Hard lessons in Hungarian for asylum-seekers.
When Theophilus, a 17-year-old from Nigeria, sought asylum in Hungary after a two-week trek across sea and land, he encountered a fresh ordeal: Learning one of Europe’s toughest languages.
“Learning Hungarian is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said, in a classroom at the Than Karoly school in Budapest, one of the few schools in the country to take in young refugees.
“Look at the word for computer: Szamitogep,” he laughs, pointing at his textbook.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to pronounce it properly!“
To master Hungarian, which has a 42-letter alphabet and includes 14 vowels, Theophilus must choose between 35 verb endings and digest a dizzying vocabulary of words of terrifying length, spelling and pronunciation, all but a few unrelated to any other language.
Fleeing ethnic conflict in north-west Nigeria, he journeyed five days by sea in a packed dinghy, then walked – mostly off-road and at night – hundreds of kilometres from Turkey to Hungary, an eastern member of the European Union.
Safe now at a home for other child refugees without their families on the outskirts of Budapest, Theophilus, whose native language is Ika, is bussed daily to a school in the centre of the capital with a view of the Danube river.
Here, along with 80 other asylum-seekers aged between 14 and 18 with similarly horrific stories, he takes 18 hours of Hungarian lessons per week as part of an “integration year” organised by the Hungarian Government.
‘Koszonom’: Thank You
Even basic words like Udvozoljuk! (“welcome!”), koszonom (“thank you”) and egeszsegedre! (“cheers!”) are a mouthful for foreigners.
Further complicating matters, most of the pupils in the class don’t speak a connecting language like English, says the group’s teacher Piroska Gornagy, so the lessons are conducted almost entirely in Hungarian.
“To teach the word kiabal (“shout”), for example, I have to shout!” she said.
“I do a lot of acting and jumping around to explain things.”
If the pupils pass an exam at the end of the year, they can enter the mainstream school system, which poses even bigger challenges.
“Even for the best students, to learn mathematics, history and everything in Hungarian is very difficult,” says Ildiko Hublik, who set up the integration classes in 2008.
Hungary slightly loosened its harsh system of detaining asylum-seekers last year, which partly explains a 10-fold surge in asylum applications to almost 20,000 from around 2,000 in 2012.
Bodies like the UNHCR, however, report continuing widespread intolerance, as well as Byzantine bureaucratic difficulties, lengthy periods of detention, and insufficient help in integrating.
“There are very few school places around,” said Hublik.
“Most schools don’t want to take in refugee children, for fear of upsetting parents.”
Gornagy tries to show the pupils how to avoid offending strangers by inappropriately using informal language, but says she often hears from them how they are sworn at on the street, or picked on by ticket inspectors on public transport.
“My job is like being a social worker sometimes,” she says.
“They think we’re Gypsies!” complains Ahmadshah, a 17-year-old Afghan, referring to the Roma, Hungary’s largest ethnic minority, who are often blamed for petty crime and face widespread discrimination.
Few of the Hungarian students chatting outside the school, meanwhile, have anything to do with the refugee class.
“We can’t really talk to them,” shrugs 15-year-old Attila.
If their asylum applications are accepted, the refugees are free to travel and work anywhere in the 26 countries in Europe’s visa-free Schengen zone.
And, many do, throwing into question the use of their struggling to learn Hungarian.
One Somali man, for instance, who went to the trouble of creating the first ever Hungarian-Somali dictionary with 2,500 words and idioms, is now working in western Europe.
But some, like one young Bangladeshi ordering a sandwich in competent Hungarian at the school shop, do stay.
“I can speak Hungarian now, why leave?” he said. — AFP