Integration is never easy, especially in the school system with a material that is completely different from the one they were learning previously. Children with migrant and asylum seeker background face many challenges in the Hungarian education system and now that everything moved online it became even harder to keep up with the class. Eszter Kállay, a teacher at Kalunba Social Servies Ltd. supported by Swiss Church Aid (HEKS/EPER) shared her thoughts and experiences as well as plans for the future, when face-to-face interaction will be possible again.
Please tell me a little about yourself.
My name is Eszter Kállay, and I am from Budapest, Hungary. I am 26 years old and I am studying Critical Studies MA at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Before that I was studying Humanities at ELTE in Budapest. My experiences in Vienna were very different from how the material is taught in Hungary, so I’ve brought those methods into my work at Kalunba. I’ve also acquired a teacher certificate from CELTA. Before Kalunba, I worked at a vocational school with children from difficult social background or with learning disabilities. I write poetry, my book of poetry was recently published. I am also involved in artistic and educational projects.
How long have you been working with Kalunba? What are your motivations, what drives you?
I’ve been working at Kalunba part-time since the beginning of February, so about 6 months. My motivation is to encourage and support social inclusion as well as counterbalance inequalities in Hungarian society. My goal is to create a diverse society based on mutual understanding and acceptance. I would like to maintain live contact with people and not only provide operative tasks, but also try to get to know them through Hungarian or other educational lessons. I am also interested in the administrative part, because it ensures integration to some extent and that’s why it is a crucial part of the work.
What kind of success did you experience? Can you tell me some positive moments?
There’s a young, eighteen year old girl I’ve been working together for a while and we applied for the OLIve Program (CEU) together for asylum seekers and refugees. It is a university program, but you do not have to have a degree to start it. She applied and I encouraged her to do so, and she got accepted to study there for a semester. She is super motivated and very happy to be there and I’m glad that I encouraged her to write the application. She wrote a motivational letter where she described her situation and what drives her, we put together a CV. For me it was a very meaningful experience, she is giving me positive feedback about the programme she attends and we became closer thanks to this. Another thing I like about Kalunba is that as workers we also have the opportunity to learn. For example, I will attend a basic psychology course for those who are working with people of refugee and asylum seeker background, so we can empower people who were traumatized.
As there are good experiences, there are also hard cases. Would you tell me what dilemmas or hardships you face?
Definitely. For me the biggest dilemma is that the system works in a way that the children have to enrol in school from the day they arrive, and they do not know the language and there is no time or space for them to prepare. It puts them in a difficult position and schools are not prepared for children who do not speak Hungarian either. There are private schools who are more prepared and offer classes in English for example, but they are not free and not many people can afford to enrol their children there. The educational system in Hungary is very old fashioned, it is the teacher who is talking all the time and trying to stuff the knowledge into their heads. I have to help their integration into this system even if I am critical of it. The dilemma for me is how it is possible to show them an alternative while still helping them to integrate to the classroom? It is very important to integrate because they will have a place they belong where they feel safe. But ideally, integration is not a one-sided process, expected from those who arrive, but it is a mutual effort of those who receive people and those who come. Unfortunately, the Hungarian school system is not making many efforts.
Some children have to memorise poems, but they don’t understand the meaning and the language of course. In environmental studies for example they have to learn the material sentence by sentence and they also call them poems, which honestly shows what type of education is in use in Hungarian schools. It would be important to have a little more time or a one-year preparation before having to start education in Hungarian but sadly it is not possible because of the lack of time. They are preparing with us in parallel with the school.
The After-school program of RCH implemented by Kalunba has been supported by HEKS, the aid organisation of Swiss Protestant Churches, a strategic partner of RCH in terms of support and integration of refugees, with a special focus on families and youth. The strategic cooperation in the framework of the so called Country Program, outlined in the project “Promotion of Life Perspectives and Integration of Refugees in Hungary” has been crucial for RCH. “Integration into Hungarian society is difficult for refugees, and worsened by recent legal changes, putting more stress on families as they seek ways to survive with ever dwindling support from the authorities. Students struggle to integrate into schools, refugees and migrants are not getting all the necessary practical knowledge to thrive in Hungary, and the average Hungarian citizen does not step up to help fill these gaps,” reads in the joint project proposal. “The RCH recognizes these issues and seeks to play a larger role in the integration and care of refugees in Hungary. Therefore through this program, and with the help of HEKS, this project will allow the RCH to take ownership for and further develop its refugee ministry. The Kalunba Social Services Ltd, Implementing Partner of the RCH, will support the refugee ministry and help to spread this work into the church’s wider congregational life through its partnership with the RCH’s Diaconal Office. Through this, sensitization programs and educational assistance will be provided,” summarizes the strategic document.
What does an ordinary day look like? How do you prepare and do your job?
Our ordinary days now connect to the virus. I’ve only worked with Kalunba for one month face-to-face before the virus, so I am more used to the online sphere, but I can tell some of my experiences before the pandemic.
We had classes with the students every afternoon, five days a week. We were always there at the office during the day, there were a lot of volunteers too. People usually would only come for one semester, some would start an internship. We had international volunteers as well and they usually stayed for around one year, they can be an integral part of Kalunba. Volunteers are mostly young people and there is a vibrant vibe in Kalunba because of that. People come from the migrant community but others come as well. We mostly organized educational programs, kept in touch with schools and took care of children. We also helped with practical things, like having glasses made, etc. We were able to organize translators as well if needed. I arrived everyday around 9:30, and since I only had 20 hours a week, because of my part-time position, sometimes I had several classes on one day.
I am truly missing this type of community because we ate lunch together after and between classes and everything became more complicated when the virus came. During summer we had community programs for the volunteers and the children as well, like a free day-camp in the 8th district, which improved their Hungarian language skills. They also miss this community. We had programs at Lake Balaton, like cooking together and again, community meetings.
The volunteer meetings now moved online, the same way as Hungarian classes. We have classes for practicing homework and helping students with school work. We had to make sure when the virus came, that everyone has internet access and a good device to use. We received two laptops from UNHCR, and we could provide them to the families. Sadly, not everyone had equal access to online education.
How did the Coronavirus impact your work and the people you engage with?
Before the virus we had a lot of plans for community programs and to strengthen them like more organized Hungarian lessons. During the virus everyone in the education team had to focus on keeping the children enrolled in school, which is a huge task and also watch the online platforms provided by schools. We had to see what kind of tasks they had. Everything seemed like homework and it was harder for them to complete the tasks and it became crucial for all of them to be able to finish the year and not to drop out. All the capacity was taken by this, because everyone had someone to study with and the parents usually do not speak the language either, so they cannot help with schoolwork at home. We followed their learning process, talked to the teachers and explained the students’ situation to them. If online education starts again, it will be the same situation. We still have long term plans, but it was more important to keep contact with the students and with the teachers. Hopefully we can organize more community events in the summer.
What do you expect from the future, after the Coronavirus? How do you plan and prepare for what’s ahead?
We have a plan for starting a women’s circle, where we can discuss the situation of women in Hungary and in different places, in the clients’ countries of origin. We can learn Hungarian or English together and we can get to know each other and become closer. This plan was not cancelled but postponed due to the virus, so it counts as a long-term plan! Maybe we could start a men’s circle too in parallel with this, on the same base. We have a lot of ideas, but they are based on personal contact and it is really hard to put them into the online space. I am thinking about things we can do online, like editing recordings of Hungarian classes for beginners. Community building is so hard online! Most of the things can be done face-to-face, but safety is the most important, so we have to adjust and make plans for the online space.