As the 2023 Refugee Week draws to an end, I reflect on my refugee journey. I grew up in a home where we didn’t speak about being refugees or having been refugees. My parents left a Communist regime that politically persecuted them and cost them everything. They escaped a life of fear, a life of being stopped from advancing in their careers, and even being blacklisted from education. They left this life behind to create something better for us and for themselves. Their pursuit of a better life meant we didn’t dwell on the past or even recognize the trauma it had inflicted. But Refugee Week highlights the significance of this journey in my life and gives me time to reflect on our journey.
To provide some context, both my grandfathers were deemed enemies of the Communist regime. My maternal grandfather was part of the 1956 uprising against Communism and escaped to Sweden, leaving the rest of his family to bear the lifelong consequences of his actions. One of the many consequences was that 14 years later, when my mother tried to apply to university, she was denied access on account of his status. Despite being an exceptional student, she was blacklisted from attending university because of his political involvement. Thankfully, she found a loophole that granted access to university if she won a Russian language competition, even if she was blacklisted. Russian, Hungarian, and English have no linguistic resemblance to each other. At that time, many Russian families lived in Hungary, making this mission seem impossible to succeed in. Yet, my mother decided to compete and achieved the unexpected — she won! Her unrivaled drive allowed her to progress to university, where she studied English and became an English lecturer.
My father’s journey had been equally challenging. His father was an artist, writer, pilot, violinist, and true creative. By all accounts, he may have been on the autism spectrum and was not able to understand political nuances or situational context very well. He was an idealist who wrote a book about a Utopia, which the Communist regime appropriated as propaganda. Even Stalin read his book and made him a national hero, awarding him the Stalin Prize and the highest Hungarian literary honour, the Kossuth Prize. However, not long after, Stalin died, and my grandfather was persecuted by the new regime for being part of the Stalinist Government and was sentenced in a kangaroo trial. After sentencing, he was taken to a facility where he was tortured for years, never recovering from the experience. Meanwhile, my father’s ancestral home and possessions were forcibly taken from them. With nothing left, my father went to work on his grandparents’ farm. He would read several books a day while herding cows. He taught himself French and started planning his freedom from oppression, falling in love with the law and the freedom it could bring him. My father and mother met at university, bonded by shared trauma and a desire for a better life.
But the journey to a better life was much harder than anticipated. My parents escaped Hungary and were first granted asylum in France. Having escaped the Communist dictatorship meant they forfeited their citizenship rights, and we were stateless. According to international law, a stateless person is someone who is “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. The implications of being stateless were significant.
My parents had no rights and, therefore, were unable to work, despite both being multilingual and having PhDs.
My father had been a senior environmental lawyer for the Academy of Sciences and chose France because he was fluent in French. Yet, France did not recognize his law degree, and it was recommended that he start afresh and study for a local degree. Imagine having dedicated your life to becoming a lawyer, despite all the challenges you faced being blacklisted, and then being told by another government that your achievements are worthless.
Dad struggled to make ends meet for us on the 10 Francs refugee support we received every week. My memories are vague, but I clearly remember one incident where we had gotten soup cans from the food bank, and the soup made me sick. While I was hanging over the toilet in our studio apartment in the ghettoized part of Lyon, I distinctly recall looking up and seeing tears fall down my father’s face as he gently petted my hair. At the time, I didn’t understand why and even thought I might have done something wrong. But now that I am a parent, I appreciate the crippling guilt and helplessness he must have felt.
To help our family survive, my mum decided to accept a teaching job in Australia. This meant being separated from us for two years. Being apart from my mother between the ages of 3 and 5 significantly impacted our bond and both her and my mental health. But it was through her sacrifice that my father was able to make a case for repatriation in Germany and help fund our journey there. I remember the long journey by train and the strange feeling of having left behind the life I knew in France. It wasn’t much, and there was a heaviness I was happy to let go of, but it was also the only life I knew.
At this stage, I spoke fluent French and Hungarian, so embracing German was a new challenge. After being housed in an Asylum Centre, we were granted German citizenship and given housing support. For the first time, my brother and I had our own room, instead of sleeping in the corridor or sharing a room with our parents. It was a tiny room, but it meant a lot to us. From that point onwards, my parents’ unrivaled drive led to a change in our entire family’s trajectory. They learned German, created their own series of businesses, and we became the poster family for refugee integration without ever acknowledging that we were refugees or the tumultuous journey my parents had navigated to get us there.
Like most migrant families, our focus was on hard work. Work became our family mantra and underlined everything we did. Every family holiday, every interaction, was characterized by work. We spent our vacations in places where my parents were speakers (they had a successful sales training business), held family meetings with actions and minutes attributed to them, and were trained in all elements of entrepreneurship from an early age. My parents had no training in business or entrepreneurship, so they made many significant mistakes, but overall, their success was quite incredible. We went from living in a council estate to having gorgeous homes and moving overseas, where my brother and I were educated at elite private schools.
We rarely discussed the past, but strange things would come through in our upbringing. For instance, my parents had a lifelong distrust of the government. We passionately discussed politics at home, and they taught my brother and me to question everything, which was a great gift for adulthood. However, they also emphasized that we must never share our political views and ideally avoid voting because that may lead to persecution. I will never forget my parents’ outrage after I had skipped school to protest the Iraq War, and my mum yelled at me, saying things like “You don’t know who’ll be taking photographs of you.” It seemed like a very bizarre thing at the time, but as I researched our family history, it all became clear to me.
I had reached my 30s before I realized that we had been refugees, and only recently did I start speaking out about being one. I didn’t feel like I had the right to speak on behalf of refugees as I hadn’t been connected to the cause, but one day that changed.
I was with a lovely Aussie friend. Our kids were playing, and the TV was on in the background. I saw depictions of refugees as the TV spewed nonsense about immigration and how refugees were going to take jobs from Aussie locals, and I found myself outraged and expressed this to my friend. Much to my surprise, my friend wholeheartedly agreed with the TV commentary and thought that “these kind of people just don’t belong here.” So I had no choice but to come out as a refugee and tell her that I was one of them. And that who knows what my life would have been like if we hadn’t been offered asylum and citizenship by Germany. And how much my parents had offered Germany in return since becoming citizens, through their taxes and other societal contributions. She looked at me and told me, “Well, but you aren’t like them. You are like one of us!” That was the moment I realised that I had to advocate on behalf of my fellow refugee brothers and sisters.
Anybody could become a refugee. It is not something you choose or want to be. And for all its climate troubles, who knows what the future may hold for citizens from Australia. It is a privilege to live in a country where you have the right to education, work, and a relatively fair legal system. It is a privilege to live in a place characterized by safety and an abundance of food and shelter. Please use your privilege wisely.
Use this privilege to consider what support you would want and need if you had to leave Australia to ensure your physical or psychological safety. Consider supporting refugee or migrant businesses and enterprises. Challenge ignorant thoughts, biases, and preconceptions. There’s always something you can do with your privilege. Please don’t rest on yours.