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A letter from Alan Smith in Germany

March 2012

One of the more convenient aspects of my life on the mission field is that I have always served in countries where I have some pre-existing familiarity with the language. I was one of those language geeks in high school and college, and I seem to have remembered a fair bit of Russian and German, even though I can’t reliably remember the contents of a grocery list. Therefore I find it fairly disorienting when I get to a country where I literally can’t understand a word without someone to translate it, as happened from March 17 to 22 when I travelled to Karpattalya to observe mission to Roma communities there. I was accompanied by Kathy Angi, who took care of the translation, and my Russian Roma friends, Andrey Beskorovainiy and his wife, Larissa. In some ways this was a return visit since we had two guests from Karpattalya at one of our Russian Roma leadership conferences in Kursk a few years ago.

Karpattalya is the Hungarian name for a region that the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking world refers to as Zakarpatia, literally, “beyond the Carpathian mountains.” The region has two names due to an accident of history: Up until the First World War, the region was unambiguously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after the war, in the breakup of the Empire, Karpattalya ended up as a part of the Soviet Union, now part of Ukraine. The population, however, never gave up their Hungarian language and culture, despite considerable pressure during the Soviet period. They are, however, a decided minority among the population of Ukraine. Karpattalya is also home to a substantial Roma population, a minority within a minority. Although they have lived in the region for at least 100 years and speak Hungarian almost exclusively, they live a very segregated existence on the fringes of society.

I have visited a number of Roma settlements in Russia and have seen many people who are struggling economically, but I have never seen anything quite like what I saw in Karpattalya. We visited a “camp” in the regional center of Beregszasz that was home to more than 6,000 people. If I hadn’t seen it, I would not have believed that such a place could exist so close to the borders of the European Union—it looked like a squatter settlement somewhere in the Third World. The camp consisted of a walled-off parcel of land literally filled with various ramshackle sheds and huts where people live. The streets were completely unpaved and had there been any rain would have been impassable quagmires. Many of the houses seemed to be made of plywood or homemade bricks, and were completely uninsulated. How anyone survives in a typical winter is a mystery. The camp is very crowded; men, women, children and stray dogs wander everywhere, and few seem to be usefully employed.

Due to some administrative confusion within our family, I didn’t have a camera on this trip, so all the pictures attached to this letter were taken with my cell phone. There are no pictures from inside the Beregszasz camp, however, because I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures—there would be no way to get permission from all of the people about and taking pictures without permission seemed disrespectful.

One of the few bright spots in the Beregszasz camp is the neighboring Hungarian Reformed congregation, pastored by an ethnic Hungarian named Bela. Bela works constantly to minister to the spiritual needs of the people in the camp, as well as to their physical needs. The regional diaconal offices of the Hungarian Reformed Church are located in Beregszasz; among other things, they feed 250 people every day and have a large-scale bakery that produces at least a thousand loaves of bread every day. We visited Bela’s church for a special service on Monday afternoon. Andrey preached and sang both in Romani and in Russian, after which we were treated to a surprise song by some visiting members of another congregation.

On Tuesday we linked up with PC(USA) mission co-worker Nadia Ayoub to visit two much smaller camps in the small town of Peterfalva, about 15 kilometers from Beregszasz. In some ways the situation in Peterfalva seems much better than in Beregszasz.  Although the two Roma settlements are quite separate from the surrounding community, there is no wall around them. Additionally, Nadia has two young Hungarian-speaking Ukrainian women who help her run schools for the children in the camps. On the other hand, the two camps have a rather troubled relationship between them, and there seems to be no prospect of their working together.

At the first of the Peterfalva camps the audience consisted almost entirely of children from the school, so Andrey’s presentation was directed to them, which is not so simple when you have to work through a translator. (The translator is Pastor Janos from the Hungarian Reformed church in Peterfalva.)

In the second camp there were more adults present.

You will have noticed that in both camps the audience is seated outdoors on benches. They are, in fact, the same benches, transported from the first camp to the second in a horse-drawn wagon along a dirt path. The benches got to the second camp before we did, with only a slight head start; such is the state of the roads.

After lunch with Pastor Janos we spent the rest of the afternoon with Nadia at her apartment, where she treated us to a wonderful meal.

From left to right: Nadia Ayoub, Larissa and Andrey Beskorovainiy, Kathy Angi

On Wednesday we visited the small town of Gat, where we attended a worship service at the church that serves the Roma community there and had a chance to renew our acquaintance with one of the men who came to our conference in Kursk three or four years ago. We also met Yolan, one of the leaders of a project sponsored by Presbyterian Women that has Roma women making baskets from local reeds. The hope is that a way will be found to market these baskets in the U.S., providing much needed income for the Roma.

After yet another meal, Kathy and I drove back to Budapest so I could catch my flight back to Berlin on Thursday morning.  The trip has given me a lot of new information and some perspective on Roma ministry that I didn’t have before.

Kathy with some of the baskets made in Gat

All aspects of the Roma ministry need your prayers, but I have a special request: Andrey has been invited to be an International Peacemaker, travelling about the United States from late September through mid-October. Since he doesn’t speak English, I will be accompanying him as translator. However, Russian citizens need a visa to come the U.S., and that is where the prayers come in. Unfortunately, applying for and receiving a visa is not a simple business and sometimes applications, even from outstanding people like Andrey, are refused. Please pray that the necessary people in the embassy are led to grant his visa. And, when you get the information from the Peacemaking Program, consider inviting Andrey to speak to your church and/or presbytery!

Peace and blessings to all of you.

Al Smith

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 275

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