David, 30, originally from Tehran, received Hungarian citizenship on 6 February 2020. “It felt amazing,” he says. “I was born again on that day. I will never forget that date.”
The fact that David was a champion wrestler made all the difference in his remarkably short journey from refugee to full citizen in less than five years. He sees other refugees still struggling for recognition across Europe while his future is secure because he made the conscious choice to stay in Hungary.
David working his day job at Budapest's popular Aquaworld Resort as a life guard. ©UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
David spends his evenings training wrestling at Budapest's Vasas Sport Club. ©UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Wrestling is a lifelong passion for David, and it helped him integrate in Hungary. ©UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
David had left his family behind in Iran and set out alone as a refugee for religious reasons. “I am not a religious person,” he says. When he crossed into Hungary in 2015, he was stopped by the police and sent to a refugee centre in the eastern city of Debrecen.
“I had relatives in Germany, and I was planning to go there,” says David, “but in Debrecen I understood there were rules for refugees and you were supposed to stay in the first safe place, so I decided to follow the rules. I thought that Hungary could perhaps be OK for me and I could find a good life here. My uncle in Germany encouraged me in this.”
“He was never ever excluded, and nobody ever treated him differently,” says David’s wrestling coach, Gergely Wöller
Life at the refugee centre in Debrecen was not entirely comfortable but David told himself it was only temporary and made the best of it. What really helped to ground him in Debrecen was the fact that he found the local wrestling community. Back in Iran, David had been a wrestling champion at national level and wrestling was his life.
Although at first he spoke neither English nor Hungarian, he tracked down the Debrecen wrestlers using Facebook and Google Translate and began training with them. “They became my friends, like family to me,” he says.
While awaiting a decision on his refugee status, David was moved from Debrecen to Nagyfa, a camp of tents and containers near Hungary’s southern border with Serbia. But he only spent a month there before the Hungarian wrestling fraternity came and got him out, promising to take responsibility for him.
Instead of being in a camp, he was able to share the rent on a rural house. He had a Hungarian girlfriend and also church friends, who helped him to pick up English and some Hungarian. In 2016, a judge in the town of Szeged granted him leave to stay in Hungary for ten years.
At work, David is equally popular with his colleagues and the guests. David working his day job at Budapest's popular Aqua Park as a life guard. ©UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
Determination and charm were David’s winning formulae both in wrestling and in building up his new life in Hungary. ©UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
After that, he was able to travel to the capital for wrestling training, sometimes even with the Hungarian national team. In Budapest, he joined the Vasas Sports Club, where his coach, Gergely Wöller, 37, said he was welcomed from day one.
“He was never ever excluded, and nobody ever treated him differently,” said Wöller. “David is a wrestler. When somebody comes to us and steps on the wrestling mat, he or she becomes a member of our family. Sport here has nothing to do with politics; they should never be mixed. We very much welcomed him.”
“They told me I needed to speak Hungarian. I said, ‘if you give me the job, I will learn Hungarian.’
While wrestling, David earned his living working in an Iranian restaurant. But he was really more interested in a job as a lifeguard at the popular Aquaworld Resort. He had previous experience as a lifeguard on beaches in Iran.
“At the job interview, I spoke English,” he says. “They told me I needed to speak Hungarian. I said, ‘if you give me the job, I will learn Hungarian.’ Also, I lived far away, on the other side of the city. They wanted to know how I would get to work on time. I said, ‘if you give me the job, I will move to be nearby.’ ”
He got the job, and within weeks relocated, and now he carries a notebook of Hungarian vocabulary, as he constantly works to improve his Hungarian. For their part, his employers paid to retrain him to EU life-saver standards. He has been in the swimming job for three years.
Determination and charm were David’s winning formulae. At one point, it even seemed he might win a place as a wrestler on the refugee team for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But for one thing, the games were cancelled due to COVID-19 and for another David became ineligible to represent refugees because he had applied for Hungarian citizenship.
The Hungarian Wrestling Federation, as well as David’s own club, the Vasas, wrote letters to support his application for citizenship.
In order to meet the requirements, in 2018 he went back to school to achieve the level of a Hungarian eighth grader.
“I know about the Magyar horsemen who arrived in Hungary in 896, and about King Matthias Corvinus, and about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and about the 1956 uprising,” he says, showing off the historical knowledge essential to be accepted.
“And now I am a citizen,” he says. “Citizenship is better than any Olympic medal. I have a guarantee and my whole life ahead of me, with the freedom to move around Europe. That is priceless.”
To top it all, in the same month he became a citizen he also won a medal in his first international wrestling championship, the Hungarian Grand Prix 2020. “A Russian came first,” he said, “but I won the silver medal for Hungary. I was proud to stand under the Hungarian flag because this country has done so much for me.”