Column: I, too, once sought refuge

I was once a refugee seeking shelter and a place to stay. While that was almost six decades ago in the aftermath of the doomed Hungarian revolution, the images of today with innocents of all ages running for their lives conjure up images of my own fate in the fall of 1956. In those historic days, I lived through a spontaneous uprising against the dictatorship imposed by Moscow on the Hungarian people. I lived within walking distance of the Budapest train station that has been so much in the news these days. That is where today’s Syrian refugees camped out before leaving for Austria on the same route I traversed as a 12-year-old, just a few days after there was a lull in the shelling in mid-November 1956.

“Get dressed,” said my father abruptly.

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Get dressed, I said, and don’t bother with questions.”

In a matter of minutes we were squeezed onto the back of a truck that would take us toward an unknown darkness. We headed west. I had heard some people talk about freedom, but I had no idea what freedom had to do with our being on that truck. I just wanted to go to school. I had not been in three weeks.

By the time we got to the border it was too late, the Russians had beat us to it. Our driver claimed that the day before he was able to simply drive across. Not anymore! The soldiers stopped our truck full of people and pointed their guns at us, fearing that some of us might be armed. We weren’t. They took us into custody and drove us to their barracks. A young soldier sat on the truck’s tailgate, his Kalashnikov threateningly swaying back and forth with every bump. I feared he would accidentally pull the trigger at one of the bumps. He didn’t.

We ended up in their filthy barracks. I did not sleep much that night sitting in a chair, waiting for the dawn. It all seemed surreal.

When morning came, the Russians put us on the train to go back to where we came from. They assumed that we’d do as we were told. But my father was not respectful of authority, and we jumped off the minute they left. We stuck around the border town to look for smugglers who’d take us across, and having found one, we set off on foot for Austria at nightfall. But as most traffickers, they were greedy and on the way delivered us to an armed marauding band, remnants of the Hungarian freedom fighters, who proceeded to relieve our group of all our valuables. We didn’t have much money, but we said goodbye to our few pieces of jewelry and watches. However, there was still some honor among thieves then, and they accompanied us on the rest of the trek. It wasn’t until we found empty fertilizer bags with German writing on it that we realized we had crossed the border — we had made it! An Austrian farmer generously extended his hospitality, letting the four of us sleep at his house overnight, before we set off for Vienna.

It seems crazy now, but in those days one could still enter the U.S. Embassy in Vienna through a back delivery door — one which my father availed himself, of course, in order to get ahead of the multitude. We were the very first to arrive in Chicago within a month. Amazingly, a Sun Times reporter greeted us at La Salle Street station. It seemed like a fantasy to me, but we were designated as “freedom fighters,” although none of us were. My father did not even shoot a gun in World War II, having been forced into slave labor, which was the fate of many Jewish men of his generation who were deemed unfit to fight along the “master race.” Such labor battalions did the dirty work for the military. But, when the “master race” got a big knock-out in Stalingrad, my father walked the 1,200 miles across Ukraine back to Hungary. And so, the trek across the world seemed par for the course for him.

This story should enable you to get a feel for the tribulations of an emigrant, but every emigrant has a story like that. And once one has made the trek — if they make it — there is the additional culture shock of getting accustomed to a new country. How was it for me to be transposed from an economically underdeveloped dictatorship to a democratic industrial superpower? With little to offer but your bare hands, you learn quickly the cruelty of the free market and how people exploit a lack of information in order to gain slight advantages. You become streetwise in a high-crime area, learning quickly not to leave valuables in the back of the car so as to invite break-ins. And most of all, you find out firsthand the powerful psychological force of relative deprivation. It is one thing to be poor when everyone around you is poor, but it’s an entirely different thing when so many people around you — and on TV — are carefree and well-to-do. It does not seem fair at all, and it did not to me. Of course, economists do not understand that or rather willfully disregard it. It would spoil their elegant theories too much.

You also find out how helpless you are when you do not have any money and no support network and how much you are at the utter mercy of the generosity and empathy of total strangers. And the school system — so often the de facto support service for children — offered little, as teachers expected little from their students and little was learned. What inefficiency! And we were not living in a slum but in a lower-class neighborhood. In the old country, the technology was confined to chalk and a blackboard, and when the school ran out of coal in the winter, classes were cancelled until further notice. But the teachers had an esprit de corp; they were not well paid, but they were respected members of the society and saw teaching as their vocation.

My point in recounting these impressions of the first months of life in the new country is to suggest how much adjustment the refugees will have to face living in the West. It is not easy to change countries.

Although we are three times wealthier than we were in the 1950s — at least on paper — the U.S. had a bigger heart in those days. After the Second World War, the U.S. let in 400,000 displaced people, mostly from Eastern Europe. Notable people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke up for the refugees. Is there anyone in the U.S. of comparable stature advocating for today’s refugees? Of course, security was a concern back then as well, and some were afraid that communist infiltrators would enter with the refugees. Nonetheless, President Eisenhower brought some 30,000 Hungarian refugees into the U.S. between 1956 and 1957. Ed Sullivan, a popular television personality, and Elvis Presley, the cultural icon of the time, made appeals for donations, raising the equivalent of $50 million in today’s dollars. With the exception of Angelina Jolie, today’s celebrities are slow to advocate on behalf of the Syrian refugees.

Our values have changed and not for the better. Watching values change is like watching grass grow. Yet corporations invest extravagantly day in and day out in order to promote those aspects of the culture in which they can profit, to sway our wants and make us feel like we need their newest products. They hire trendsetters to admonish us hundreds of thousands of times to forget about the future and buy today before the bargains expire, to indulge in instant gratification, to carelessly disregard the future. Under such intense pressure, children are groomed to grow up to become reliable consumers, and choice becomes a pretense of individualism. For the media manipulates children’s unconscious minds and lays the foundation for a culture of consumerism. So by the time we reach adulthood we have gone through a rigorous process of inculcation inasmuch as Madison Avenue inundates us with symbols of sex, power and cultural icons in order to sell its clients’ products. Through this socialization we assimilate a culture in which we learn to mimic the tastes, values and consumption habits of superstars and idols projected by the media. That is how we’ve become a nation of overweight and deeply indebted people, counting our frequent flyer miles and credit card bonus points.

In short, the culture has evolved in such a way that we are desensitized to scenes of unrivaled desperation. President Jimmy Carter understood this quite clearly when he said in 1979, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we have discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning… It is the truth, and it is a warning.”

Unfortunately, Carter’s warning was not taken seriously. He was up against the dominant institutions of this country — the mega-corporations, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street, which “were instrumental in promoting and sustaining the hedonistic ethic that he decried.” Conspicuous consumerism brings profits. That is why indulgence gets promoted.

And so much of the mess in the Middle East is our own creation. We willfully stepped into a hornet’s nest in Iraq and Afghanistan and arrogantly promoted regime change and democracy without understanding much about the culture and values of the countries in the region. It took an incredible amount of hubris to do that after our failures in the Vietnam War. Our shock-and-awe strategy destabilized the region and the dust has not settled yet, and there are no signs of it settling either. We are witnessing the collateral damage of an incoherent policy that hopes to muddle through the major challenges of the world.

We are conceited enough to think that we’ve made great progress in the 20th century, but in reality, we made precious little advances in our ability to feel empathy for others or check our basic instincts of aggression and greed. In fact, just the reverse is true: we are less capable of being compassionate than ever before. That is why we can observe the fate of 60 million displaced, destitute people in today’s world with callous indifference. It seems to me that as long these will be our values, we are going to be incapable of enjoying a peaceful world. We’ll never succeed in our fight against terrorism with these values, because the world will judge us to be cynical, hypocritical and selfish, and we won’t win over the minds and hearts of the Muslim multitude. The only winning strategy would be to light the fire in the mind of the desperate masses, to show that we have their best interest in mind and that their fate is inextricably intertwined with ours. We need to demonstrate that we are allies in creating a more humane world and that we genuinely care about the plight of mankind. Indifference to the suffering of millions is not convincing no matter what rhetoric accompanies it. Drones might well kill a few provocateurs willy-nilly, but such acts of power will not touch the hearts and minds of the hundreds of millions as Chancellor Merkel did with one stroke of generosity when she announced Germany would accept no less than 800,000 Syrian refugees. Given the size of the country, that would be the equivalent of the U.S. accepting 3 million refugees.

Looking back to my own experience in the middle of the 20th century to those of the Syrian refugees in the 21st, it is hard to tell what has changed.

So these are my thoughts as I watch the refugees of today stream across borders in search of safety and a decent life. The distance between Damascus and Munich is 2,200 miles, the distance between New York and Salt Lake City. One should be able to walk it according to Google Maps in 55 days (assuming a rate of about 20 minutes per mile and 12 hours of walking a day) — not a stroll in the park. My thoughts turn to the values of our civilization that allowed us to sit on our hands while the mayhem devoured a country of some 22 million and forced millions to flee for their lives. It seems to me that we’d need to turn our focus away from new gadgets and inventing financial gimmicks and turn instead to innovation in making it possible to live in a peaceful world. Looking back to my own experience in the middle of the 20th century to those of the Syrian refugees in the 21st, it is hard to tell what has changed. We’re still fighting by lobbing bombs like we’ve been doing since time immemorial. How useful would it be for the world if we could turn our creativity away from social Darwinistic competition toward a more cooperative one? I do not know how to achieve that, but I firmly believe that if we had the hundreds of thousands of creative minds work on solutions to the real problems confronting humanity instead of enriching themselves, we’d be able to come up with real solutions for the fate of suffering strangers. Until we devote serious energy to that agenda, we’re going to see more images like the three-year-old boy washed up on Turkey’s coast.