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These Five Refugees Share Their Life-Changing Migration Journeys with Dr. Madaras

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[Editor’s Note: Welcome home, Dr. Madaras! Laszlo Madaras, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer for Migrant Clinicians Network, is back after spending some time in Switzerland, Austria, and his native Hungary, serving the health needs of refugees and visiting family. Here, he shares the stories of some of the people he met during his recent travels. Please be advised that the following stories describe episodes of violence that may be upsetting to some readers.]


Democratic Republic of the Congo

JEANNETTE, from Congo

Jeannette is a friend who for years now has been employed at the same Swiss refugee center that housed her originally. I got to know her through family connections and our previous brief conversations had been about pleasantries of Swiss life and the contrast to Congo. Her French sounds familiar to my ears as I  learned my French there in the Congo. She usually stopped short of giving any details of her "journey" from Africa to Europe. Then, one afternoon over tea, she felt ready to open up about what she had endured and the way she was able to leave the Congo. I consider it a gift and an honor to receive such stories. This is her story:

Jeanette, originally from the western part of Congo, moved to the national capital Kinshasa where her husband worked as a securocrat, an influential member of the police force, under a former dictator. Through his work, he was able to house and feed the family in the capital over many years, but after a coup that replaced the old autocrat with a new one, his position became more tenuous. He was no longer able to advance his career, being tied politically to the old regime, but felt lucky to have kept his job. Then there was an attempt on the new autocrat's life, and martial law ensued. His luck ran out. He was taken at night by soldiers and accused of keeping ties with the old regime and possibly working with the attempted coup plotters.  There have been many such accusations and jailings of political rivals once a new regime was declared so this was nothing new. Jeannette tried for months to visit the two nearby prisons that housed many political prisoners who were not immediately executed, but was advised by former friends of the family that if she continued these searches openly, she would be an easy next target in a land where political opponents were eliminated often with their spouses and other family members and never seen again. She followed their advice and stopped searching. She never saw her husband again. 

Jeannette tried to find work in Kinshasa, but few friends would risk open association with her since her husband and therefore her entire family were now discredited as being tied to the former dictator. To be without family ties is a death sentence in many parts of Africa where family is your only life insurance, health insurance, and disability insurance. Jeannette did not know much about her husband's work, nor was she politically interested, but she cooked many Congolese meals for friends of the family over years, and now was asking some of these friends for any kind assistance. One such friend connected her to a housekeeper job with a French-speaking expat businessman in Kinshasa, and this kept her from starving to death, but it was also the beginning of  what would become the darkest part of her life. 

She was a hard-working housekeeper, took on more tasks in the business, and kept the keys to several offices of her employer. One day out of the blue, her employer told her not to come to work as there were soldiers going through and pillaging his downtown offices. Soldiers in the Congo were often poorly paid if at all, and especially in economic hard times, nothing trickled down to them in the kleptocracy except what they could take at gunpoint. This was made even easier if the government gave the green light to search newly invented political enemies. Jeannette stayed at home as advised, but that night she heard loud banging on the door of her own home. 

Until this point, as she told her story to me, Jeannette was sitting with folded hands speaking calmly in French, but now those words failed her and she began adding words in her native Lingala into her phrases, using her arms and legs to mimic the soldiers' horrible actions.

A dozen soldiers pushed through the door, knocked her down, and asked for all the keys to all the other offices, while boots were on her neck and back. She was arrested and the boots on her neck remained as the soldiers drove her to a detention center. She was kept in prison for several months. She was interrogated daily with beatings accompanying the interrogation because she did not have the knowledge and could not provide the information they were seeking of political enemies. She was starved and by the end could not even walk to the interrogation room on her own power. She heard other torture victims’ screams daily in nearby cells, and watched bodies being tossed in the backs of Daihatsu pick-up trucks on a regular basis as she was dragged to and from the interrogation office. She was convinced that it would be only a matter of time before she herself would become one of those bodies in a pick-up truck.

That day came and she was tied up and a hood placed over her head. She was dragged in a body bag and placed in the trunk of a car. She was told to keep absolutely quiet, and after a while (she cannot recall how long since her thoughts were focused on her immediate death) the car began to move. It was just past midnight when the car stopped and she was dumped out on the ground. Her hood was removed and she saw and heard the flow of the powerful Congo River next to her in the darkness. "So, this is how I die," she thought, "my body to disappear in the river." She did not cry out, and was too tired and starved to put up any fight. She was tossed into a motorized pirogue with a man in front and another in back, and went to the middle of the river. She was a strong Christian, and said her final prayers before death. But to her surprise, the pirogue continued to the other side of the river, and she was picked up by other soldiers in other nonmilitary uniforms. She would learn later that bribes had been paid by her former employer. She was brought to a respite center, fed, clothed and "processed" by refugee services. After many months of investigation, Jeannette was allowed to enter first France, then Switzerland as a refugee.

She is now employed at the same respite center in Switzerland that provided her shelter when she first left the Congo. As part of her employment, she is learning German (a very difficult language for her) but can speak fluently to all the French-speaking refugees that pass thru. Only once, when she was describing the worst of her tortures, did I hear her fall back on her native Lingala. That is the temple of her familiar.


A person cooking

STEFANN, the lawyer/jazz musician/chef

A friend I met through a cousin of mine over five years ago now, Stefann, told me stories of other refugees. He works at a refugee center in Switzerland, not as a lawyer despite his training, but as a cook and as a musician. I have enjoyed many fine meals he has cooked for me over the years, and he works at the refugee center cooking for the newly arrived refugees. His group of jazz musicians also plays at the center and helps lift the spirit in the place. He told me of the newly arrived Ukrainians from the 2022 war that continues. Many arrive with hopes of returning soon to Ukraine. They get services quickly, at times much quicker than those of other countries who have waited even longer. Even the distribution of limited services such as toilets seem to favor the Ukrainians with a ratio of 1 toilet per 15 refugees, as compared to 1 per 50 African refugees. I have seen this with other asylum seekers closer to home on the Texas-Mexican border where Haitian-Creole speakers and French-speaking Africans get fewer services immediately available than those from Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries. And there too, the white Ukrainians are often processed much more quickly and get better service than all the other groups put together.



ZOLTAN, the Hungarian building contractor

I met Zoltan in a growing part of Budapest, where houses are being built at a rapid pace, moving into nearby forested hills further and further from the downtown. Zoltan hires mostly Romanian builders because they work for less than the native Hungarians. He had been employing Ukrainians as recently as 2014, when many came as political and economic refugees after Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. They came in order to work and send money back to their families, just like we have seen elsewhere, including Hondurans working in the US and sending money back to their families in their home country. The Ukrainians of that era did not stay for long, since better-paying jobs were calling, further in Western Europe. Now there are new cohorts of Ukrainians coming into Hungary and not all are coming for work. Some are coming to Hungary and paying cash to buy new homes. Just as in Russia, there are oligarchs in Ukraine, and many of them fled the war, cashing in all their wealth and packing everything in their SUVs. Others with more modest means have come to work, but again, the better jobs are further west. I got to meet some of them, but none wanted to be photographed. (I avoided photographing or using the real names of most of the subjects of this essay.) Zoltan does not have high hopes that these Ukrainian workers will stay, although he says they are hard workers. Unlike many other refugees, they have hopes of one day returning to their native country after the war ends. However, if they wait too long, they may find, as Zoltan warns, that their Ukrainian children will become comfortable growing up in their new European homes outside Ukraine and no longer fit into their native societies when their parents want to return.


Taxi driver

GÉZA, the retired taxi driver in Vienna

Géza defected from communist Hungary just a few years before the Iron Curtain came down. In fact, his voyage into Austria would have been much easier had he just waited a little longer and then he could have freely walked across the border. However, as a political refugee in the 1980s, he did get some benefits that are now much harder to come by, and he got odd jobs, then a full time job as a taxi driver in Vienna. (He still knows all the streets and therefore the best diners and restaurants in the city!) Now retired in a low-income residential area that also houses some newly arrived refugees, he complains that the new refugees do not want to work as hard as his generation of refugees did in their first years. His neighbors are Syrian, Ukrainian, Afghani, and North African. I got to visit some of these residential housing units. They are crowded but comfortable and generally clean. Géza and I speak a mix of German and Hungarian together as is common to those born near the border of what was once a unified Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were many children running around the yard below, speaking many different languages but all are learning to communicate in the Austrian German that is spoken in the public school system. I wondered again how long it would take before these children would no longer feel comfortable in the native lands that their parents left behind. And whether their new home, Austria, would accept them as her own.


An airplane flying

LÁSZLÓ and his family come to the US

Perhaps it was fitting that during the flight home to the United States, I met a Hungarian family who was leaving Switzerland to immigrate to the US, as I had with my family many years ago. The father was named László. He was sitting a row behind me and speaking in Hungarian with his family. He told me he was a skilled engineer who for years had worked in Germany and Switzerland, but that the cost of living in those countries was becoming too high. He tried going back to his home country of Hungary to work and live, but the starting salaries in Hungary were less than half of what was being offered in his job in Switzerland where the cost of living was too high. It seemed that the most ideal ratio of salary to cost of living was in the rural US, where there were plenty of engineering jobs. He and his family were coming to live permanently and had completed all their paperwork just days before this flight. They made an economic calculation and chose to leave everything behind for the American Dream. They are roughly the age that my parents were when in 1967-68 they followed the same dream out of Eastern Europe.

Just days before returning to the US, I visited the site of the commemoration of the Hungarian refugees that were offered asylum in Switzerland after the failed 1956 Revolution. Switzerland first opened her doors to the Hungarians fleeing their lost homeland like so many people of so many nations before and after. There is a plaque there from the Hungarian-Swiss thanking their new country for its generosity.

On my flight across the Atlantic Ocean, I thought of my friend and MCN colleague Del Garcia who speaks on immigration issues internationally and always mentions that we all have been migrating throughout human history. It is our natural state. I am grateful to know several languages not only to speak but to be able to listen in those languages to the stories I am given. 

I am glad to be returning home to work with an organization that provides support to those who are migrating.


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