Long Way from Home

Woman refugees in Hungary

by Annika Althoff, Belinda Grasnick and Johanna Kleibl

It is a common belief that mainly young men are coming to Europe seeking for a better life. But actually there are many women, sometimes not as visible, but often confronted with gender-specific challenges and the responsibility for children travelling with them. This project tells the story of women that made it to Europe and gives insight into different aspects of being a woman refugee.

"Mi hol van? — Where are we?" The broad, green lettering announces this lesson’s topic. It’s 11:30 in the morning. Fifteen women are looking at the whiteboard. Thirteen of them are wearing a hijab. Some are scribbling with pens and pencils. The Hungarian lesson is organised by the Reformed Church of Hungary, specifically arranged for refugee and migrant women.

“It’s not just a language lesson. It’s a place where the women can meet and socialize”, Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy says. She has been working for the Refugee Mission at the Reformed Church for seven years and is the mission’s head now. Before and after the lessons, the women chat over a cup of tea or coffee.

Nour*, 45, is one of the students at the Reformed Church. It’s only the second time she has come to the class. Like all her clothes, the hijab covering her hair is black. She is a Syrian woman and mother of five children. Her eyes are getting wet as she tells her story. She has been living in Budapest for two months now, in a small apartment with her husband. Their relatives have covered their rent until now. But the economic situation in Hungary doesn’t allow the financial support for long, the relatives can hardly live off their income on their own.

Nour followed her husband and her two sons to Hungary. Together with two of her daughters, she crossed the Mediterranean on a small, crowded ship. „We have seen death on this ship“, she says, shaking her head. She regrets the experiences her daughters had to make in order to get to Europe.

Until November 2015, over 850,000 people have reached Europe by sea, according to UNHCR statistics. Compared to some 220,000 in 2014, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean has increased strongly. But the common assumption that only young men are fleeing their country “is a strong simplification and not true”, says Ernő Simon of UNHCR’s regional representation for Central Europe. The demographic composition of refugees is constantly changing. There are the elderly, there are families, there are women. And there is an ever growing number of children coming to the EU.

The journey

About half of the refugees worldwide are women. Yet, mainly men and middle-class families came to Europe until summer this year. “It was a very expensive and difficult journey”, says András Siewert, Operations Director at Migration Aid. Women and children intended to follow later through a family reunion visa safely by plane. “Then the UN didn’t get enough money for the refugee camps and had to cut the financial support for food by half”, Siewert says. As a result an increasing number of people is trying to reach Europe. Governments and organisations have started to provide transportation within Europe. Due to the better support system, less wealthy families with many children can afford the journey now.

It’s far from being a safe journey though and “women are among the highly vulnerable groups”, Ernő Simon says. At the Turkish border, refugees often have to hide from the police some days before entering a boat. And after the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean they usually have to walk several kilometers before receiving help. Women are usually responsible for the children. Some are pregnant. “About 75 percent of medical emergencies we take care of concern women”, estimates András Siewert.

A big threat is sexual exploitation. “We have received many testimonies in the last couple of month that smugglers forced women and children to have sex with them when they ran out of money”, Simon says. Women are also vulnerable to human trafficking.

Stateless children

Leyla, 30, came to Budapest nine years ago. Her husband was in Hungary on a student visa. After he would finish his studies in Software Engineering, they were planning to go back to Bagdad together. But the situation in Iraq worsened during their stay, it is no longer safe to return to their country.They have refugee status now, but there is one problem. Leyla’s daughter was born in Hungary, but the authorities don’t automatically give the Hungarian citizenship to children of non-residents. „They simply leave the nationality out when they write the birth certificate, or they put a question mark“, Leyla says. Until she was three years old, Leyla’s daughter was stateless. Only with the help of relatives in Bagdad and after countless visits at the Embassy, she received the Iraqi citizenship.

Leyla’s family is not an exceptional case. The issue affects many refugee families. “It is really a huge handicap in their lives”, says Ernő Simon. “They cannot travel alone, because they cannot have travel documents without citizenship.” UNHCR declares that they want to resolve the issue of statelessness by 2024. There should be no more stateless citizens in the world by then.

Nour’s husband wants to stay in Hungary, because a part of their family already lives here. Nour does not seem convinced of staying. She would rather be with her children, seeing her grandchildren grow up. Four of her five children are in Germany. Her pregnant daughter stayed behind in Egypt. „I just want to go back to Aleppo with the whole family“, Nour says and starts to cry. But their house is destroyed, the women's fashion shop her husband once owned doesn’t exist any longer.

* Some names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals.