During my trip to Hungary, I was able to leave Budapest Saturday and travel into the countryside in the “Adomanytaxi” (Donation taxi). The cab, which is actually a large cargo van, carries food and clothing donated by people in Budapest, where unemployment is relatively low, to the people in the outlying villages where unemployment is rampant.
The Adomanytaxi will usually travel several hours to some of the poorest, rural communities in the country. Today, it only went an hour or so to Tar, a village of about 2000 people that is not as hard hit but where unemployment still hovers around 85%. The church I attend back in America, the Salvation Army church is synonymous with giving. Every Christmas season, the poor are hired to stand next to a red kettle and ring a bell. Holiday shoppers toss in coins. Throughout the rest of the year, stores donate surplus food and working people donate their used clothes, toys and furniture to either be given to the needy or resold at one of our many shops to raise money for the church’s social service programs. Hungary does not yet have this infrastructure. That’s where Tom Horn stepped in. The idea of Charity Tax icame during a refugee crisis in 2015. The Adomanytaxi gave donations a free cab ride from the Budapest homes to people in need. When the rush of refugees subsided, Tom kept his Adomanytaxi running because he knew the poor in Hungary may not be as visible, but they still exist. This Saturday, I stood in a chain of volunteers passing donations out of a basement and into the waiting Adomanytaxi. About a hundred large shopping bags filled the van with clothes, shoes and toys. Next, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up food for about 20 of the most hard hit families. Finally, we arrived in Tar. It looked like half the village was already waiting for us outside the school. They quickly lined up and started passing the bags into the gym where the items were then sorted and placed on and around waiting tables. I instinctively went to the toys. The stuffed animals were popular, but the books, puzzles and board games went as fast as I could put them out on the table. I could feel a frenzy starting up as parents grabbed the best gifts, hoping as everyone does, to be a heroes to their children. My Hungarian isn’t very good, but when I held up 3 fingers, they knew there was only so much to go around and were more than willing to share. But this was a flea market more than a giveaway. Each item sold for 20 Forints (about a nickle American) and the money would be used for programs organized by the Roma leaders of the community. Outside of the capital city, poverty and unemployment are common but the minority population is hit especially hard. Our guide told us that here in Tar, only about 10 of the residents have jobs that pay better than the subsistence wages of make-work government jobs. Next, we delivered the care packages to selected families. As we walked past a beautiful Catholic church, the car carrying the food bottomed out on the crumbing road. Roosters crowed all around us as smoke rose from wood burning stoves that heated the houses. But as we visited each home, I found something I did not expect to see: a sanctuary. The first home had a tiled floor and comfortable couch while the sidewalk crumbled outside. The next had scraps of linoleum trying to cover the bare cement floor, but in the next room, a young girl was sweeping the floor of the living room painted a bright pink. Before we give them our gifts, we sit and we visit. We ask about their children and about their lives. One little boy was wearing a t-shirt that says “Acid-Ecstasy”. I doubt his parent knew the drug reference when they put it on him. I was wearing my “Black lives matter” t-shirt but it was more for me than for them. I knew I was here to witness structural racism and in Hungary this is what it looks like. I tried to draw parallels to communities in America: the native reservations of the west, the 9th ward in New Orleans, Louisiana and even Flint and Detroit, Michigan, but nothing quite fit. As we made our last stop, I told the woman of the house about my immigrant past. My grandfather on my mother’s side came from Norway. My grandfather on my father’s side was descended from people from Africa. I asked where her family comes from. She came to Tar to marry a man here. As far back as she knew, her family has always lived in Hungary. I asked if she felt Roma are treated fairly by the government. She said no. I told her that many people of African descent don’t feel completely American because they are not treated fairly and asked if she felt any less Hungarian. She felt completely Hungarian. As we talked, her son was focused on his mobile device. She prodded him to look up and introduce himself to their guests. As she did, she shouted and gestured broadly. I thought she was upset at first then I saw he was wearing a hearing aid. I told her that my father also lost much of his hearing as a child, but loved reading and became a poet and teacher. She tells me that her son loves to read also and as I could see, loves computers. I like the idea that the next Steve Jobs might come out of Tar. On the ride back to Budapest, my interpreter told me that schools tend to be segregated. It would be illegal to prohibit the Roma from any school, but if Hungarians in the majority population feel there are too many Roma at their school, they will pull their children out and send them to a better one. Without the privilege of mobility or transportation, Roma children usually see their special needs and particular challenges go unaddressed. Proponents of this system say to do otherwise would take away parents freedom to choose. Back home, we just appointed a Secretary of Education that says the same thing.