‘We escaped from war and came to the big prison’

In the heart of Hungary’s capital, thousands of migrants and refugees have set up a temporary camp.

Hemmed in by businesses that refuse to share their water and electricity, and prevented from leaving for what they see as the safe haven of Germany, they help each other try to get by.

Instead of travelers with suitcases, the entire underground area in front of Budapest’s Keleti international railway station is filled with migrants and refugees. The luckier ones have tents and blankets — others shelter underneath pizza boxes.

Here, even cardboard can make a huge difference.

Others have covered their living areas with sheets of printer paper bearing messages. “We escaped from war and came to the big prison,” one says. Another: “I miss my family because I lost my family in war Syria.”

Volunteers have distributed chalk to some of the children and there are pleas written on the walls: “Why we face the problems here … Why we lost our home.”

Another reads: “Syria, I want to go to Germany (please).” Help us (Syria) Angela Merkel.”

Keeping clean

Washing is pegged to the bannisters of the station stairs, the same steps blocked by police on Tuesday when Hungary stopped international trains from leaving.

The refugees are both angry and ashamed at hearing that Hungarians accuse them of being dirty and — despite the dire circumstances they have been forced into — have been trying to wash themselves and their laundry.

Underground, there is a water station with six faucets — providing running water for some 2,000 people in limbo here.

When I pass, a man is washing his jeans from a water bottle he has filled. One woman washes her headscarf in flip-flops that are too big for her while another washes her child’s hair.

Volunteers have provided garbage bags and young refugee and migrant children move through the area collecting trash to take to the Migrant Aid charity station to dispose of.

Hospitality

While they look homeless now, the vast majority of people we have spoken to are middle class — they had homes that they have been forced to leave behind.

But they have brought their hospitality with them.

Welcomed to their cardboard living area, we’re politely offered food they scarcely have. If they have three cookies, they will insist you eat one. My colleague Arwa Damon was unable to refuse half an apple.

The generosity of these people is in direct contrast to the treatment they’re getting. Businesses are not letting them use restrooms or electricity to charge the phones that are their lifeline.

The bathroom inside the station is user-pay and there are now eight portable toilets in the square — two more than yesterday — serving thousands. When you walk by there’s always a line and the smell becomes unbearable. I haven’t seen a truck empty them out.

‘Why? Why?’

Many residents passing by the square seem oblivious to the mass of humanity before them.

A lot try not to look — others observe and shake their heads. One elderly Hungarian woman approached as we interviewed a family and started crying, saying “Why? Why?”

Last night, far-right protesters arrived at the camp shouting “Ria, Ria Hungaria.” Volunteers moved among the refugees with “Syria” written on their forearms, urging them not to react to hateful slogans.

These are not violent people. A police presence remains but the refugees have not protested with their fists.

On the steps of the station migrants and refugees sit, as tourists walk by.

Keleti opened for domestic train journeys this morning — providing a little bit of hope, but the refugees I spoke to remained wary.

“This is a trick; we’re not getting on the train,” some told me. “They’re not going to Germany, just going to a camp.”

But there are moments of respite among the misery. Children kick footballs and play volleyball. I came across a volunteer surrounded by children working on color-in drawings. Their artwork is hung from poles.

A Hare Krishna group lets other children play with their musical instruments.

Parents are reunited with their child, who was lost and crying in the midst of the madness.

In this unsought and temporary community, people are helping each other out.

But help from the outside world is less forthcoming.

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