Phiren Amenca


Charlotte Flynn, one of the eight volunteers serving in Hungary within YAGM – Young Adults in Global Mission – is slowly coming to the end of her volunteer year in Budapest. A colleague and friend asks her about her experiences.

Text: Szilvia Ittzés

Photos: Katalin Fabiny, Endre Hámor, Szilvia Ittzés, Adrienn Szathmáry

You can see photos of Charlotte’s volunteer year here

When you arrived to Budapest almost a year ago from the other side of the world, from your home in Texas what sort of expectations did you have? You surely knew something about this side of the world?

Well, for one thing I tried hard not to have any strong expectations, because I think the more you expect something the bigger the disappointment will be. But, of course to be honest I did have some fear. We learned something about cold and closed communism, which I knew this country had lived through, plus I somehow connected that with the weather, which sounds strange, I know. So I feared cold and closed people in a country with cold weather. This all sounds strange now, looking back, but you mustn’t forget that I grew up in Texas, where the sun shines and there’s a clear blue sky above you all year round.

Your first two weeks here were the peak of our immigrant crisis, which came with sudden and dramatic events: masses of people we never saw left for the highway to cross the border to Austria. We were in the focus of attention on an international level. How did you feel about those opening scenes of your stay here?

There were two sides to it. On the one hand it was strange, that the country we came to was in the news back at home, and everyone kept asking us if we were okay, and what the situation was. But it was even stranger not to really know what was going on, since we spent the first two weeks in Révfülöp at the summer resort-conference house of the Lutheran church getting acclimatized. And then, when we finally arrived at Budapest and met bishop Tamás Fabiny and saw how he was urgently trying to look for means of helping the immigrants – it was a good feeling to be able to tell family and friends back home about what we saw. How the church was looking for ways – both theoretically and practically – to help solve the terrible problems of the people in need.

Then, after a week in Budapest we were finally sent out to our places and I could start my volunteer work.

You “worked” at two different places.

Right. I spent half of my weeks at an international organization named Phiren Amenca, which is a network of Roma and non-Roma volunteers and organizations and tries to find opportunities for dialogue. It is a European Voluntary Service which stresses Roma and non-Roma volunteers to work together. Young people can apply and stay for a half to one year with the help of the Erasmus+ program, and the organizations specifically encourages young Roma people to come. This way it connects Roma and non-Roma youth from all over Europe to meet and work together on the same level.

Since the YAGM program emphasizes getting involved with Roma issues in the given country besides working within the Lutheran church working at this organization is a good way to connect. In fact I lived with two other volunteers, Angela and Max from there in a downtown flat on Erzsébet körút.

What was your specific task?

This organization works on a theoretical and practical level: it does research on Roma rights, European minority policy, etc, but also organizes events to bring volunteers together to learn about issues and come up with strategies to address them. I helped at the office with organizing seminars and conferences which were held in different European cities, or helped with keeping the facebook page updated. But besides these tasks this year at Phiren Amenca was mainly a huge learning experience for me about working alongside Roma. My task wasn’t to help the minority – as someone from the majority, but to work together as colleagues. Which also meant building relationships, listening to people and their life stories. Very much like my work at your school, Fasor. Planning lessons and teaching English words was just a small part of the experience – and not necessarily the most important part. My year at the school was more about getting to know a part of Hungarian life and culture through getting to know a school and its teachers and students. And also showing something about my own culture, introducing life in the United States to Hungarian students and teachers. It is all about getting to know each other and thus understanding each other more.

This sounds really nice, but before I ask you to talk about your school experiences, one more question: didn’t it cause you a problem not to be able to get involved with the specific Roma situation in Hungary? An international organization can reach many goals on an international level, but may be blind to the majority-minority questions right outside its office door.

Yes, that is a problem that we face at the organization. Phiren Amenca has been successful at building relationships and making policy changes at the European level, but is also trying to find ways to be involved on the local level too. One such program is the International Roma Day on 8thof April, when it was a good opportunity to use my contact to a school. This day dates back to 1971, when they held a Romany world congress for the first time, ant it was a really big deal. That was the first time Roma people actually had an official meeting from all over the world to build contact and to get to know each others situation.

What did you do with the students?

We were asked to hold a whole week of awareness raising programs. I decided that based on my experiences with the different language groups – all different in age and style and language level – it was better to stay within the small groups and try age-appropriate activities, instead of large scale school conferences. For younger kids Max, a Roma volunteer from Ukraine, who was also my flat mate brought neat activities about his mother tongue, Romanes: verses, vocabulary games, songs. Through his own person and these fun activities he tried to show the Hungarian students how interesting Roma language and culture could be. We also hoped, that for them by getting to know somebody cool from the Roma community, the students might start judging the situation of Roma differently in their own country.

For the little bit older age group we brought an already established workshop about Superheroes. The idea came from Vicente Rodriguez, who as a child realized that there was a Roma superhero in the cartoon- and comic “literature”: Magneto. He was fascinated by the idea that there was actually a Roma super hero alongside Spiderman, Captain America, Superman and so on, and as an adult used this idea to build a whole program. In it, Roma and non-Roma children – using Magneto’s example – first build their own superheroes, and then are shown Roma real life heroes. For example Holocaust survivors, who also saved somebody, or artists, writers who had an influence through their art. The students took it really well, and thought it was an interesting task.

In the highest classes, where the level of English enabled the students to think about more complex matters we tried to raise questions of racism and minorities in general. There too Max and Angela, my other flat mate and colleague from Romania could share experiences from their own lives. I also brought my own experiences from the USA. If we just get the students to think and raise questions about things they thought evident until now, then we can say it was a success. Thinking and asking questions is the most important thing you can teach young people.

You actually spent half of your time at Fasor, one of the Lutheran schools in Budapest. You worked with 8 teachers and 20 language groups from 5th graders to 12th graders based on a two-week time table. This meant quite a wide range of language levels and age groups. Wasn’t it very tiring?

Yes, very. In fact, because I got involved with so many groups, I hardly got to know any students really personally, which I missed. But then again, they were really nice to me, greeted me enthusiastically whenever we met on the corridors, and followed my instructions during class – which was crucial. So even though I didn’t get around to memorize their names (since we only met every two weeks), we learned from each other a lot.

What were you expected to do? Were you an actual English teacher?

I mostly helped the teachers with whatever topic they were working on at the moment. Often I was asked to put together a presentation about something personal, or something about the US. I often thought up games and activities to teach the vocabulary I would need for them to understand my topic. But often I was just asked to follow instructions and answer questions – like in your classes mostly – and often the situation was very real and life like since I did not know beforehand what the topic was. Whichever way, I hope the students benefitted from somebody who was a native speaker – me.

And during these English classes and also while spending time in the teachers’ lobby or taking part in other school activities like ceremonies or contests I slowly got to know Hungary and Hungarians. I also hope that I could show a bit of what the USA is like.

How did you communicate? My students were really alarmed around November when you suddenly smiled at a joke they said to each other in Hungarian… Our language is supposed to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. How could you manage at all?

Well, I really made an effort at trying to learn Hungarian, but I made slow progress. This was mainly because I hardly could find anybody who did not speak English! Downtown, where I lived I was practically not able to use the little Hungarian I already knew. Whenever I tried to ask for something in a pub or a store, the waiter or shop assistant switched to English the moment he realized from my accent that I was a foreigner. It was frustrating, because I took real, serious language lessons from a teacher twice a week in the beginning, I made notes of everything I heard and couldn’t understand, I read everything I saw in Hungarian around me: signs, notes, I listened to people talking on the tram or bus. And so I was eager to try my new knowledge!

Actually you were great! By April you could carry on a conversation, and talk with my son for example, about everyday topics.

I think the way it happened, was that when people around me – especially the teachers at Fasor – realized I know some Hungarian, and that I was interested in learning more, they started helping me and teaching me. It was fun for everybody to have someone to teach their own mother tongue to! The students also started being my teachers, which made our relationship more interesting and fun, since it was more fair and equal: we were both trying to teach something, and both trying to make efforts at learning something from the other. My best conversation partners were either children, like your son or your niece, Klára, 12 year old, who really made an effort to teach me, or people like Misi bácsi, the “portás” (the door keeper) at Fasor, who spoke almost no English, but this did not keep him back from explaining me all sorts of things, for instance: jokes!

All in all Hungarian is really difficult, I still have a hard time memorizing words, since so many words sound so much alike, plus I still find it almost impossible to naturally ask for the menu or a cup of coffee. I concentrate really hard, and then say something which I think is absolutely appropriate, but which turns out to be funny and awkward. And all that because of I said “fel” instead of “meg”, or “be” instead of “el”.

Well we still think you are pretty good, and I hope you won’t forget what you know, and will be able to use your Hungarian even after you leave this country!

I am determined not to lose it, and try to put it at good use!

Getting back to school life, I can say for sure that you were a very successful teacher and helper! The students really loved you and appreciated your work and effort. They sensed that you were truly trying to understand what they said to you, and that you were really interested in their lives and the country. Is Hungarian school very different?

Yes, in many ways. But I needed time to realize that, and the Hungarian students too. Only after giving several presentations about my own schools and other topics in the States, and only after asking many questions from them did we start seeing the differences.

For one thing we don’t have a class system from 7th grade upward. Everybody has their own time table and meets different people in different classes. This means that friendships aren’t made in class so much, class is for studying and learning. But we do join school clubs according to our interests: media, drama, sports, chemistry, creative writing, music, choir, etc., and those are the places where social life happens, where relationships are built, and where the fun part is.

Of course this has its drawbacks, because a student who is lonely and shy and silent can really disappear, since there is no home-room teacher to pay attention to him or her. When you hear about those terrible shootings that happen in schools in the States, it is more than often somebody with a history like that. On the other hand here, in the Hungarian system, if you don’t happen to be very social, or just haven’t found a friend in you class, you are stuck with that group for 8 years, every single class, every day, on excursions and class programs too, and there is no way out, which is also very sad and unfair. Also, you place yourself in the group and measure yourself to the others, and since the group never changes, you never get a new picture of yourself, which also does not serve personal growth and development. So I am not sure which is the better system…

Anything else?

Yes. I was quite surprised at how very academic teaching and school life is! Grades, marks and exams  – mainly written ones – is what everything revolves around, and those are the focus points from which the students are judged and evaluated, which I found a bit too one-sided. Here the written tests, the so called “dolgozat”s and “témazáró”s are the events which decide how good a student you are. In the States, class participation, homework, extra work, presentations and all sorts of non-exam results count just as much. Of course, there each teacher has more time to work on his or her subject, since we have the same subjects every day – which means less subjects! Here most subjects are taught twice or three times a week, which allows much less extra tasks.

Anything positive?

Oh, yes! I loved the way students are good friends and care for each other! I also enjoyed the more relaxed and personal atmosphere of the school, where teachers trusted students.

Also I was absolutely impressed at how confident students are on stage! In the States nobody would dare bring the students into such situations where they might become embarrassed or where they would have to perform really well in front of their own school mates. Whereas here it is considered natural to learn poems and texts by heart and recite them in front of an audience, to be able to sing and play on musical instruments and dance on a high level, to give plays – without being part of a drama club – and to actually undertake the uncomfortable part of rehearsing and then showing yourself. I was amazed by all the “műsor”s at the historical dates, or at school programs.

I also loved the “Ballagás”, when everybody decorated the school building together – all the corridors and classrooms, and staircases – and dressed it in flowers and greens, to prepare the building for the last walk of the 12th graders. This was their last day in school, before the final exams, and this was the way they said goodbye: walked in a single line, lead by their home-room teacher, singing songs, many written specifically for this occasion. It was lovely, and the preparations were really fun, the way the whole school was involved!

So all in all your school can be really proud of itself! The students and the teachers are all doing a great job, and school pride is something you could strengthen in yourself – like in the States…

What about church life? I know that Lutheranism and belonging to a church is important to you, and you found a home-congregation at our church at Kelenföld, in the Buda part of the city. Was it easy to fit in? Or did you fit in at all?

Church life is a bit different here than what I was used to back home. In the States there is a huge social part of belonging to a church, which I was looking for here, and could not find. At home you start belonging through a smaller group which shares you interests: gardening group, movie club, patchwork group. From there, through the almost compulsory coffee and cake after Sunday service, you start getting to know the people at church. Here it was much more difficult to connect, since people just go to church, and then run home for family lunches, often with grandparents and cousins. It took me a while to realize that at home the social part of church life actually replaces the family – since families live far apart from each other. But here people are with their families very often, families spend lots of time together, especially at weekends, so you don’t “need” non-family relationships so much.

This is why I was happy to join Kelenföld through your family, since by regularly taking part at the same service and by having lunch with your family afterwards I was part of a basic and strong Hungarian tradition: Sunday for church members means service in the morning and then lunch with the family.

In what other ways could you connect?

I got to know church vocabulary quite well, since the texts are basically the same. I enjoyed knowing and singing many songs and hymns, and learning new ones. It was also important for me, that your pastor, Tamás Gáncs knew who I was and always said the verses at Holy Communion in English for me. That was a very special feeling. Of course I enjoyed the high level of music life at Kelenföld, which was actually incredible. At home music, and within that church music isn’t important so much for its high artistic standard, but rather for its social value. Anybody can join, and the main goal is to have a good time praising God. Here the outcome is important too, the way I see it.

Did you find any other forms of church service that you liked?

Yes, a young pastor, Áron Bence invited me to the so called “Thomas mass”, which is an alternative style service, with lots of youth songs and music. I also took part in a few Taize services, and sometimes I visited the English service in Pest. But Kelenföld became my home for this year.

Dear Charlotte, thank you for your openness towards us and interest in our country. We appreciated your efforts to get involved with our school, church and family lives, to try to learn our language and to serve God through these ways. We enjoyed getting a glimpse of America and Americans through you and your commitment.  We wish you God blessings for your trip back, and to your further studies, work and involvement. It was great fun to get to know you and have you as a colleague and friend for this year! We will miss you!

Szilvia Ittzés

English teacher at Budapest-Fasori Lutheran High school

7th July, 2016