"I cannot begin to tell you how I felt": The testimony of a Romani mother whose children were removed from her care in Hungary

Until amendments to Hungarian law in 1997, social workers in Hungary were empowered to remove children from families without a court order, if they felt that the family was not capable of caring for the child. Uncounted numbers of Romani families in Hungary were broken up on arbitrary grounds by social workers acting overzealously and often with a poor understanding of Romani culture or the central importance of the family in Romani life. On July 10, 2000, the ERRC interviewed Ms M.B.; social workers removed four children from her care in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She has never been compensated for the emotional damage caused her. This is her testimony:

I was born in 1946. We lived with my three sisters and my mother in Hajdúbagos, eastern Hungary. My father was a horse trader. I was little when he died. We lived in a one-room house. I'm the second oldest woman in the family.

We had to walk four kilometers to school every day. I completed four classes of school. When I was thirteen years old, I had my first job with the state agricultural company [állami gazdaság] and I worked for them for a long time. We changed locations yearly, working in the fields: picking sugar-beets and green paprikas, corn-shucking etc. In 1964 we moved to Ebes, where I first met Elemér.

I had never had a boyfriend and before then, if I saw a man walking on the street, I would cross to the opposite side. I did not want to be near them. But Elemér talked to me and soon he had stolen my heart. We were married on my birthday, on November 23, 1965. We moved to the place where my mother-in-law lived, Nyíradony. We have lived together until today.

I gave birth to Jutka on March 17, 1967. We had come to Budapest to work in a vineyard. I continued to work while my belly grew bigger, and the ambulance took me to the hospital straight from the vineyard. I gave birth to my child. Then we went home to Nyíradony, where eighteen of us were living in the kitchen of my mother-in-law's house.

We spent a few weeks there then we moved to Cegléd to make adobe for the state cooperative [termelő szövetkezet]. For many kilometers there were no houses nearby. I remember the day when we started to build one: we dug some posts into the ground which we spread with mud and covered with reeds. Everyday the wind blew into the house. At this time, Jutka was a very little baby. We worked the whole day, from daybreak till nightfall.

After I had given birth, a nurse came. She was supposed to give advice to young mothers. That nurse who visited me was not very nice: instead of giving me advice she reported to the GYIVI1 that our housing situation was not good enough for the baby. When we finished work at the end of that summer the baby got sick. I took her to the hospital, where she spent a week. The doctors there treated me like the nurse had: they did not tell me anything, they just suggested to the GYIVI that they take a look at my child. We went home again to Nyíradony, not knowing what was happening behind the scenes.

When we arrived home, a group of officials were waiting for us: an employee of the GYIVI, someone from the local government and the nurse. And there they together told me that they were taking my baby to the orphanage. Of course I told them that this was not possible, but there were so many police cars... they took away my child... I cannot begin to tell you how I felt.

Mari was born in1968. By chance, I was able to keep her at home. At that time I got a job in Szentendre. First I went alone, without Mari. I left her with my sister for a month. I lived in a worker's hostel, and worked in construction: I cut iron, carried bricks, made cement. They fired two men and offered me their job. I did the work of three men. I did it because I wanted my child to be with me. It worked. I brought her from my sister's place to Szentendre.

Then the others came one after another: Ildikó, Edit, Évi. But social workers took all of them away. They did this in the same way as they had the first time: with a police car. They came to the house, walked in, and took them away. I couldn't do anything. My youngest daughter stayed at home, like Mari. It was an accident, a piece of good luck. I don't know why I didn't have enough brains to hide somewhere else for a couple of weeks after giving birth.

When my sixth daughter Erzsi came, I received a maternity grant of four hundred forints. There was a little house next to my mother-in-law's. The person who lived in that house asked me if I wanted to buy the house. It costs four hundred forints. We bought it. There were holes in the roof and when it rained, the water came in, but it did not matter because we knew that we had something over our heads.

Then I started to look for my children. I went to the offices every day. I spent seven or eight years getting my first daughter, Jutka, back. At that time we moved to Bedő where my sisters and mother lived. I found Jutka and asked to get her back. She was sixteen at that time. After a month I finished with all of the documentation, then I received a letter that I could take her back.

We have lived in Budapest for a couple of years. I have been looking for my other daughters but aside from Jutka, I have found only Évi. I have not found Ildikó and Edit. They are now 32 and 33 years old. I have three grandchildren and maybe more. I will not rest until I find them.

Endnotes:

  1. The Hungarian state Institute for the Care of Children and Youth.

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