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Laszlo Sarkozi stared out the window of the Toronto public transit bus, awestruck by the tall buildings and streets that seemed to go on forever. It was Jan. 31, 2010, and the boy and his family – his mother, father and two younger brothers – had just landed in Toronto after a transatlantic flight from Brussels via Amsterdam. His father's brother was there to greet them at Toronto Pearson International Airport and now the family was making its way to his uncle's apartment, with the hope of seeking asylum and starting a new life here.
Laszlo had never been in a city this big. His hometown of Szekszard, Hungary (population: 34,000), which his family left to escape discrimination, was tiny by comparison. Laszlo felt as though he'd been riding on this bus for hours.
"I was wondering when we could finally get somewhere where we could sleep," Laszlo, now 16, recalls. "I wondered how my uncle knew where to go."
Laszlo had never been to Canada before. He didn't know anything about it, only that it was on the other side of the ocean. He watched a lot of American movies, though, such as High School Musical, and he imagined the country might be something like the United States.
His family had been talking about Canada for months, but Laszlo hadn't realized how serious those discussions were until they began selling all their possessions to pay for plane tickets out of Hungary. They kept only clothing, packed in the four suitcases they were carrying, and a few miscellaneous items. Among them, Laszlo remembers, was a small DVD player and a few movies. These are the details that stick out in the boy's mind.
The Sarkozis's arrival coincided with a wave of refugee claimants from Hungary, as reports of violent attacks and rallies against central Europe's Roma minority made international headlines. The year after they landed, Hungary was Canada's top source of asylum seekers. More than 4,400 claimants from Hungary were recorded in 2011, most of them believed to be Roma. The influx prompted the Harper government to clamp down on what it characterized as bogus applicants. It introduced a series of controversial reforms, including highly criticized cuts in 2012 to the Interim Federal Health Program, which provided health coverage for asylum seekers. Those cuts were determined to be unconstitutional by the Federal Court in 2014, and the new Liberal government campaigned on a promise to fully reinstate the program.
At the time, Laszlo was only vaguely aware of these political goings-on. As his family took up temporary shelter at a drab motel on Kingston Road, Laszlo's attention was focused on adjusting at school, making friends in a place where he didn't understand the language, and his favourite pastimes: reading the Hungarian translation of The Lord of the Rings and learning rap lyrics.
He and his family were also constantly worried about getting sick. Relocating to a new environment exposed them to all kinds of cold and flu bugs, against which they had yet to develop immunity, and it seemed they were always coming down with runny noses, sore throats and fevers.
As the Conservative government's cuts to health care for refugee claimants took effect, avoiding illness became an even greater concern for the Sarkozis. Any time the family needed to see a doctor, they would have to visit one of the few overwhelmed free clinics offering care to the uninsured, and Laszlo would once again find himself staring out the window of a bus on another long ride through the city.
The nearest free clinic was about a 50-minute ride away, and to the young teen, seeing a doctor felt like a "big inconvenience." It would take 10 minutes or so to fill out all the paperwork and another half-hour of sitting in the waiting room, he says.
Lazslo had heard that Canada's immigration minister at the time, Jason Kenney, had accused Hungarian asylum seekers of coming to take advantage of the country's health and welfare benefits. But long after Laszlo received full coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, Mr. Kenney's assertion didn't make any sense to him.
"The health-care system in Europe, when you're a citizen, is actually much better," Laszlo says. "Things are more efficient … You get things done faster."
Canadian doctors, however, were "really nice," he says – much nicer than what he heard his parents say about doctors back in Hungary.
In fact, looking back, he remembers numerous instances when people in his home country were downright hostile. In Grade 4, a classmate announced he hated "Gypsies," a derogatory term for Roma, and declared he didn't want them to live, Laszlo says. Other classmates were incredulous that Laszlo was Roma. "No, you can't be. You're not like the way Romas are described," he remembers them saying. "You're a lot nicer."
The adults in his family have more vivid recollections of the discrimination they faced. Laszlo's father, Laszlo Sr., was working two or three jobs, unable to secure more stable employment, as employers refused to hire him based on his ethnicity. He says he was verbally and physically attacked more times than he can count, and Hungarian authorities offered no protection from racist assailants.
In fact, Roma people were targeted by Hungarian police themselves, Laszlo's mother, Ilona Orsos, says, noting police often stopped them in the street and questioned them for no reason. Even though he knows rationally he has nothing to fear here in Toronto, Laszlo Sr. says his stomach instinctively seizes and his heart races whenever he sees a police cruiser.
The younger Laszlo doesn't remember this incident – he was around eight years old at the time – but the most terrifying attack on the family occurred in the parking lot of a Tesco grocery store about a year before they migrated to Canada, Laszlo Sr. says. The Sarkozis had been walking through the parking lot when suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a group of about 10 people. One of the attackers had a knife, while another held a gun to Ilona's head. They beat Laszlo Sr. severely. Laszlo Sr. isn't sure why their attackers dispersed, nor how the family managed to get away. But, he says, one thing was certain: It was "the last push" for them to leave Hungary for good.
In December, 2012, the Canadian government issued a "designated countries of origin" list, saying individuals from the countries named – including Hungary – were unlikely to need protection. Along with many other Roma applicants, the Sarkozi family was denied refugee status and faced deportation. But after an appeal in December, 2013, they were granted the right stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
"There was a lot of stress that was relieved," Laszlo says.
Inspired by the lawyer who helped his family stay, Laszlo dreams of becoming a lawyer . "That idea appeals to me that I would be helping people similar to myself in my profession when I grow up," he says. "But it's also really expensive. … So I don't know how that will happen."
Laszlo expresses compassion for the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Hungary's response, in particular, angers him, he says. After closing its border to Serbia in September, Hungary announced in late October it was also closing its border with Croatia, cutting off the flow of migrants into central and Western Europe.
"I just don't understand why they don't understand. If they were refugees and they were fleeing and they had lost most of the things they ever owned, would they not rather go to, say, another country a bit farther away where they can actually have a better chance of starting a new life?" he says. "It seems nobody understands this."