A Former Hungarian Leader Hosts Migrants, Despite Government Crackdown

A Former Hungarian Leader Hosts Migrants, Despite Government Crackdown

10:53am Sep 16, 2015
Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and wife Klara Dobrev (at top right) host breakfast for migrants at their home in Budapest.
Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and wife Klara Dobrev (at top right) host breakfast for migrants at their home in Budapest.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
  • Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and wife Klara Dobrev (at top right) host breakfast for migrants at their home in Budapest.

    Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and wife Klara Dobrev (at top right) host breakfast for migrants at their home in Budapest.

    Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

  • Ferenc Gyurcsany, seen here delivering a speech during a 2012 demonstration against a government plan to amend Hungary's electoral law, served as the country's prime minister from 2004 to 2009.

    Ferenc Gyurcsany, seen here delivering a speech during a 2012 demonstration against a government plan to amend Hungary's electoral law, served as the country's prime minister from 2004 to 2009.

    Ferenc Isza / AFP/Getty Images

Ferenc Gyurcsany is busy chopping onions and carrots to throw into a pot of boiling lentils. It's not your typical Hungarian breakfast, but he wants his house guests to feel at home.

Gyurcsany served as prime minister of Hungary from 2004 to 2009. Today, he leads the opposition in Parliament. He says that his house, in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of Budapest, is big enough to share. And for the past few weeks, he and his wife, Klara Dobrev, have been doing just that — welcoming migrants into their home to spend what he calls "one normal night."

While the Hungarian government has been hostile toward the thousands of migrants trying to cross the country, citizens like Gyurcsany have come forth to help them.

The contrast couldn't be starker than between the country's current prime minister, Viktor Orban — who wants to treat migrants as criminals — and Gyurcsany.

"It grabs a couple of hours from our life, but what's that compared to the fate of these people?" says Gyurcsany. "It's nothing."

He says helping in this way has given him an incomparable emotional lift — more than anything he's done in several years.

The 54-year-old center-left politician says the conservative government's handling of the migrant crisis is abysmal. But he says it's mostly about internal Hungarian politics, as the government's ruling party tries to attract voters from the far right.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, seen here delivering a speech during a 2012 demonstration against a government plan to amend Hungary's electoral law, served as the country's prime minister from 2004 to 2009.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, seen here delivering a speech during a 2012 demonstration against a government plan to amend Hungary's electoral law, served as the country's prime minister from 2004 to 2009.

Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

"There is a very ugly rivalry between the Hungarian center-right and extremist right," says Gyurcsany. "It's a very dirty political business."

Gyurcsany and Dobrev, who have five children, moved their 6-month-old baby into their own bedroom to offer more space for migrant families. They're working with a charity group that helps identify particularly exhausted migrants to host.

On this morning, a family from Syria and two young Syrian men traveling alone are just waking up.

Dobrev serves them coffee on a back porch that looks onto a lush lawn. Thirty-eight-year-old Almoen, who fears giving his last name, fled Syria with his wife and three children. He says the journey was harrowing, and the family was exhausted and filthy after being in three different Hungarian camps.

As he sits and drinks his coffee, Almoen looks around in disbelief. "Everything was so bad. And here everybody is good. So nice. People smile. It's so different here. I am happy," he says.

One of Almoen's little boys plays with the cat and dog. Dobrev believes the most important thing she and her husband do is simply to treat people like human beings.

"Sometimes I have the feeling that it's not only the food or the possibility to use the bathroom or wash their hair," says Dobrev. "But it's the gesture itself, because these people have received so few human gestures in the past few months."

The sounds of Hungarian, Arabic and English float across the table as the group sits down to a hearty breakfast. The lentils are a big hit. And Gyurcsany pushes his guests to try Hungarian pastries.

The couple asks me to turn off my microphone as they discuss where to take this Syrian family when they leave their house. There are no good options. The Syrians want to press on to Germany, but don't know if they'll be able to make it to the Austrian border — or even be able to cross it, if they do.

Hungary is cracking down on migrants and those who assist them, by making entering the country illegally a criminal offense. Gyurcsany says his own family held a meeting to discuss whether they would continue bringing migrants into their home in the worsening climate.

Their decision was unanimous.

"There is a rule of life, and there is a rule of the government of Hungary. And if these two rules are conflicting," he says, "we have to choose the rule of life."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as migrants have streamed across Hungary's border, the reaction of the Hungarian government has been overall hostile. The country's prime minister called the asylum-seekers illegal immigrants. Not all Hungarians share that attitude, including one previous prime minister, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley discovered when she paid him a visit.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Ferenc Gyurcsany is preparing breakfast in his kitchen. He's cutting carrots and boiling up lentils. That's not a typical Hungarian breakfast, but Gyurcsany is trying to make his houseguests feel at home.

FERENC GYURCSANY: And we put together with some kind of Arabic spices, yes? And finally we see what might be the outcome.

BEARDSLEY: Gyurcsany was prime minister of Hungary from 2004-9. Today, he leads the opposition in Parliament. He says his house, in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of Budapest, is big enough to share, so every night, Gyurcsany and his wife, Klara Dobrev, welcome a group of migrants to spend what he calls one normal night.

GYURCSANY: It grab a couple of hours from our life, but what's that comparing to the fate of these people? It's nothing. The emotion - what comes up - it's incomparable to anything I've done in the last couple of years.

BEARDSLEY: The 54-year-old center-left politician says the conservative government's handling of the migrant crisis is mostly about internal Hungarian politics.

GYURCSANY: There is a very ugly rivalry between the Hungarian center-right and extremist right, and it's a very dirty political business.

BEARDSLEY: Gyurcsany and Dobrev, who have five children, moved their 6-month-old baby into their own bedroom to offer more space for migrant families. On this morning, a family from Syria is just waking up.

KLARA DOBREV: OK. I'll bring milk. I'll bring sugar and...

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: Dobrev serves them coffee on the back porch that looks out onto a lush lawn. Almoen fled Syria with his wife and three children. He fears giving his last name because of family members left behind. He says the journey was harrowing and the family was exhausted and filthy after being in three different Hungarian camps.

ALMOEN: Everything bad there. Here, everybody good, nice. People smile. Different - everything different here (laughter). I'm happy. I'm happy.

BEARDSLEY: Dobrev believes the most important thing she and her husband do is simply treat people like human beings.

DOBREV: Sometimes I have the feeling that it's not only the food or the possibility to use the bathroom or wash their hair, but the gesture itself that - because those people receive so little human gestures in the past few months.

GYURCSANY: Not bad, not bad.

BEARDSLEY: The sounds of Hungarian, Arabic and English float across the table as the group sits down to a hearty breakfast. The lentils are a big hit. The couple asks me to turn off my microphone as they discuss where to take this Syrian family when they leave their house. There are no good options. The Syrians want to press on to Germany but don't know if they'll be able to make it to the Austrian border, or even be able to cross it if they do. Hungary is cracking down on migrants and those who assist them by making entering the country illegally punishable by three years in prison. Gyurcsany says his family held a meeting to discuss whether they would continue bringing migrants into their home in the worsening climate. He says their decision was unanimous.

GYURCSANY: There is a rule of the life, and there is a rule of the government. And if these two kinds of rules are conflicting, we have to choose the rule of the life.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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