When I arrived at the refugee camp Thursday afternoon, the world was a soggy, gray mess. I splashed through puddles and wondered whether all the kids would be at home on such a rainy day.
The lady at the gatehouse seemed very suspicious that I, a bespectacled young American woman who neither speaks nor understands much Hungarian, was in fact a volunteer English teacher. I told myself that if she was upset by a volunteer trying to gain admittance to the camp, then she was probably having a pretty bad day. Next time I go, I plan on being extra nice to her.
Once she let me in, I headed to the green building and followed the noise of chattering (and/or screaming) children and entered a room where vibrant crepe paper streamers covered the floor. It looked as if a pinata had exploded. Some of the streamers were folded into garlands, but many of them were flying through the air. The children swarmed around the weary, overwhelmed director.
On such a monotone day, the room full of bright colors and laughing faces provided me an instant energy boost.
N., a boy with dirty-blonde hair and tea saucer eyes, saw me and pressed his way into my arms. It was a sincere and earnest hug. I’d met him in November, the second time I visited the camp. He and his older brother had just arrived a few days earlier. To him, I am a familiar and welcome face.
After we said hello, N. dashed off to help clean up the streamers.
As they transitioned from craft time to my English lesson, an older boy asked me the inevitable and dreaded question:
“Do you have Facebook?”
“I, uh, don’t use it very much.” This was of course code for “I am not Facebook friends with students.” Luckily, he didn’t seem offended.
When half of the children had been urged or ordered to go home, I herded the six or seven remaining kids into a circle. Armed with a few CDs and a set of home-made picture cards, I can easily improvise a 45-minute lesson. We began by singing childhood favorites: “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”; “The Hokey Pokey”; and a few rounds of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
Then we moved on to colors. It went something like this:
I held up a red card. A boy shouted, “Blau!” (German for blue)
I held up a purple card. Several girls shrieked, “Lilla! Lilla!” (Hungarian for purple)
I held up a yellow card. A dark haired girl raised her hand. “BANANA!” Then she started giggling when she realized her mistake.
Next, we sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” half a dozen times. After the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that many, if not all, of the children are Muslim. However, the garlands they were making when I arrived were Christmas decorations and they had a Santa Party on December 6th. The children just enjoy celebrating a holiday and singing songs.
In the end, we were all exhausted, but the kids wanted to know when I was coming back.
I am always left in awe of the resilience and strength of children. I don’t know how they and their families ended up at a refugee camp in Hungary. At the very least, their families are impoverished. Children need to feel loved, safe, and secure. They need quite a bit of structure in their lives. These children have known little if any of those things.
And yet they smile. Like all kids, they are eager to play games. To create. To dance. To laugh. To learn.
A few certainly act out. One boy moved through the room like a tornado, pushing other kids, dumping out the trashcan, and kicking the streamers with a fury. He doesn’t know any other way to deal with his anger and frustration.
Some of the kids are perfectionists. When doing crafts, I watch them crumple up a paper or wipe off paint over and over again. It’s as if they are compelled to create an unblemished picture. If they do everything exactly right, then everything will be okay. I can relate to the feeling.
I observe in awe as the older kids watch out for their younger siblings. They wait their turn to choose a sticker (In case you were wondering, starfish are hands down the most popular choice of fish sticker for all students ages five to nineteen). Without me asking, they help clean up after the lesson.
Ours is a world where children are uprooted from their homes due to poverty, prejudice, and violence. But what do these children offer the world in return? Their precious smiles. Hugs. Affection. Joy.
Whether or not they celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday, these children effortlessly personify the spirit of Christmas.
What, if any, lasting impact I have on the children I will never know. But I do know that we shared an hour of happiness and learning, and they help me to cultivate the Christmas spirit within myself.