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We escaped from Hungary, but we paid a price

    Monica Porter with her father in London
    Monica Porter with her father in London

    Suddenly the world is awash with refugees. And migrants. Great waves of humanity on the move, all seeking asylum. And as always, the movement is from east to west, because only traitors (think Kim Philby and Edward Snowdon) or religious fanatics (i.e. volunteers for jihad) ever flee in the opposite direction.

    But there is a lot of confusion around. People are asking: what's the difference between a refugee and a migrant? Who is worthy of asylum? Are they good or bad for our country? And if it's a numbers game, how many is too many?

    As someone who was once a refugee, I approach this whole weighty issue from a personal perspective - from, as it were, the inside. Alas, I must leave it to the government to tackle the above questions and make the necessary decisions. But if you want to know what it's like to be a refugee – as opposed to an opportunistic economic migrant – well, I can certainly enlighten you.

    Next October will mark the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and to anyone who might wonder about my lifelong loathing of communism and its contemptible fellow travellers, I would say, please reflect on that tragic episode of history. When their nation's desperate yearning for freedom was crushed in the most brutal, bloody manner by Soviet tanks, some 200,000 Hungarians felt compelled to escape the tyranny. My family was among them.

    I was four at the time. But I can still conjure up the bumpy night-time ride across no-man's-land to the Austrian border, in the back of a farmer's truck. And a month later, my first airplane trip, as the United States Army flew us to a refugee camp in New Jersey. Operation Mercy, as they named it.

    The family were
    The family were "trapped in a Hungarian bubble", centred on a small area of Manhattan, making integration into American life difficult

    When we arrived, a couple hundred exhausted refugees, there was much waiting in a large room while we were painstakingly processed by American immigration officials. I managed to provide a moment of light relief from the tedium. It was late at night, I was tired and grumpy, and all at once I snapped. Climbing on to my chair, I loudly cursed the officials: 'You whores!' (Naturally I didn't understand this word I'd picked up from my mother, who favoured fruity language, but it always made an impact.) The uncomprehending Americans looked around in bemusement as the room erupted in laughter.

    But as I was to learn over the coming years, being a refugee wasn't really such a laugh. It was a wholesale upheaval for my parents, a painful displacement, from which they never entirely recovered. They had uprooted themselves from their native language, their home, their families, the successful careers they had worked so hard to forge: my father as a writer, my mother as a singer. Yes, there was the great adventure of a new life in the free world, and they embraced it, gratefully and energetically. But it came at a heavy price.

    As I grew older I was only too aware of the stresses that the émigré life placed on my parents – my mother homesick and out of step with the 1960s cultural revolution taking place in America, my father uneasy with her continued emotional gravitation towards the existence we had left behind.

    I was none too happy myself, somewhat alienated from the neighbourhood kids and my peers at school. All I wanted was to be like any other Yank. Fat chance. I lived in a little Hungarian bubble at home, and we were part of the flourishing Hungarian émigré community in the New York of the late '50s and the '60s.

    We lived in the Bronx, but on Saturdays piled into my father's second-hand Volkswagen beetle and drove into Manhattan to shop at the Hungarian grocer's, butcher's and baker's, and have lunch at one of the many Hungarian restaurants with fellow "56-ers", as this breed of Hungarian refugees was labelled.

    Then, in 1970, we moved en famille to London. I'd been accepted at drama college, and my father came because of his work. So a new life began…but I was still trapped inside that émigré bubble and we rapidly acquired a coterie of Hungarian dentist, doctor, accountant, seamstress, and sundry friends in the literary and artistic worlds – a great many of whom, as in America, were Jewish. (Such as the humourist George Mikes, whose post-war book How to be an Alien had made him famous. "Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles," he memorably wrote. I saw him as a sort of professional émigré.)

    It did rather feel as though I would never escape my immigrant past and enter that much-vaunted thing, the social mainstream.

    But of course I did, and sooner than I thought. When I married an Englishman at the now ludicrously young age of 22, and at the same time began working as a staff writer on a venerable British magazine, the ties to the old country finally loosened.

    Curiously, the more I integrated into mainstream life and the more easily I could put my roots behind me, the more of an asset those roots became. I discovered that many Brits of my generation had vivid memories of the 1956 uprising, because they had seen it unfold on their newly-acquired TV sets. Everyone seemed to recall a Hungarian refugee family moving into their street, or a refugee child who'd appeared one day in their class at school. Invariably, that distant episode had left them with an enduring affection and admiration for the Hungarian people. I wasn't about to waste that. But in any case, I had grown up and no longer felt the urge to be like everyone else. Being different was good.

    In the years since then I have indeed learned 'how to be an alien'. And it goes something like this. You hold on to the essence of who you are, cherishing the best qualities of your cultural heritage while jettisoning the unnecessary baggage, and embrace the gifts bestowed on you by your new home, acknowledging your good fortune in having them.

    Freedom, democracy, civil rights, the rule of law. These are the great virtues we gain when we are granted refuge from oppression, and with them we can achieve our dreams. The '56-ers knew that, as did other immigrant waves throughout history, and the Jews more than anyone. But I fear that too many within the current mass migration from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, might not endorse these sentiments. Asylum-seekers are not all the same.

    It galls me when naïve people compare today's migrants with the Hungarian refugees, the Vietnamese boat people, or with Jews who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s or joined the post-war diaspora. Over the past two decades the world has changed, it has been poisoned by a violently anti-Western, lethal brand of Islam, and we can no longer assume that those who come to live among us will adopt our tolerant, pluralistic ways. There must be a rigorously applied quid pro quo when a refugee is allowed to stay: obligations in return for opportunities. Otherwise our Western societies will self-destruct.

    My father had a Hungarian Jewish friend called Lajos in London back in the 1970s, a '56-er who had made a success of it in the shmutter trade. He was a jovial man who loved his adopted country but his English language skills remained pretty patchy. My father told me how, once when returning from a trip abroad, Lajos was questioned by an immigration officer at Heathrow, who found it hard to understand his thick Hungarian accent. In the end he asked: "What nationality are you?" Whereupon an indignant Lajos puffed out his chest and declared loudly and proudly: "British!"

    And that is what I regard as the right kind of asylum-seeker.

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