A cold October wind is blowing and shakes the trees in southern Hungary. Winter is coming. Akos leans against his blue van, burning cigarette in one hand, the other holding a phone to his ear. A quick look into the vans boot reveals piles of sanitary articles, warm clothes, shoes and medicine. His phone hardly ever remains silent. Calls range from a refugee camp in Croatia, an NGO from Vienna to volunteers from Hungary. Tattoos decorate Akos' arms, a stubby beard covers his face, where dark circles have formed under his eyes, and his earlobes are widened by thin black rings. He's wearing wide trousers with a camouflage pattern and a heavy green jacket protects him from the rain. «Baszd meg» he cries out loud, as the voice of Viktor Orbán gets carried over from the radio inside of the car. «Baszd meg» means «Fuck you» in Hungarian. He lights another cigarette, a chesty blonde lolls on his lighter. He gives the impression of a hard-boiled guy, but as soon as he realises that I'm dressed for August, not for October, he takes off his jacket and offers it to me. Despite my strong protest, he insists on giving it to me. Soon I see, he's got a heart of gold.
That's also why he couldn't stay indifferent to the situation of the thousands of refugees coming to Budapest during the past months. While the responsible authorities were too busy fuelling fears of foreigners within the population instead of getting a grip on the situation, he and his organisation «Age of Hope» sprang into action. Now we're seated in his van on the way to Zákány, the radio playing mind-numbing propaganda in the style of Viktor Orbán. Akos only translates a few bits and pieces: «The EU refugee quota increases the risk of a terrorist attack. Every 12 seconds, a migrant reaches Europe. They cross borders without being registered, without being controlled. We don't know who they are and how many of them might be disguised terrorists. (…) The Hungarian government says NO to this quota.» The same old story is told on TV, on the internet and in newspapers, says Akos.
Night after night, Akos and volunteers of «Age of Hope» were out and about, coordinating relief actions for people sleeping at Keleti train station or trying to find a quiet spot in a nearby park. He arranged for shelters where families could spend a night in safety, take a shower, eat and sleep. «Age of Hope» was initially founded to help women and families in need, most of them Roma people who often suffer racist violence, discrimination, poverty and exclusion. In December, Akos used to dress up as Santa Claus and distribute presents in the poorer eastern parts of Hungary, while in summer he organised camps at Lake Balaton for children and teens. Last week he brought school supplies to villages like Fulókércs, Szendrő and Szuhogy: «Many children don't even have notebooks or pencils. How can you possibly learn anything like that?» Another big issue is nutrition: «It's not that they go hungry. But the food they get does not have enough nutrients. Many of them just have a slice of bread with some sugar sprinkled on top of it, three times a day.» The material is paid for by donations or from his own pocket. At the moment he earns his money as a carer in a children's home. Flying kites and going to water parks are the sunny sides of this job. Apart from that, he's a sport massage therapist of basketball teams and runs small salon together with a beautician.
Today we're on the way to a city close to the Croatian border. Marcus, a full-bearded German photographer who wants to distribute the money he raised back home, comes along, too. The forth member of our team is András: a rescue worker and Akos' old schoolmate who follows us in his own car that has the word «Rescue» in giant letters spelt on it. He wears a bright orange rescue jumpsuit and a hat. Through his glasses, big brown eyes peer curiously and good-naturedly at the world. The way he's dressed reminds me of an astronaut, having mistakenly landed on earth after a long time in space. We've crossed the Croatian border only yesterday in order to bring some of the donations to a refugee camp in the northern part of the country. «I'm on my way to Croatia with a German terrorist and a princess from Liechtenstein. I wonder if we'll get past the border control,» Akos remarks with a smile. As a matter of fact, the border guards had to google whether Liechtenstein was really an existing country. But what they checked most thoroughly was Akos' ID. The tear running through the middle of the plastic card doesn't inspire all too much confidence.
While our luggage gets checked by the custom officers, we observe soldiers in action across the street. They're continuing the construction of the border fence between Hungary and Croatia. It's been a month since the border crossing to Serbia has been closed off. After this closure, thousands of refugees took the long way through Croatia, crossing then into Slovenia or Hungary in order to travel west. When they arrive at the Serbian border they take the train to Botovo: That's where their train journey ends. By foot, they pass through the last gap in the fence – but Hungary is not their destination, it's only a stopover. After a few kilometres on foot, they board yet another train in the Hungarian city of Zákány: the arduous journey continues towards Austria. In Zákány, the train stops for a few minutes. In this short time frame, volunteers hand food parcels through the train windows. That's where we're headed.
Before we reach Zákánys train station, we stop at a big supermarket to buy groceries for the refugees. We grab three big trolleys and speed through the aisles, emptying shelves until the trolleys spill over with loafs of bread, bananas and chocolate bars. Only to annoy Akos, I add a bunch of carrots. If there's one thing in the world he can't stand: Sárgarépa! (Hungarian for carrot). I remember how, a few weeks ago, he told me about his most hated vegetable while we had dinner in a Hungarian restaurant - a true carrot trauma.
Generous as usual, Akos has filled my glass to the brim with red wine. Next to it is a line of small glasses full of Pálinka, Hungarian liquor. He tells me about Hungarian popular wisdom. «Pálinka in small quantities can be taken as a medicine, drunk in big quantities, it is a cure for all ills.» He takes that saying to heart and orders the whole range of flavours: cinnamon, apricot, plum, raspberry and a smoked one to conclude the tasting. Another shot goes down before he has a bite of his calf brain sandwich. A meal without meat? Not to be considered a meal. He smirks at my plate, where potato salad, grilled vegetables and melted goats cheese wait to be enjoyed. He chucks the carrots off his plate onto mine, leaving the knuckle of veal on his plate. «Yuck, carrots, I hate carrots!» According to Akos, there must be a carrot Mafia paltering with the whole world. «Why else would there be carrots in every dish you can possibly find? Every soup, no matter if you're in Thailand or Austria: carrots, carrots, carrots. I can't stand them. Rotten business.»
Admittedly, rotten business is something Akos is familiar with. He used to work as a social worker in Vienna, where he saved underage Hungarian prostitutes from the clutches of their pimps. He was unusually talented at the job and even after he'd quit he often got phone calls when there was a problem to solve. Many of the brothel owners take advantage of the difficult economic situation in Hungary and recruit young Hungarian women. «Some of them go by choice, others are forced into it,» he relates. In his fight for justice, he didn't feel above getting his hands dirty or carrying out a fist fight if need be; a trait less liked by the pimps. Apparently they put a bounty on his head, but never got hold of him. After that he’s worked at a jail for a few years, where he was in charge of young criminal women. «One of them killed her father who had been abusing her and her siblings.» He also used to be a body piercer. «The craziest piercings I've ever done? One day, a guy walked in and wanted to get seven little beads implanted under the skin of his penis.» He doesn’t have any crazy tattoos himself, he prefers tattoos. Proudly he shows me his foot, where a tattoo of Hello Kitty waves at me.
Now, in Zákány, the little kitten is covered by white trainers. Akos' feet are bouncing to the beats coming out of the speakers he has set up at the tables where the volunteers work – at high volume, of course. The music of choice is Gypsy and Balkan. The beats make your hands work faster and the mood is jolly. Along with all the other volunteers, we pack the groceries we bought earlier on into little plastic bags. Two slices of bread, a piece of cheese, an apple, a cereal bar. Akos is busy preparing little bags with nappies and baby food. Nearly 30 persons run around, carrying water bottles, boxes full of bananas and cereal bars from the trucks to the storage. The food parcels are stuffed into big bags and carried over to the railway tracks, where we line them up next to the water bottles. Everything is ready to be distributed. Now we just have to wait for the next train to arrive – which can be now or in another couple of hours, you never know exactly.
So we've got time to get to know some of the volunteers. There is Lana, a Palestinian studying medicine in Serbia, a film-maker from Germany, and Valerie from Venezuela who is currently working in Budapest. Some of them have been here for weeks, others only come over for the weekend. The whole thing is organised by Babi and her husband who are both Hungarian and fluent in Arabic. They don't belong to any institution but work together with organisations like «Age of Hope». Every now and then, journalists appear on the scene, carrying notebooks and television cameras, observing what's happening. Next to Akos, Alíz, a Hungarian student, cuts bread. She's from Szeged, a town close to the Serbian border, where she's supported passing through refugees and has helped them to continue their journey. After the border has been closed, she's come to Zákány. She finds it difficult to sit at home and not do anything, now that she knows how hard the fate of the refugees is, now that she's seen how badly help is needed.
Right now, she's eating hot vegetable soup, the first warm meal in days for the volunteers. It's cold and you can see her breath forming little clouds when she opens her mouth. «It's terrible. Hundreds of police officers and soldiers are making it difficult for us to work. We're not allowed on the trains, and because they only stop for a short time, not all the refugees get something to eat,» she tells us. As if to prove her point, a couple of officers head over and ask us to turn off the music. Only ten metres away, a group of policemen are standing around a car, music blaring form the inside. Akos says I should be glad not to understand what the policemen say about the refugees. «They shout humiliating things at them,» he states. Nonetheless, he thinks that a few policemen are needed to prevent chaos. But there are definitely too many right now, and the presence of soldiers is disproportionate. Alíz tells us how she witnessed a man with a broken leg being beaten by a policemen, only because he asked for help: «He was asthmatic and couldn't manage to walk on the muddy path with his crutches. It was horrible to watch, and I won't ever forget that night.»
An Englishman brings over hot tea and coffee for everyone; we chat, warm our hands on the paper cups and wait. About an hour later we hear Babi shouting: «Train's coming, train's coming!» We start out to the railway tracks. When the train comes to a halt, everything seems to happen at once. Everyone grabs one of the big bags and hands the little plastic bags over to the people in the train. Some of them fall over themselves with gratitude, others look at us timidly, and yet others call for water and food. We see grandmas, dads, newborns, young men, kids and pregnant women. Akos runs around with nappies and baby food and asks if anyone needs baby products. Two little girls with thick curly hair laugh and wave at us. Fatigue, gratitude, exhaustion, joy, confusion, smiles, warmth: All emotions are reflected on the faces behind the windows and on the ones on the platform. «Stop! Step back!» The call of the policeman announces the departure of the train in a few minutes. As the train draws out of the station, many hands wave goodbye or form the V sign. For a short while, we caught a glimpse of the human faces behind the anonymous crowd of refugees. Now they're on their way again, heading towards an uncertain future.
Carrying rubbish bags on our backs, we walk back to the camp. Dawn is falling. I walk next to Jenny, an Irish girl who has been here for several weeks now. She spent the afternoon in her room close-by. She looks tired, but her eyeliner and the blond hair look impeccable. «I needed a little break, but now I'm back and well-rested,» she says laughing. Before coming to Hungary, she spent some time in Calais. When the border shuts down definitely, she'll continue to Lesbos. Every couple of hours, a train arrives, in between, the procedure stays the same: We prepare food parcels and wait. Akos disappears for a while, to see his aunts and uncles. His father used to live close by before he died some years ago.
When he comes back, night has fallen, pitch-black darkness surrounding us. We work in shifts, some of the volunteers sleep in a near-by truck. A little further, Akos puts his laptop on top of a car boot; Marcus and András arrive and drop on two folding chairs. Cinema time. «Where's the popcorn?» Akos asks with a smile. He's brought along some chocolate cake from his family. After a few minutes, I go to the back of the car and try to get some sleep. I'm tucked in warm blankets, but the cold creeps in through my many layers of clothes. I think about all the people on the road. Out in the cold, without proper clothing, some of them pregnant, some of them ill; forced out of their countries, not knowing where they'll be next, yet not giving up hope. At 3 am, someone knocking on the car startles me. «The next train is about to arrive. Where's Akos?» It's Babi, the project's head. Following his snores, we find him behind the car. He sleeps outside. We wake him up, help one last time handing out the parcels and are then on our way back home. Back to everyday life. A life that seems absurdly at odds with all we've seen today.
Support Age of Hope with a donation:
ERSTEBANK: GIBA HUHB HU25116000006-00000000-56705485
And read HERE the blog post from author Sara Bagladi about how she met Akos.
Want to know more? Read his Profile