Immigrants appeal to Hungarians’ hearts via their stomachs

Ten Budapest restaurants showcase migrants’ national dishes in a bid to encourage tolerance.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (SEPTEMBER 29, 2015) (REUTERS) – A bunch of restaurants in Budapest have found a mouth-watering way to challenge Hungarian attitudes to Europe’s migrant crisis – by serving up tasty dishes from Syria and other countries that are providing many of the refugees.

Hungary’s right-wing government has come under fire over its clampdown on migrants fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and beyond. The erection of a steel fence along the southern border with Serbia has prompted particular concern.

But Hungarians are also famed for their love of good food – and the restaurant initiative aims to provide a more intimate, human perspective on the cultures that the tens of thousands of people now flocking into Europe have left behind.

“It could help because many of us are afraid of strangers and if we get to know people then perhaps we can break down these barriers which block us,” the co-ordinator of the culinary project that has been organised by the Artemisszio foundation, Hanna Mikes, said.

The week-long event, named “bORDER-Gastrofest in another way”, also provides information about everyday life in the four countries involved – Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea – and features brief interviews with immigrants living in Hungary.

One of the immigrants helping with the project, Akela Sabona, 27, came to Hungary with her family from Afghanistan many years ago.

“I told them about Borani Banjan, an eggplant dish – we peel the eggplant, slice it, fry and cook it. I like it very much and I suggested to the restaurants to make it,” she said, smiling broadly as she had just been granted Hungarian citizenship.

Even though most of the migrants trying to get into Hungary do not intend to stay but to travel further west, especially to Germany, Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he is acting to save Europe’s “Christian values” by blocking their main overland route. Most of the refugees are Muslims.

His tough stance has angered human rights groups and some governments who see the new border fence as a throwback to the Cold War era of European division. But Orban also has support from Europeans who say the huge influx of migrants will put intolerable strain on public services and stoke ethnic tensions.

Budapest diners enjoying the dishes from distant Eritrea and Afghanistan were as divided on the issue.

“I think in the short-term we must help those who sleep rough, who are hungry and thirsty, and especially those coming from a war zone who have had to endure tough situations which to us are inconceivable,” investor Antal Karolyi, 44, said.

Finishing off a thin-crusted Afghan pastry filled with potatoes and onions called “Bolani”, served with Syrian minty yogurt sauce, Karolyi said in the longer term the solution to the crisis must lie in the countries of origin.

His colleague Zsolt Farkas, seated at the other side of the table, could not decide whether the fence was a good idea but said the Hungarian government had to act to manage the crisis.

“The government has reacted like this, but we will only see later whether it is good or not – history will tell,” he said.

In a country with such conflicting views, the manager of the Manga Cowboy restaurant in a bustling district of central Budapest, Ivan Sandor, said the project, in which the immigrants provide recipes that restaurants then prepare, could help dampen tensions fuelled by the migrant crisis in Hungary.

“I think that in the past weeks all sides have tried to use these tensions to gain some [political] benefits, and I think at a laid table with good food we can perhaps defuse these tensions,” said Sandor, whose restaurant is one of 10 participating in the project.

Budapest resident Saba Tesfay, 37, born to a Hungarian mother and an Eritrean father, has helped two restaurants to choose Eritrean national dishes, including ‘Injera’, a flat bread with a spongy texture that is served with a spicy beef and chicken stew, eggs and lentil puree.

Tesfay, a cultural anthropologist, said she had never had any particular problems as a second-generation immigrant growing up in Hungary, but said the migrant crisis was now making life more difficult.

“You can feel that when people now ask: ‘When did you arrive in Hungary?’ they may do so not because they want to know how they can help, but for fun, in the sense of: ‘Here we have yet another immigrant’. This happened to me in the market recently, though never before. It felt really bad,” she said.

More than 240,000 migrants have passed through Hungary this year so far, nearly all seeking sanctuary in the rich countries of western Europe from war and poverty in the Middle East.