By Nora Shelly, Medill, Immigrant Connect
It’s the sort of winter morning in the woods where the frosted dirt cracks when stepped on. The path I’m running on, alongside my friend, Victoria, is dappled with thin sunlight. As always when running on trails in Pennsylvania, we spend the whole run looking down. The state is notorious for having rocky hiking trails, and this one over a mountain close to our town is no exception.
Also typical of us, we are oscillating between gossiping about how we think friends’ freshmen years of college are going and the politics of the day. The refugee crisis is unfolding across the Mediterranean and Europe, and Hungary — where Victoria lived before moving to the United States at age 4 — has
recently chosen to close its border with Croatia to migrants who were trying to make their way to countries in Western Europe.
Throughout our discussion, Victoria expresses sympathy for refugees being forced out of their countries. However, when I mention Hungary’s decision, Victoria lashes out. She slows, taking the time and energy out of running to look at me as she fiercely defends her home country, schooling me on Hungarian modern politics. I find myself shocked on several levels as we keep running, with several tense miles to go.
Victoria doesn’t have a typical immigrant story, if there is one. She had moved with her family from Budapest to Pittsburgh when she was four. Three years later, they moved into a big house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where her father worked at a hospital, and her mother took time off from her work in the sciences to raise Victoria and her sister. She had, technically, been born a citizen of both the United States and Hungary, as her mother is a U.S. citizen who had spent part of her life in America. So, they had little worries when it came to passports or papers. Her family also didn’t seem to have financial troubles either. For these reasons, and others, I never considered whether Victoria was an “immigrant” or not. Mistakenly, I associated all potential difficulties an immigrant would have with financial or citizenship issues, and had never considered the emotional and social moorings of national origin, whether a person is an immigrant or not.
As our sneakers beat down fallen leaves in the crisp Pennsylvania woods, I considered this identity for the first time. I knew her family spoke Hungarian at home, and celebrated Hungarian holidays, such as “name days,” or quasi-birthday celebrations on the feast day of the saint who shared their name. I knew Victoria was proud to be Hungarian, and enjoyed visiting her family back in Budapest each summer. What I didn’t think about until then, however, was how salient her identity as a Hungarian was to her moral and political views. Victoria was staunchly conservative, but that wasn’t unusual in our conservative, Catholic school and community. I had never considered the connection between her family’s struggles under the communist Soviet regime in Hungary to her current economic views. Further, I didn’t realize Victoria’s persistent loyalty to her home country, even when they made what I thought to be a morally questionable decision to close their borders to refugees.
Over eight years of friendship, we had talked a lot about Hungary, and her upbringing, but in a way that I didn’t realize until later had been largely superficial, centering on cultural differences between the two countries. We had dug little into the emotional or mental toll that moving from one’s home country takes on a person.
It hurt to explore it with her.