The Experience of a European Refugee

I was six years old when my family and I fled from Hungary during the 1956 civil war across the border to Austria with the help of smugglers, who took the gold jewelry my parents had. Coming out of a climate full of fear, death and destruction; I couldn’t help but feel that there was no hope. It was Christmas in Austria, I suddenly found myself in a relaxed open environment and felt Austria was a safe new home for us.

At that time, there was no going back, we would have been killed or jailed. For one year, we were then put in a refugee camp in Austria, hosting 200,000 refugees who left Hungary at that time. The camp was segregated, my father and I were on one side, my mother and grandmother were on another side and we would meet during dinner time.

Even though it was difficult to live in a camp but we were very happy, life started taking a normal course with me going to Kindergarten and my parents finding jobs in the camp. My father worked as a photographer for Red Cross and my mother ended up being an interpreter for the Austrian police. During our stay in the camp, we were interviewed for resettlement by a few countries and were eventually accepted in Australia, offering a new start for our family.

Despite the dire situation in Hungary at the time, we were going to miss leaving behind our country with all the memories it holds. To get to Australia, we had to take a train to Genoa then small ship through the Mediterranean to Port Said. Our trip was long and filled with obstacles, I vividly recall seeing many sunken ships in Egypt. Going through the Red Sea, it was the first time to see a desert and Bedouin costumes. We stopped in Aden and then continued through Indian Ocean. It was such a long journey.

Being only six years old growing up in a land-locked country, I still remember the high waves, not knowing whether we were going to make it or not. Arriving at Freemantle in Australia, we were relieved when someone gave my dad money and he got us some oranges. We finally made it to Sydney and I remember the feeling of utter happiness as I drank my first bottle of fizzy drink. My godmother resided in Australia and offered us to stay with her rather than go to a refugee resettlement camp.

My parents did not face an issue finding a job, although they were forced to change occupation and work as factory workers. As a whole, our integration was made easy through migrants who had earlier settled in Australia and could speak English. In my case, for instance, a Greek boy who later became my friend helped me in my first year at school. Australia was looking for factory workers, so it was easy for my parents to find jobs in a factory. Although they downgraded, they at least got jobs, also my grandmother worked as a cook in a restaurant. As migrants, we all had jobs upon arrival. None of us could speak English, all of us relied on migrants who had arrived before us, they were sympathetic, and guided us through the process.

Within a year and a half, my parents had saved money to put a deposit on a house and that was a pivotal point that helped us settle in and have a happy family life. Thankfully, I was able to complete my university degree and later build a career as a diplomat. At the beginning of my life, it was IOM who helped us migrate to Australia and then later in my career, I ended up working for IOM. In effect, I did the full circle and I can proudly announce it out loud “I am a committed migrant”. I am proud of my refuge and migration history and heritage, and I enjoy now protecting and looking after fellow migrants, it is an example of how bad situations can turn out well if you work on it. Over time the situation in Hungary improved and now of course it is part of the EU and it’s just as good as anywhere else.

As a committed citizen of my adopted country, I received a national award OAM (Order of Australia) for distinguished service in situations where I was involved in providing assistance to victims of the Bali bombing in which 88 Australians died. I was one of the first people there to assist the dead and the injured. I felt a strong urge to help my people; friends, countrymen and women, many of whom I grew up with in Sydney.

The fear I felt as a refugee disappeared over the years, but it still lurks in my mind. When I was working in South Sudan recently for IOM, a civil war broke out there, the traumatic memories came back. People displaced, people running away from their homes, it reminded me that we should all think, we never know when we might become migrants. Things happen very quickly and circumstances can change wherever we are, therefore we should be sympathetic, caring and understanding.

Tom Sinkovits