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A Program To Find Your Hungarian Self – American-Hungarians About Their Deeper Understanding

Robert Velkey 2016.07.18.

ReConnect Hungary is a unique cultural, educational and social immersion program for young adults aged 18-28 of Hungarian heritage, born in the U.S. or Canada (for a more detailed description of the program, please visit their website, reconnecthungary.org). The select group of young American and Canadian participants of the ReConnect Hungary 2016 visited the land of their ancestors from the 12th to the 28th of June. The authors of this piece spent an evening with the participants and organizers to get an inside view of the program, and to talk with participants about views on how the program helped them gain a deeper understanding of their Hungarian heritage while enjoying a living culture.

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ReConnect Hungary 2016 participants and organizers

The ReConnect Hungary Birthright Program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that provides the gift of a peer-group heritage and cultural immersion trip for Hungarian-American young adults who want to strengthen their personal Hungarian identity by forging a personal connection to the country, its culture and heritage. Through the program the participants gained a deeper understanding of their Hungarian heritage through visits to many of the country’s historically significant landmarks and iconic places; in  addition, they experienced current-day Hungary as they meet with decision-makers, industry leaders and  younger Hungarians who are roughly their own age.

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Meeting with entrepreneurs

The first trip was organized in 2012 with a small group by the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation; since then, it has expanded and improved year after year, with steadily increasing interest on the part of  young 2nd 3rd and 4th generation Canadians and Americans whose ancestors left Hungary at one time or another. It was the 5th time the program was organized and now 35 qualified and deserving participants embarked on a journey to look for their Hungarian identity. The ‘ReConnecting’ young Americans and Canadians of Hungarian descent participated in varied and interesting programs over the course of their two-week-long journey. While it would take far too long to list every single one of this year’s programs, but some of the highlights include places such as: The Hospital in the Rock (Sziklakórház), The Buda Castle, andThe Széchenyi Thermal Baths.. They had meetings with startup entrepreneurs, Hungarian diplomats and decision-makers such as Árpád János Potápi, State Secretary for Hungarian Diaspora Relations and artists such as Géza Röhrig, lead actor of the Academy Award winning film Son of Saul. They discovered the Hungarian countryside also by visiting the Biofarm of Zsámbok, the Castle of Visegrád, “puszta” (grassland) coach-driving in the Hortobágy National Park, and by taking a guided tour in the city of Debrecen. They had a wine tasting at the Lake Balaton and tested the Echo of Tihany. According to Csilla Zsigmond, the manager and organizer of the Program, the aim is to help the participants to gain a deeper understanding of Hungary today.

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At the Hortobágy National Park

We met with the participants and talked about their experiences within the program and the way of the deeper understanding. We talked with five of them.

Programs to ReConnect

What do you think about the programs of ReConnect Hungary? Which one was the best? Is there anything what you didn’t really like?

The Lake Balaton and the wine tasting in Pécsely were amazing. When we met the participants they were still under the spell of the scenic view of the Balaton Uplands National Park (and the experiences of the wine tasting). Although they are in a non-stop mode, meaning that they have programs scheduled for most of the day, they seem to enjoy all of it nevertheless. At the moment, the best program so far has been the wine tasting, and the Balaton-trip for the guys and they could not say any bad experiences….it was good to hear this.

Deeper Understanding

What will you take home with yourselves (other than souvenirs), from Hungary and from the program?

“A bigger appreciation for my family, and a deeper understanding how hard it could have been to leave their homeland”

“deeper connection…not only to my roots, but with the people I have met here”

“To experience the culture and the language around me. This new community that I met here …the members of the program”

“I didn’t know anything about Hungarian culture before I came here“

“Open mind, I learned…learned about my past and a dream came true”

“After the trip, I can ask my grandparents questions”

Hungarians: The nicest and most attractive people

While they met many locals during their tour of Hungary, the strongest and deepest connections developed between the members of the group. According to the participants, the fact that they come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences means that they they can understand each other very well. So strong are the connections born during the trip that several participants are planning to return together next summer if they can.

Lifetime experiences and connections 

What were your expectations before the program began?

“I’m ready for adventure and I was opened”, said one of them. Another participant expected a slower place, not as modern. According to her: “When you’re here, you just want to be part of it, you are exhausted but you want to go… things are so simple here in a good way”. Because everyone in the program has a Hungarian background in some shape or form, they saw many familiar things. Another paricipant reflected on the ways that Hungary was different than what she had been expecting, but in a good way: “I was not sure what to expect, I had been told of a very specific version of Hungary from my parents.“ For those participants who speak Hungarian, it so different to hear people speaking Hungarian, because they were speaking Hungarian at home in a bubble in the United States. “Here there are people who are like me, that there are other American-Hungarians… I am not alone.”

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Táncház (Dance-house) in Debrecen

Thanks to the following five participants for answering our questions: Casey Furlong, Helena Okolicsanyi, Natalie Wolfe, Alex Kane, Olivia Vernetti, Noel Moldvai,  as well as the project manager of the program, Csilla Zsigmond. See you guys back in the future…

photos: reconnecthungary.org; hir.ma; facebook.com/ReConnectHungary