When I first told my parents and friends that I was going to work in a refugee camp for the summer in Hungary, I got bewildered looks and questions. ‘Why a refugee camp, of all places?’ ‘Is it going to be safe?’ And to be honest, I had the same doubts during my first week there. But looking back today, I can safely say that working at the Debrecen Refugee Camp has been one of my best and most satisfying experiences. This internship has helped me change and develop as a person; I have gone from being an intimidated and introverted intern to becoming more confident and open, and have learnt to deal with different kinds of situations and people.
Some of you may not understand what a refugee camp is, and I had no idea what I was getting into when applying. It turned out to be a bunch of decrepit structures from the Soviet era lying on the outskirts of Debrecen, a city in eastern Hungary. There were separate structures for the men, women and families, as well as offices for the staff and a building for the immigration office. Sadly, all the structures that housed the refugees were dilapidated; the camp administration just didn’t have the money to maintain the buildings while feeding and sheltering over 300 people. My room was on the third floor of the building directly above the immigration office, and I was officially the first person to ever stay there since the previous guest quarters had been elsewhere. I would have considered this an honour – being the first person to stay in a newly renovated building – if it wasn’t for the fact that I was the only one staying in that entire building. The nights were a little scary and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that my fridge sounded like a washing machine when all else was quiet. The city itself was beautiful, but quite small, and most places closed by 4pm.
I’m sure most of you would agree when I say that being the only resident of a three story building in a refugee camp in a completely new country is more than a bit unnerving. The real experience was getting over that, just like I was forced to get over being timid and nervous to survive in that environment. My work initially was a little ambiguous, since I had no official designated work. I was told I could go ahead and start my own programme here, and subsequently decided that the refugees needed to learn English if they wanted to live anywhere in Western Europe or North America later on in their lives. I taught English classes in the mornings and afternoons for all those who were interested, which were around ten or fifteen people. Trying to teach Farsi speakers English through a bit of Urdu, some French and a lot of gestures was a real challenge. Initially most of them would stare at me blankly, not knowing what I was talking about. I understood that English is a difficult language, both to teach and learn, and it is intimidating for both the teacher and students when neither fully understands the other. It was such a blessing that I speak Urdu because I was able to comfortably communicate with a lot of the refugees, and eventually some of us even became firm friends.
I learnt that a lot of the people in this camp are really nice, ordinary people like me who have had terrible luck when trying to escape from a war torn home. They are also incredibly strong individuals who have been through so much, but let on so little. Most of the refugees are Afghans, but there were some Kurds, Syrians, and Russians from Kosovo. These people just needed some encouragement, some hope that there is a better life waiting for them out there. Despite all their problems here at the camp, a lot of people I met invited me to their homes for chai or for dinner. I don’t think I’ve had as much amazing chai in two months as I did when in Hungary, and that’s amazing considering I’m Indian (and we love our chai). It was truly heartwarming to see the refugees go to the trouble to make each of my days a special one. It is sad and unjust, I feel, to see these people rot in a refugee camp when they could be doing so much good out in the world.
The experience wouldn’t have been so memorable if it hadn’t been for the support of all the staff I met at the camp, especially the other two interns there. I met Cindy, VP Outgoing Exchange 2013 at AIESEC Toronto, for the first time in Hungary.She was one of the interns working at the Debrecen Refugee camp, and she quickly changed the way I looked at things there. I finally had someone to share my building with, and someone to bring me breakfast when I was too lazy to wake up for it. She arrived two weeks after I got there, and so we bonded quite strongly and worked really well as a team. We taught English, played with the kids, encouraged the refugees, and of course had loads of chai. Julia was an intern from Brazil, and she arrived a week before I left. They have been my closest colleagues and friends, and were my support system.
Finally, be jealous of the fact that I managed to visit five countries. I stayed three days in Budapest (the capital of Hungary) where I met other interns including Xiao, Cherry and Jessica (the latter two from AIESEC Toronto) with whom I went to Vienna. Cindy, Cherry and I visited Prague for a weekend, and on my last weekend Julia, Cindy and I drove to Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Italy. Those one and a half months disappeared so quickly. I still really miss the place, the English classes, and especially the people. I remember feeling a little empty when it was time to leave, which made me more than determined to do similar work in the future when I get the chance. Those one and a half months changed me for the better, and I made some memories that I will always cherish.