences and collect testimonies, and it has negotiated between migrants and various officials. The group has also organized and engaged in events, including protests, to call attention to its cause.

Currently, Migszol has some 25 to 30 active members, all volunteers. The group originated when refugees who were about to become homeless wanted to organize a protest in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest. Arzani and other activists pitched in to put the protest together.

“It started basically as sort of a social movement, to draw some attention to some of the problems that refugees have,” he says. “We have been reshaping and reflecting to what we felt was needed.”

Hungary and the waves of refugees in Europe

Hungary has been part of the European debate about how to respond to the unprecedented waves of refugees escaping conflict, persecution, and poverty in recent months and years. United Nations data suggest that 1 million people fled to Europe last year, with about half that number being Syrians who left the war in their country.

According to the International Organization for Migration, Hungary has traditionally been “a transit, source, and destination country of both regular and irregular migration,” owing to its geographic location and membership in the European Union.

The Hungarian response to the waves of migrants has included the declaration of a state of emergency, border closures, and the cutting of aid to asylum-seekers.

The Hungarian government has held that such actions are essential to protecting the country, its borders, and the overall security of the EU.

According to a statement from the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister reflecting the government’s position, Hungary continues to provide financial support for migrants. The statement also asserts that the nation is adhering to all EU regulations.

The Hungarian government has expressed its displeasure with asylum-seekers who don’t follow the rules. “The vast majority of migrants seeking to enter the transit zones have either already submitted an asylum request in Greece or another European country en route, or they could have done so,” the statement reads. “In those countries they would have received appropriate accommodation and care, but instead of waiting for decisions on their cases they decided to travel onward.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been critical of Hungary’s approach.

“Hungary’s official response to Europe’s refugee crisis lacks compassion and understanding for victims of war,” says Babar Baloch, UNHCR’s regional spokesman for Central Europe, in an interview via email. “Since July 2015, refugees – fleeing war and persecution – have found a shrinking protection space in the country, instead of receiving the guaranteed welcome under international and European laws.”

Mr. Baloch praised the round-the-clock efforts of nongovernmental actors and grass-roots organizations in Hungary to support newcomers “despite a harsh official campaign against refugees.”

A focus on ‘elective integration’

One of Migszol’s active members is Anja Wodicka, a native of Vienna. She came to Hungary last September to work on her master’s degree with a research focus on the general tendencies of nationalism – a topic that figures into some criticisms of European responses to the refugees.

Ms. Wodicka, who is in her mid-20s, assists with a Migszol project that identifies pertinent laws, news, and other official information – and then translates and summarizes those details for the group’s website and blog.

Wodicka, as well as Arzani, refrains from using “integration” in the usual way, saying it implies that newcomers should essentially mirror the people who already live there, rather than maintaining their individual and cultural identities. Instead, Wodicka refers to Migszol’s focus on “elective integration” as the group supports newcomers.

“Integration for us is helping people to overcome problems,” she says, citing homelessness and language barriers as among the chief challenges.

Prem Kumar Rajaram, an associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Central European University in Budapest, comments on the effect that Migszol has had in Hungary.

“Migszol has been important in thinking about new political possibilities and in questioning the government’s insistence on excluding migrants and refugees from everyday life,” Dr. Rajaram says in an email. “Along with other groups, they have continued to struggle against the Hungarian government’s attempt to make migrants invisible in the public sphere, drawing attention to the injustice and even illegality of some of the government’s actions.”

Arzani and Wodicka spoke to the Monitor at a cafe in the center of Budapest – and no more than three subway stops from the city’s Keleti train station. Troubling images of a makeshift refugee camp in the train station made international headlines last September, amid tense standoffs between migrants and Hungarian police.

Arzani says that anti-migrant “propaganda” continues to run rampant. “If you listen to radio and television in Hungary, most of the time everything is about [saying] migrants are terrorists,” he says.

Nevertheless, Arzani remains optimistic about what Migszol can do to help – even if it is person by person.

“We do believe in doing something for the community, and we can start small,” he says. “[Even if] we cannot change world politics, we can still influence the daily lives of some.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three organizations aiding refugees and other groups of people:

Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration is dedicated to protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Take action: Help feed a needy LGBT refugee in Turkey for a week.

Nepal Orphans Home attends to the welfare of children in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Take action: Help give the essentials to a child at Papa’s House for a year.

Bolivians Without disAbilities provides services to organizations that work to improve the lives of Bolivians with disabilities. Take action: Supply a prosthetic foot.

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