A Summer of Breaking Down Stereotypes

During their two months volunteering with Kalunba, Ilonka Farkas and Felipe Alvarado did everything from cooking traditional Columbian meals for the community here to teaching English lessons, and even sometimes holding ping-pong tournaments. The two Columbian college students from Bogota arrived in Budapest at the end of May and departed back to South America just last week. Before they left, the two volunteers sat down to tell us a little bit about their time in Hungary.

Ilonka Farkas, 22, was born in Bogota, Colombia but went to live to Guadalajara, Mexico when I she was 5 years old because her stepfather got relocated. She lived there for 13 years until returning to Colombia to study in at university. Her mother is 100% Colombian but her dad is Romanian with Hungarian parents, which is why her name is Hungarian. Ilonka is majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in industrial design at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.

Felipe Alvarado, 20, is majoring in chemical engineering and chemistry with a minor in German language and culture at university in Bogota. He’s in his third year of study there and has previously spent time volunteering with homeless children in Lima, Peru.


What made you want to come to Hungary and work with Kalunba during your summer holidays?

Ilonka: My dad has Hungarian heritage and I had always dreamed of coming to Hungary. I love to travel and had been many times in Europe before but never had the chance to come to Budapest, so having the opportunity to not only visit Budapest, but to live here, was a dream come true. When I started applying to projects with AIESEC, the majority of them were about taking care of children, which is something anyone can do anywhere around the world. When I saw there was this opportunity to come to Kalunba and make an impact with refugees, I couldn’t let it pass. Last year I took a trip to Greece where we hired a Greek guide who told us that in his spare time he went to the refugee camps to help. He told me about the “suicide boats”, the situation in Syria, and about the people he met. This moved me a lot and made me think how ignorant we sometimes are about world issues. I wanted to know more about this and help in a significant way, not just sending money or something like that.

Felipe: Since I’ve already done one volunteering program in Lima, Peru (relatively close to Colombia), I wanted to expand my horizons and have a challenge in a country where I didn’t know the language or culture. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit Europe and to become detached from my parents and be able to grow as a more independent person. I choose Kalunba because of the people they work with. I grew up in Colombia, so I know what it means to be judged by a stereotype. I had so many questions and ideas about refugees that I really had the need to answer and see if my thoughts were correct. Furthermore, I really thought I could help the refugees integrate to the culture and I was fully committed to make that happen.


What has been your biggest success here, in volunteering with Kalunba?

I: My biggest success here was making so many friends from everywhere and sharing with them, because even though English lessons were my “official work,” people appreciate a good laugh much more than a good lesson. On the other hand, I also believe I helped all of my students to improve their English, but the best thing is that my students became my friends.

F: The biggest success for me was to prove myself that I am capable of teaching other people. Having some refugees telling me that they are grateful for the English lessons and that they found them really useful in their daily life is the best gift I can receive from them. It is funny because I thought that in this trip I was going to be a teacher, but it turns out that I have learned more about them than what they have learned from me.


And what about your biggest challenge here?

I: The people from AIESEC were not very well informed of how things worked in Kalunba, therefore we arrived in Budapest thinking things were very different than how they really are. We were told Kalunba was in a building and that the refugees were there all day. We didn’t know Ramadan was going on, so we had all these really fun plans that we could never get through. The biggest challenge was catching up to the way things happened around here,and adapting to our students schedule.

F: The biggest challenge for me was probably the language. The students I have speak some English, so it is not that hard to communicate, but I have worked with little kids that speak two words in English. It was difficult to babysit these children due to communication. Though, it is amazing how now we can communicate through far much more than just words – we learned to communicate with smiles and gestures and with little Arabic lessons and English. Nowadays, I am proud to be able to say “As-salamu alaykum.”


What has surprised you the most in your time here?

I: It was very shocking to me to learn about the whole refugee situation, particularly in Hungary. A month before arriving, I had seen a picture of a Budapest train station filled with shoes for the refugees so I thought it was amazing how Hungarians were welcoming the refugees. It was a shock to learn not only how the frontier was closed, but also how the government actually puts out propaganda against refugees. It was very surprising to hear Dora tell all of these stories about not being able to get a flat because no one wanted to rent to refugees and about how the government reevaluates the country of origin after 3 years, but that it takes 5 years to get the residence.

F: I was surprised with all the people here. As I said before, stereotypes are all over the world and they serve as a judgment of people we don’t even know. Here, I discovered that refugees are amazing people with enormous hearts. I was surprised with their way of thinking and their traditions, with the religious diversity that they have, with their cultural tolerance, and their tender attitude towards foreigners. I thought totally the opposite about these people and now I am so grateful to say, “I was totally wrong.”


How have you grown through your work with Kalunba?

I: I have learned so much about so many languages and cultures, but especially about the issues around the world. We are used to living in our little bubble of peace and ignorance, which to some extent is not wrong, but this ignorance is the reason wars keep happening. I believe I have a whole new mentality about the world after this experience, but I would definitely want to come back to Kalunba soon.

F: The growth is huge. Especially the children here have taught me so many life lessons, like that saying thank you is not enough. I understood that even in the worst situations, a child is always willing to smile and to learn, and this way of thinking is something that at least my country totally lacks. I admire the job that Kalunba is doing on giving hope to these people by helping them be a part of a new culture and country, and I am grateful to take part in these actions during my time here.

We’re all so sad to see Ilonka and Felipe go, but we will always be grateful for their work here this summer! These two Colombians taught us all so much, and they truly became part of the Kalunba family.




Article by Kearstin Bailey