THE BLOG
08/04/2014 01:10 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Cultivating Empathy in Hungary

When it comes to people expressing trust in others, Hungary ranks rather low. In 2011, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a ranking that put Hungary 24th out of 30 countries. Hungary's ranking - 47 percent of the population expressed high trust in others - put it at nearly half the rate of Denmark (89 percent). It was also one of the few countries where mistrust had grown over the polling period. Other East-Central European countries did equally poorly: Slovakia and Poland (47 percent), Slovenia (53 percent), Czech Republic (56 percent).

"There is a lot of mistrust here," Julieta Nagy Navarro told me. "And that's a response to a particular attitude: I must grab whatever I can for myself."

Nagy Navarro is originally from Mexico (which fared even more poorly than Hungary in the OECD index: 26 percent). She has lived and worked in Hungary new for quite a few years. I talked with her and her husband, Balazs Nagy Navarro, last May in Budapest.

The mistrust has proven to be a challenge for her human rights work. "You cannot convince people that human rights issues all over the world concern Hungary -- not because Hungary is a country but because we are all human beings," Nagy Navarro said. "If there are human beings who are suffering, and you admit that this suffering is normal, you don't know when this suffering can reach you. Even if you are selfish, you don't want this suffering to happen to you. If you're not altruistic, then at least think about yourself -- because it might happen to you next time."

But even the argument from selfishness is not particularly convincing. "Sometimes they just stay quiet," she reported."'We already have enough with our reality,'they say. 'Why should I do a bit more for somebody I don't know?'"

Some of the mistrust is a legacy of the Communist years when the government implemented official solidarity campaigns with other Socialist-bloc countries or with the Third World.
"Many people that I've met don't want to participate in these human rights meetings," Nagy Navarro reported. "They don't want to participate in any movement because of the legacy of socialism. But they should realize that it's for their own benefit that they do it, and their own benefit might also mean the benefit of others. If they accept that it will cost them to work a little harder and to also compromise on some things, not to keep all the benefits for themselves but to consider other people's views, then there's a possibility to go toward a better society."

The Interview

What has it been like to do human rights work here?

It's very frustrating. First of all, even people in the street believe you belong to a political party. You cannot convince people that human rights issues all over the world concern Hungary -- not because Hungary is a country but because we are all human beings. If there are human beings who are suffering, and you admit that this suffering is normal, you don't know when this suffering can reach you. Even if you are selfish, you don't want this suffering to happen to you. If you're not altruistic, then at least think about yourself -- because it might happen to you next time.

Does that argument convince people?

Sometimes they just stay quiet."We already have enough with our reality,"they say. "Why should I do a bit more for somebody I don't know?"

What were the campaigns that you were working on that elicited those reactions?

One was on women's rights. It was actually very controversial. We had a strong clash with the director of Amnesty International at that time. First we said that we want to do something on violence against women in Hungary. And he said, "You can do it with this other NGO that always does that."We said that we knew what the other NGO did, and we might talk with them, but we wanted to do something a bit different. Our group created a whole campaign. We produced a poster that has been used all over the world by other Amnesty chapters. Suddenly the director said he received instructions from London that we must focus instead on the women of Darfur.

And your campaign was focused on violence against women in Hungary?

Yes. Our point was that if people are not sensitive about themselves here, they won't be sensitive about people 2,000 kilometers away. It was obvious to us that the lack of sensitivity was the problem. We had to point out the invisible problems here.

A common reaction here was: what about violence against men? There are cases in Hungary of husbands who are beaten by their wives. While this is true it is a very small percentage. Of course there shouldn't be violence in the family, but most of the violence involves women. The motto for our campaign was: Don't Ignore It.

A public awareness campaign.

Yes. With flyers and posters.

The poster was used all over the world. Could you use it here or not?

Yes but not so successfully. We had a clash with the director. They organized their campaign before ours. It was a bit ridiculous to have two actions without coordination. Working on human rights here you realize that many of the foreign NGOs funded here -- and this has something to do with the relationship with foreigners - normally bring in their own CEOs from outside the country. The president and the manager are foreigners. Which is not bad. But you expect after a certain time that local people would start working there on an equal basis. Sometimes that doesn't happen. And the management waits for instruction from outside or from outside consultants, who say what should be done here without knowing the situation here or asking the local people what they think. In this respect, I can understand why people are fed up with this.

On the other hand, I don't feel any more like a foreigner. I feel like a local. I would disagree if someone said, "Oh, this Mexican wants to tell us what to do." I live here. I've started saying that I'm a Hungarian. Now, when they ask me outside, where do you come from, I say, "Hungary. Don't I look Hungarian?"

And they say, "No, not really."

"Then what do Hungarians look like?" I ask.

That's a good challenge to people about their conception of "Hungarian." You said that you hoped to create more of a sense of community in this building.

It has been frustrating. You say good morning, and people don't respond.

Because of a basic level of mistrust.

Yes. We once went to a supermarket to buy meat for a barbecue. We didn't eat meat often, even before we became vegetarians, so we asked the man in the meat department for a recommendation. He said, "Why are you asking me? And why would you believe me? We don't know each other, so how can you believe what I tell you?"

Has there been any change since you've been here?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.