The refugee child. He was 9 – I was 9.

Mary Magdala Community

Jim Ryan, Ph.D.

June 20 was International Refugee Day.  On June 26, I was asked to give the homily during a joint zoom Eucharist that included members of Mary of Magdala Community, Wauwatosa WI, and members of Inclusive Catholics, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  One feature of the homily focused on the refugee question and its worldwide implications.  Here is a portion of that homily which focuses on my relationship with a Hungarian refugee boy, whom we called Barry, when we were both 9 yrs. old.  His family wound up in the United States at the start of 1957 after they left their home country in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution in the Fall of 1956.

My first contact with a refugee happened when I was 9 yrs. old.  I was in 4th Grade.  We were returning from the mid-year Christmas to New Year’s break when my teacher, Sr. Francine of the Sisters of St. Joseph, introduced our class to a new student who came from Hungary.  Sister assigned me to help the boy, a challenging task since he did not speak English and I did not speak Hungarian. He showed up in our class because his family fled Hungary during the revolution in the Fall of 1956.

In 1956-57 If there were tutoring programs for refugee children who were recently escaped from Hungary with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the few things they could carry, well such programs didn’t show up at the doorstep of St. Ignatius of Antioch Elementary School, Cleveland, Ohio.  The same goes for cultural sensitivity training.  Looking back on it my guess is that Sr. Francine realized that what this boy mostly needed was a friend.

We called him Barry.  In the wake of the 65 years since this occurred, it has become clear to me what an empty space this boy had come to occupy.  Barry was obviously not his name; just some Americanized version of his real name.  I quickly learned that the Hungarian Revolution happened in the Fall of 1956, producing what the people called the “Days of Freedom,” October 23 to November 4.  The person whom we Catholics were called upon to pray for was Cardinal Mindszenty.  The prelate of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church took refuge in the United States Legation in Budapest.  He had been imprisoned by the Soviet Communist Government.  He stayed at the US Embassy until 1971 when he moved to Rome. He died there in 1975.  This was the only individual of note we were praying for, until Barry joined our 4th Grade Class in January, 1957.

My new friend and his family left their home and became refugees.  Our pastor, Msgr. Albert J. Murphy, moved several families into the Parish.  Only recently did I discover that Cleveland, at that time, had the largest concentration of Hungarians of anyplace in the world outside of Budapest.  It stands to reason why the refugees wound up in Cleveland.

So, I met my new friend, Barry, who – I’m certain – was only just becoming familiar with his new name.  In less than three months this boy had lost his home, his country, his schoolmates and even his name.  Fortunately, Sr. Francine was a compassionate person and allowed us a lot of time together to work out getting him as familiar as possible to his new and very strange surroundings.  Think about this.  In 4th Grade we had our Reading levels and pored over stories that we could relate to.  Barry, not only lost his own stories because he could not speak about them in his native language; he could not understand what the new stories were about or how they could possibly relate to his life.  Over the years I have thought about my friend – the refugee boy.  I think about all refugees who have lost everything, not only physical things but also the cultural and familiar things which make sense of each person’s everyday life.

Truthfully, as a 9 yr. old I had no idea what becoming a refugee actually meant.  To become uprooted only to be placed in the middle of Sr. Francine’s 4th Grade Class – not knowing the language, losing your culture and all your stories, not knowing what is happening all around you in the present, let alone one’s future – can you imagine?  And his family was one of the “fortunate” ones in that they did not also have to live in poverty and danger.

Whenever I recall my 9 yr. old friend this only begins to open my mind to the true devastation that occurs when one becomes a refugee.  For example, I assume that my friend’s family had to leave Hungary because of being on the losing side of a dispute.  Other Hungarians stayed because their homeland was not destroyed.  They hunkered down, carrying on worker strikes and disrupting the Soviet system in any way they could, until the fall of that system in the late 1980’s.

We can only imagine, and fear for, what faces Ukrainian refugees today.  I imagine so many will stay as close to their homeland as possible in the hope that they will return.  Yet whole portions of their country are now being turned into a total wasteland because their attacker wants to repopulate the land with Russians.  The anxiety alone of these refugees must be soul-crushing.

This strategy of creating refugees who move outside of their homeland and become dependent on the aid and charity of others – forcing economic strain on the governments and organizations who assist them – was exactly the strategy that Soviet Russia carried out in 1956 in Hungary.  In James Michener’s 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, he narrates through fictional and composite persons the very real escape of 70,000 refugees from Hungary into Austria.  Across this little bridge over the Einserkanal, a constructed waterway that forms a portion of the border between the two countries, so many left their homeland.  And when the Soviets thought enough people had left – they did not want to deplete the native skilled-worker and professional classes entirely – they bombed the bridge and created a sealed border.

                                              The Bridge at Andau (reconstructed, 1996)

This is not a new strategy.  The British Government did the same thing to Northern Ireland.  By replacing Scottish Presbyterians, mostly, on lands that previously were owned by Irish Chieftains the Plantation of Ulster began in earnest in 1609 and was in full force through the 1630s.  In Hungary, the Soviet government seemed to realize that it needed that country’s citizens to maintain a functioning economy.  Today in Ukraine, at least in its eastern portion, the Russian strategy appears to completely empty the land of its native inhabitants to start “anew” with Russian transplants.

When considering the plight and the fate of today’s refugees I am thankful for my friendship, 65 yrs. ago, with my 9r. old friend from Hungary.  He taught me lessons for life which allow me to acknowledge the rights of refugees who must deal with strangers and who live with such hope for their native lands.

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