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Dr. Madaras: A Refugee’s First Thanksgiving

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Dr. Laszlo Madaras at the Austro-Hungarian Border
Dr. Laszlo Madaras at the Austro-Hungarian border while traveling in 2019.

Fifty years ago, after a year living as refugees, the family of Laszlo Madaras, MD, MPH, finally arrived in Bangor, Maine from Hungary. Dr. Madaras, Migrant Clinicians Network’s Chief Medical Officer, was seven years old at the time. His first memories of America are tangled up in an American tradition: “We were jetlagged. We woke up really early, and the meal was very late. I thought it was a special meal for us, but it was actually Thanksgiving,” he laughed. “The food was strange -- kind of mushy. I thought, ‘this is what we would give to grandmas with no teeth!’” But he loved it. Around the dinner table, he met his extended family, learned about their disagreements in politics, and watched how they negotiated family life in America. The quintessential American meal, replete with turkey and stuffing, celebrates America’s first immigrants -- although it largely ignores the devastation they brought to the local inhabitants, their cultures, and their lands. For these newest of immigrants, the meal was a welcome celebration after a yearlong refugee process, and marked the beginning of a lengthy resettling in America.

“We left Hungary when I was six,” recalled Dr. Madaras. His father, a pharmaceutical chemist, had an opportunity for a short-term study in Sweden, a rare opportunity to leave the communist country and head into the West. Young Laszlo, with his mother and father, were permitted out of the country. His younger sister, just three at the time, was left behind with his maternal grandparents.

“She stayed behind, as kind of a guarantee to the state that we would return, because we wouldn’t want to split the family,” he said. But his father, without telling his mother, never intended to return. Instead, he wished to bring his family to the United States, where his own father had settled during World War II. “When [my father’s] visa ran out, he declared that he wasn’t coming back, and then we were refugees,” he said simply. “We didn’t suffer -- the Swedish people were very good to us -- but we didn’t have a country.”

Dr. Madaras is careful to emphasize that, although he was a child refugee, he and his family never suffered or risked death during migration, never struggled with authorities, and never worried about his future. “I was never put in a cage, or in a cold room with other kids away from my family. I was never fearful for my life. In the eyes of a six-year-old, it was an adventure,” he admitted.

When his father declared his intentions in Sweden, “it was a shock to the rest of the family in Hungary,” Dr. Madaras said. The government took over his family home. Relatives got to pick out some personal mementos like wedding photos, but the state took the rest, along with the property. “Then we had to figure out how to get my sister out,” he said.

The International Red Cross stepped in and started negotiations with the government of Hungary. For months, the family lived in Sweden, working closely with the Red Cross in hopes that the family could be reunited, an unclear prospect. He asked his parents if, instead of his sister coming to them, they could just return to Hungary to see his sister. “My dad said, no, because now we’re enemies of the state. He would go to prison, mom would go to prison, and then I would go to the military,” he recalled. The seriousness of the situation didn’t seem to overburden young Laszlo, who felt the threat of arrest earned him some street cred: “I thought that was pretty cool, that I could tell my friends at Swedish school.” His time in Sweden, where he learned both Swedish and English, impressed upon him the power of language. “That whole time was a big adventure: making friends, learning different cultures. I learned that languages and communication are so important. If you want to get along with your friends, if you don’t want to get beaten up, if you want to do well in school, you’ve got to learn the language.”

As they awaited news about his sister, the family also began the process of trying to claim asylum in the United States, where they wished to join their family members. “What helped us, ironically, I think, is when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. We had been out of Hungary for about a year, and at that point, the US was starting to welcome Eastern Europeans suffering under Communism,” Dr. Madaras reflected. “That scenario fast-tracked our case,” and the family was able to receive paperwork to enter the country.

After about a year, the family finally got good news: his sister was permitted to join them in Sweden. Within two weeks of her arrival in Sweden, the family departed for Bangor, Maine, and enjoyed their first American Thanksgiving.

Life in the United States wasn’t easy: he had to start another school conducted in another language; he had to repeat a grade until he could catch up linguistically; his family moved again, to Boston. But Dr. Madaras is grateful for the opportunity to move here, and sees many parallels between his journey and those of his patients. Because of his English skills, gained from his time at Swedish elementary school, he was immediately his family’s translator, a common situation among English as a second language patients.

He also says his path to migrant health is in part to pay back the people who helped his family.

“I learned there was a group of people who work internationally to help others, even if they  didn’t know them directly,” he said, referring to the International Red Cross workers who lobbied for his sister’s release. “That was a seed that was planted then.”


The Austro-Hungarian Border 2019
The Austro-Hungarian border (2019)

Earlier this year, Dr. Madaras returned to his childhood home in Hungary, which at one time was just a few miles from a heavily fortified border, ringed by landmines and barbed wire: “You couldn’t get within two or three kilometers of the border without the risk of getting shot by Hungarian guards.” Now, he says, you can easily walk across a bridge into Austria. The border had split apart families who, before the Communist leaders dropped the iron curtain, had lived on both sides and traveled freely. Once again in 2019, travel across the border was free. “There’s a fluidity here now,” Dr. Madaras reflected. “Thinking that a wall is something that can prevent desperate people from seeking whatever they want or need -- it’s not going to stop anybody from trying… Those land mines, they created unnecessary human suffering, without making anything better. And they came and went, within my lifetime.”


Dr. Madaras shares how his immigration story inspired him to give back.


Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers!
Please keep Migrant Clinicians Network in mind as we roll into this holiday week. This coming Tuesday -- after Black Friday and Small Business Saturday -- is Giving Tuesday, when people around the country donate to their favorite non-profit organizations. This year, we have a $10,000 match from a very generous anonymous donor. That means your donation goes twice as far! Help us make a big impact for migrant and immigrant families: please mark your calendar and donate to MCN on Tuesday. 



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