Learning through giving: student helps asylum-seekers learn Hungarian

from:  UNHCR, Regional representation; The UN Refugee Agency for Central Europe


Monday 6, August 2012

DEBRECEN, 6 August 2012 (UNHCR) – Twenty-year-old Patrícia Vanyó vividly remembers the words of the social worker on her first day in the Debrecen Reception Centre for Asylum-Seekers.  “Watch out,” she was told because “once you enter you’ll never want to leave.”

© UNHCR/E. Hegedus
In Hungary, only recognised refugees and minor asylum-seekers have access to formal Hungarian classes. Adult asylum-seekers and children who do not get a school place can only rely on volunteer language tutors.

Eight months later, Vanyó is growing ever more dedicated as she teaches Hungarian to a group of asylum-seekers in the reception centre, converted from a former military barracks on the outskirts of Hungary’s second city, some 200 kilometresf from the capital Budapest.  She volunteers at the centre twice a week, teaching adults the language and engaging the children in play and learning activities.

“If I could, I would come here every day”,  the second-year university student whispered to UNHCR while two of her pupils read a dialogue in Hungarian, grappling to learn one of the most difficult languages in the world.  There is a lively atmosphere in the class held in an NGO office at the centre; English, Pashtu and Hungarian words flit around the room as the six asylum-seekers diligently try to explain to each other what a word means if one of them does not understand.

“I am the teacher but I myself learn a lot from them,” Vanyó told UNHCR. "This experience helps me better understand what is happening in their countries, how they experience all that and why they think like they do”.

Vanyó wasted no time signing up to volunteer at the reception centre eight months ago when she first read a notice about the opportunity on a billboard in her college dormitory, which requires residents to do courses in the programmes "develop”, “create” and “give.”    

Vanyó, who hails from Sajósenye, a little settlement of hardly 500 people in north-eastern Hungary, recalls her family could not imagine what sort of place a reception centre was and what she would do there.  But the Debrecen University French and Russian language student had a clear idea: she thought she’d be most useful teaching those foreign languages. 

It turns out while there was little call for French and Russian, Hungarian teachers were desperately needed.   In the reception centre hosting some 320 asylum-seekers, only school-aged children have access to formal language learning. Adults and children who cannot get one of the limited places in formal schools must rely on volunteer language tutors until they are recognised as refugees when it is provided by the government.

Mirzai Waliullah finds Hungarian very difficult to learn and after two and a half years he is still wrestling with it. "It would help if we had classes every day. We have to stay here so we need to know the language," said the 40-something Afghan father who has just received protection status and will soon move to the pre-integration centre in Bicske (some 40 kms away) where he hopes to be able to follow more intensive classes.

“Dark I know, bad I know, light I do not know” says Sultan, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, as he skims through the vocabulary.   The studious Sultan, who notes down words he hears in the city to discuss in class, tells UNHCR he is afraid he will forget everything while Patricia is at home on her two-month summer break, as there is noone else to take on her group in her absence.

Vanyó admits she was afraid at first that her students would not accept her but soon learned her Afghan and Iranian students were very open to Western culture gave her respect from the start.  She gets valuable guidance from the social workers of Menedék Association that run social work projects in the centre from EU funds, embracing the teaching of Hungarian, for want of government assistance.

“I think we should also help asylum-seekers learn the language, not only refugees,” Vanyó told UNHCR. “These people have to stay here until their case is decided, which is sometimes a very long period. And they need to get by in their everyday life during that time.  Besides, what else could they do during their whole day since they are not allowed to work,” she said.

With her infectious enthusiasm, Vanyó has recruited four other colleagues from the dormitory to help out at the centre since she started.  The volunteers help with cultural orientation too. "Even with small things you can help a lot," Vanyó says.

"Hungarians also rose against the regime and had to flee the country so many times in the past, from the Turks, the Habsburgs, the Nazis or in 1956”, she adds, “and it is strange that now we do not understand why these people have to flee and come to our country.”

Motivated by her experience, Patrícia plans to work with refugees also after finishing university. “It was a self-fulfilling and self-discovery for me, and has made me much richer,” she told UNHCR her big blue eyes bright with enthusiasm.

By Éva Hegedűs in Debrecen, Hungary