World

Refugee crisis: How a Hungarian orphanage is proving salvation for child migrants

Fot, Hungary: Haseebullah Sarwari-Said would give anything to be able to get through to his parents. Since fleeing the Taliban, he's had a hair-raising time and only now sees the prospect of a good life in Hungary.

Former unaccompanied child migrants Hassan (left) and Haseebullah on the grounds of the orphanage they credit with ...
Former unaccompanied child migrants Hassan (left) and Haseebullah on the grounds of the orphanage they credit with saving their lives. Photo: Helen Womack

His mother and father would be relieved but their phone in Kabul has gone dead and he doesn't know where they are or what might have happened to them. He tells his story publicly, in the hope they can hear him.

Like dozens of other young refugees, Haseebullah owes his salvation to the staff of the Karolyi Istvan​ Children's Centre in the town of Fot, outside Budapest. In Communist times, the vast orphanage housed hundreds of orphaned Hungarian kids but they go to foster families these days, while the home is opening its doors to unaccompanied migrant minors.

Count Istvan Karolyi's estate houses the Karolyi Istvan Children's Centre now caring also for unaccompanied migrant children.
Count Istvan Karolyi's estate houses the Karolyi Istvan Children's Centre now caring also for unaccompanied migrant children. Photo: Helen Womack

Young Muslim men without families – these are the kind of migrants who are frightening Europe with the spectre of demographic imbalance and high risk of crime. But the home in Fot is coping with them, albeit in small numbers. The story of the orphanage shows a kinder side of Hungary that last year threw up anti-migrant fences while the refugees who choose to stay here to prove there can be an alternative to the magnet of Germany.

"The guys are all on a mission to get to Germany," said Istvan Kadas​, director of the home. "I don't know why. Probably their parents point them in that direction. They don't know that Hungary exists. But if they stay, it can turn out to be a good place for them."

On a winter day, the home in Fot may seem rather bleak but the grounds are extensive and there's a lake that will be idyllic in summer.

The once-noble estate was used as a Soviet military barracks until the orphanage was founded in 1957. Now a Count, Istvan Karolyi, again lives in the ancestral mansion and sponsors the children's centre, which occupies numerous modern buildings. A third of the residents are Hungarian young offenders, a third are Hungarian handicapped children and a third migrant minors. They are allowed to mix and play together on the lawns.

The grounds of Count Istvan Karolyi's estate where the children's centre is based at Fot, outside Budapest.
The grounds of Count Istvan Karolyi's estate where the children's centre is based at Fot, outside Budapest. Photo: Helen Womack

Sometimes, in the chaos of the migrant journey, a child loses its parents but is eventually claimed. If they are with families, they are likely to be Syrians, fleeing the five-year-old civil war there.

The majority of the young people at Fot travelled alone in the first place, many of them coming from Afghanistan and Africa in the hope of getting a foothold in Europe. Almost all are teenage boys; the elder sons of desperate or aspiring families, waiting back home for news of progress.

Haseebullah (left) and Hassan at the Hungarian orphanage they say makes a difference for distressed migrant youths.
Haseebullah (left) and Hassan at the Hungarian orphanage they say makes a difference for distressed migrant youths.  Photo: Helen Womack

The children's centre has been dealing with migrant minors since before the crisis erupted last summer. In four years, 4000 underage migrants have passed through Fot, 2460 of them last year alone. The largest group living there at one time was 314. Right now, there are only 12 but fresh waves could arrive any day.

The youths are taken to Fot after being picked up by the police and registered at the home. Most promptly abscond, eager to move on to Germany. Because the centre isn't a prison, the staff can't stop them.

Peter Vamosi, director of the aftercare service at children's centre.
Peter Vamosi, director of the aftercare service at children's centre. Photo: Supplied

But the few who stay find stability, resume their education and get their lives back on track. About 100 have learnt Hungarian and are aiming to become Hungarian citizens.

"Hungarian is not that difficult for them when you consider they already speak several languages – Pashto, Farsi, English," said staff member Zsofia Roszik​. "We've had some real success stories, like the Somali boy who wrote a Somali-Hungarian dictionary."

A sign asking drivers to look out for children on the grounds of Count Istvan Karolyi's estate home to an orphanage ...
A sign asking drivers to look out for children on the grounds of Count Istvan Karolyi's estate home to an orphanage caring for migrants, outside Budapest. Photo: Helen Womack

For those who have grown up in children's homes, Hungary has a generous aftercare service, providing sheltered accommodation, food and transport to under-25s, on condition they are in further education.

Legal guardians refused permission to interview underage teens but Fairfax Media was allowed to meet Haseebullah and another young man, Hassan Shabna from Western Sahara, who have graduated from the children's home to one of the sheltered houses in Fot. Both are now 23.

Peter Vamosi, director of the aftercare service, showed us around the bright, pleasant house before we settled on the sofa to talk.

Hassan, a Berber, grew up as a goat herd and might have remained a shepherd had his uncle not killed a man in a fight, thus triggering the local laws of blood vendetta that required the youth to be killed in revenge.

"My mother urged me to flee," he said. "I hitched lifts on trucks as far as Libya. Then I took a boat to Turkey. I wanted to go to Russia but the Turks said it was cold and I would be better off going west."

In Greece, he earned a little money, picking olives. The African mafia sold him a "sugar card" (false EU identity document), which he tried to use to get on a flight to Belgium. Greek police arrested him but let him go with a warning.

After that, he walked through the Balkans before being stopped in his tracks in Hungary. He was so tired that being taken into care came as a relief. He was 17 at the time.

Haseebullah came from a far wealthier background in Afghanistan. His father, Ishaq Said, was a rich landowner in the northern province of Kunduz​.

"I didn't need to go looking for a good life in Europe," said Haseebullah. "We had everything in Kunduz. We grew wheat, potatoes and grapes. But the Taliban wanted our land. They shot my uncle and brother. I saw it happen. I was 15 and I was terrified."

In desperation, Ishaq and his wife Fahima Sarwari paid people smugglers $US15,000 ($20,000) to get their two surviving sons, Haseebullah and Ramin, out to Europe, via Iran and Turkey. The parents themselves moved to Kabul, which was where Haseebullah last had contact with them.

The trip to Europe was far from easy. Haseebullah and Ramin spent time in jail on Lesbos before being allowed to take the ferry to Athens. On the road through Serbia, they were robbed by the local mafia.

"Three men and a woman held us up at gun point," said Haseebullah. "They took everything; clothes, bags, money and mobile phones. They said if we resisted, they would kill us. Can you imagine? They even took our shoes."

In Hungary, the first place Hassan and Haseebullah called home was a refugee camp at Biscke​, west of Budapest. There were fraught scenes at Biscke last summer, as hundreds of thousands of migrants ran from police and scrambled to get onto trains, going to Austria and Germany.

Of the huge wave that passed through Hungary little evidence remains. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban​ has refused German Chancellor Angela Merkel's call for EU states to take quotas of migrants and a mere 500 asylum seekers have been accepted here. A further 1100 are in detention for illegal border crossing and likely to be deported while a handful are serving prison sentences for people smuggling.

At Biscke, Hassan and Haseebullah lived in tents while they attended the local school. Both paid tribute to two teachers, Judit Mezci and Janka Megyesi, who helped them to learn Hungarian and encouraged them to complete their schooling.

From Biscke, the lads were transferred to Fot, where they were helped into higher education. Hassan is studying to be a physiotherapist while Haseebullah is getting into IT. His brother Ramin is also now a student.

"At the hospital where I train," said Hassan, "the patients call out to me, 'where are you from?' They're curious about me and I cheer them up. It's a mutual interest."

Back in the Sahara, his mother Zuhara knows he is doing well and is happy for him, but he can't go home, even for a short visit. "It's too dangerous," he says. "We talk on the telephone only."

This is a luxury Haseebullah does not enjoy. He has married a Hungarian girl and would like to tell his parents about his new family, as well as his adventures and educational achievements. But the phone is dead.

What would his parents say about a good Muslim Pashtun​ boy marrying a girl from Hungary, where the majority of the population is Catholic?

"Oh, they wouldn't mind," said Haseebullah. "They would just be glad that I survived. They are good people. They wanted me to have a life."

Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter

Follow FairfaxForeign on Facebook