Refugee and Asylum-Seeker Education Program, “Olive”, to Resume in January

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Drawing by Hadassah Sonnenschein

“CEU will restart both Olive programs in January, under any circumstances.”

So reads an October 2018 statement from the Provost’s office to The Stand.

In response to the passage of the “STOP Soros Act” — a package of laws passed in the Hungarian Parliament that criminalize acts of assistance to persons seeking refugee or asylum status — in June, CEU decided to put its OLIve program on hiatus. Officially suspended as of August 24th, the program was halted as a measure to protect the university’s status and financial security. Though the fate of the program has been uncertain since this time, it appears that the program is to resume in January, meaning that students with refugee and asylum-seeker status can once again receive the education, professional development, and support that the program provides.

The Open Learning Initiative (also known as OLIve) was launched at CEU in response to the increased number of asylum-seekers and people with refugee status fleeing violence and insecurity in their home countries resettling in Hungary in the summer of 2015. The program, designed on the same model as CEU’s Roma Graduate Preparatory Program, prepares students through “education, job market training and English language skills.” (OLIve Website) Divided into two subprograms — the OLIve Weekend Program, a part-time commitment well-suited to working students, and University Prep program (known as OLIve UP), a ten-month English and academic writing intensive meant to prepare students for higher education in Europe — the program has been an unparalleled success since its first class of forty-five students in fall of 2016.

In addition to the concrete skills OLIve provides, the team of dedicated staff has also worked to create avenues to education and success within institutional academia that were previously non-existent for its students.

One student, for example, was a “very talented Palestinian student working in factories and woodcutting,” says Dr. Rajaram, co-director of the OLIve UP program. Before the program, the student had “no real avenue to University,” but after the tutoring, enrichment, and facilitation of the OLIve Weekend Program he was able to attain his Masters degree in Business Analytics at CEU and now works at a German IT company.

“These are people who had given up on the idea of being able to access preparatory education here in Hungary,” explains David Ridout, co-director of both OLIve UP and Weekend programs, and now many have earned a Masters degree and gone on to pursue successful careers.

“This program has encouraged a lot of students to join higher education in EU countries — mainly in Germany and Hungary,” says A., a Somali student who has relocated to Budapest. Having joined the OLIve weekend program in its infancy in January 2016, A. began attending while living in a camp in Ballassyagarmat ,a town in northern Hungary.

Through OLIve, A. gained skills in both English and academics — keeping up with the program even as a student at Szent Istvan University, where he earned his first Masters, before pursuing his second at CEU.

A. emphasizes that this program serves a purpose beyond preparing students academically: it also equips them with English skills — a vital skill in the international job market and a means of communicating across communities. He notes: “I remember some of the friends were not speaking English and even they were not able to connect two English words together. After a while their English was better than mine.”

For the students, OLIve is more than just an educational program — it is their shared community. The program is a meeting point and means of community-building within the refugee student community. N., an OLIve alum and current student in CEU’s MPA program, says that “Olive is a lot besides an academic program. It is a ‘safe space’ for students to share their worries and share their experiences.”

The OLIve programs offer the support network that students coping with refugee and asylum-seeker status need but often struggle to obtain outside of the program.

`“If a student is depressed,” N. explains, “if he is overwhelmed by all of what is going on around him, he can find someone to talk to [through Olive]. We have mentors and academic coordinators helping us respond to everything going on around us.”

Despite the success that the OLIve program has had in creating access to education for these students, CEU decided to temporarily suspend the program as of August 24th, 2018. This was in response to a set of laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament on June 20th criminalizing various acts of assistance to undocumented peoples living in Hungary; this includes offering financial aid or informational assistance about the processes of applying for refugee/asylum status or residence permits. Called the “STOP Soros Act Package,” the bill is a thirteen-page document publicly available at the Hungarian Parliament’s website with the bill number T/333 (T/333. számú törvényjavaslat.)

According to an unofficial translation by the Hungary Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based NGO monitoring the status of human rights in Hungary, the law states that “Anyone who provides financial means for committing [these] criminal offence[s], or who regularly carries out such organisational activities, is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to one year.”

The language of the law specifically targets organizations operating within Hungary, claiming that “Unauthorized entry into Hungary and the entering into Hungary by persons residing in Hungary illegally is assisted not only by international organizations, but also by Hungarian organizations, which justifies acting against it with a criminal law instrument.” [Emphasis Added.]

Though this is the official rationale given in the legislation, many groups inside Hungary, including those arguably being targeted by the bill, say that this is just another attempt by the far-right Fidesz government to foster fear of migrants and further the “agents of Soros” narrative as a means to manipulate the Hungarian people.

“Migration is clearly being used by the Hungarian government as a political diversion,” says Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Societies Foundation (the international grantmaking network founded by Soros), as cited in the New York Times. “The ultimate objective is to intimidate civil society and muzzle independent critics, including those who receive some of their funding from Open Society.”

This is nothing new to the staff of OLIve, many of whom have long been active in refugee/asylum-seeker advocacy work.

“We have seen for the last two, three years a gradual buildup in this type of activity, which has already criminalized asylum-seekers. And so the next step was to either make it more difficult [to apply for refugee or asylum status] or even criminalize activities designed to assist asylum-seekers and refugees.”

Since 2015, the Hungarian government has been accused time and again by human rights watchdog groups of spreading anti-migrant propaganda and of a pattern of escalating violence towards the displaced persons who come to Hungary, either to resettle or as a means of passage onto other EU countries, such as Germany.

On August 20th, about three weeks before the European Parliament voted to trigger Article 7 sanctions procedures against Hungary, Human Rights Watch published a report accusing Hungary’s Immigration and Asylum Office (IAO) of denying asylum-seekers food while in their custody. Lydia Gall, the Eastern EU and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to German media outlet DW that “The government has stooped to a new inhumane low by refusing food to people in their custody, apparently reveling in breaching human rights law, including its obligations as a European Union member.” The Hungary Helsinki Committee argues that the food deprivation is an intentional tactic used to discourage asylum-seekers from settling in Hungary — encouraging them to go to Serbia instead.

According to a report from DW, the IAO has stated that “authorities have no obligation under Hungarian law to provide food to rejected asylum-seekers in transit zones,” while Human Rights Watch argues to the contrary that  “Hungarian authorities do have binding obligations under multiple human rights treaties and norms that prohibit inhumane and degrading treatment of those in their custody and require those in custody to be treated with humanity and dignity.” (Human Rights Watch via DW)

Though many would argue that the programs run by OLIve do not fall under the categories of financial assistance or informational actions, the law is constructed in such a way that even an educational/employment training program could be characterized as a criminal violation. “The law is written in a very vague and abstract way,” Dr. Rajaram says, “and the intention is to create this climate where people voluntarily withdraw from the system out of fear.”

Because the law is so broad, it could easily be used classify the OLIve program as a form of assistance to undocumented individuals (even though OLIve primarily serves students who already hold refugee or asylum-seeker status). One section of the STOP Soros package even specifically identifies “educational programs” as a forbidden form of assistance — although this is only supposed to apply to those who do not yet have refugee/asylum-seeker status. In addition to imprisonment, violating these laws could also result in financial penalties for institutions in the form of tax levies. This means that hosting the OLIve program could potentially result in a 25% seizure of all of CEUs assets — a fatal financial blow to the institution.

The decision to suspend the OLIve program was made by the Provost (Dr. Liviu Matei, professor of Public Policy), and the Rector (CEU President Michael Ignatieff), in consultation with the school’s attorneys. Following a tense and uncertain fall for the program’s students and staff, however, the program is to resume in January 2019. The Provost has told The Stand that both the OLIve UP and OLIve Weekend programs will begin again under no uncertain terms. Exact details are pending, following a meeting of CEU’s Board of Trustees (and likely, according to the Provost, a town hall meeting.)

On the same day that the Article 7 sanctions were announced, Dr. Rajaram was contacted by the European Commission, notifying OLIve that they had received Erasmus+ funding for the next two years — ensuring financial security for that period. There is something of a parable to be gleaned here — Fidesz’s attempt to squash refugee/asylum-seeker assistance programs has, ironically, resulted in secure funding.

As for OLIve’s students, the program’s future continues to be a matter close to their hearts. A. tells me:

“I would ask for the CEU administration and international community to stand with the OLIve program that works with and teaches refugees to adapt with and improve this new world they have immigrated to.” [sic]

Or, as put directly yet earnestly by N.:

“If the program [is unsuspended] I would be happy. Of course I would be so happy.”


Note: If you would like to learn more about the OLIve programs, the “Stop Soros” law package, or would like copies of the bill itself or the translation done by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, please email

By Rosa Schwartzburg

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