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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Iranians in Hungary in the Past and the Present

By Mehdi J. Moqaddam, Center Graduate Research Intern, ELTE University, Budapest 

Diaspora is a term used to describe the mass, often involuntary, dispersal of a population from a center (or homeland) to multiple areas, and the creation of communities and identities based on the histories and consequences of dispersal—whether forced or voluntary.i

Because of its location, Iran has been a place that has attracted transnational migrations, but also has had its share of invasion. Since coming to Hungary as a graduate student in anthropology, I’ve learned more much more about the history of Iranian migration to this country. The 13th century Mongol invasion of Iran is one example of this human dispersal; the Iranic nomadic tribes known as the “Jasz” people is among the best-known migrations of Iranians to Central Europe. The Jasz people left Iran and settled largely in the central part of Hungary (the area in dark green above) after seeking asylum from Hungarian King Béla IV Árpád who had hopes of enlisting the Jasz in the resistance to a Mongol-Tatar invasion.

Figure 1. The Jasz people

After nearly two centuries, the Jasz people were almost completely assimilated into Hungarian society. Although they no longer spoke their home language, they maintained many aspects of their identity and traditions. While they identified themselves as Jasz, they spoke Hungarian and later adopted Catholicism as their religion.

Another interesting facet of this migration and exchange between Hungary and Iran is reflected in a handful of borrowed words that the Hungarian language adopted from Persian. Words like “Hezar” in Persian and “Ezer” were immediately apparent to me when I first arrived. A number of other words that are similar are the followingii:

Hungarian Persian

More recent history has less visible evidence of Iranian mass migration to Hungary; there are however, a number of individuals who came to Hungary to study medicine at Hungarian institutions such as Semmelweis University, which is well-known by reputation outside Hungary. In 1966, the then-Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made a state visit in order to strengthen Iranian trade and strategic collaboration with the Hungarian state.iii

Figure 2. Jasz couple in Traditional clothes

There had been many intergovernmental contracts between Iran and Hungary in a variety of industries, but they all largely ceased due to the 1979. Even though some Communist activists from Iran had sought asylum in Hungary following World War II and throughout Hungary’s communist era, smaller waves of Iranian immigration to Hungary is more recent. Hungary and other Eastern European nations have not, for various reasons, been the primary interest of Iranian diasporic communities—in comparison with countries like Germany, England, and France. Many Iranian students have sought student visas to continue higher education over the past few decades and many stay there after receiving their degrees. Sanctions on Iran imposed by nations like the United States have made Hungary more attractive since Hungary is the gateway to Western Europe for some Iranians.

Not so surprisingly, fewer Iranians have migrated to Hungary recently and this is largely because of the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments and the challenges of integrating into those nations, even though many Iranians think of Hungarians as kind and warm people. There are no Iranian diasporic organizations in Hungary, therefore, there is no coherent association among Iranians who live here. Even Iranian students lack associations that exist at many universities around the globe. One can find in some Budapest Iranian restaurants celebrations of Yalda or Norooz New Year Celebrations in a few small Iranian as well as a few annual concerts by Los Angeles-based Iranian singers. These indeed are Budapest’s most important Iranian cultural events. While Iranians who migrated to Hungary, primarily live in Budapest. Some medical students for example can be found in cities like Szeged and Pecs. Although in past decades the majority of these university applicants came to study medical sciences (pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, and physiotherapy), in recent years, a number of people have come to Hungary to study technology, engineering, humanities, and art. Some families send their children who have just finished high school to Hungary, as some colleges have been established by Iranians to prepare applicants for entrance exams to medical universities. Interestingly, in recent years, Iranians residents or citizens from countries such as Canada and the United States have also come to Hungary to study medicine, because of the relatively low cost to attend medical universities in Hungary. I have observed that Iranians in Hungary communicate with each other largely through social media. Telegram is their most important social media platform. In Telegram groups, members frequently ask questions about rent, exchange rates, university exam questions, residence and immigration, entrance exams to universities and colleges, academic rules and regulations, and general questions about living in Hungary. Other members respond based on their information and experience. Some Iranian-owned businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, transportation, and real estate companies, as well as barber shops advertise on these social media groups. I observe on these social media channels very little political conversation, but rather, much more exchange about practical matters.iv

Iranian bakery in Budapest

The beginnings of Iranian Studies in Hungary can be traced back at least to the 18th century. Early specialists in this field include Ferenc Dombay (1758-1810) and Károly Reviczky (1737-1793) who earned international fame during their lifetimes. In the next century, the famous traveler Ármin Vámbéry (1832-1913) was the first person to formally teach Persian language and literature at ELTE university. Iranian Studies as a separate program has been taught at the Faculty of Humanities at Eötvös Loránd University since 1958. 

The Hungarian state is also more welcoming to Iranians than some other European nations. In 2017, Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén announced that Hungary “is ready to take in an Iranian Christian woman named Aideen Strandsson who was publicly baptised shortly after arriving to Sweden in 2014. The move was unexpected for an asylum seeker. Many do not publicly declare their conversion for fear of retaliation from the Muslim community. Her deportation was in contravention of international agreements such as the Geneva Convention prohibiting expulsion to countries where the asylum seeker’s life may be put in danger. 

Hungary does not send any asylum seekers to countries where their ethnic, religious or political background may put them in harm’s way,” he stated. He added that the woman (named Strandsson) would be welcome to stay in Hungary pending the favorable outcome of procedures such as national security checks, Semjén said. “We have always differentiated between economic migrants and real refugees. We’ll protect Hungary from a migrant invasion but help all those in real danger,” Semjén said, adding that Christians integrate easily into the Christian European culture, unlike Muslims who have no intention of integrating.”v Obviously, the idea of being a Christian Iranian is part of this case.  

For many young Iranian students seeking to come to Hungary to study, the immigration process has become much more complicated due to political and banking sanctions that Iranian passport holders have to face. Sara Hosseini-Nezhad, a Ph.D. candidate at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest recently conducted noteworthy research: “We Begin 300 Meters Behind the Starting Line: Adaptation of Iranian Students in Hungary in the Post-Sanctions Era.” This research investigated the psychosocial adaptation trajectory of Iranian international students in Hungary and the challenges they are encountering. Three themes Hossein-Nezhad identified were: 1) visa and banking challenges; 2) the impact of the currency crisis in Iran on mental health; and, 3)  positive and negative changes in psychological well-being. The results revealed that almost all students’ well-being improved over time, despite facing challenges related to visas, banking, and Iran’s recent economic

Like me, many students don’t know their longer-term plans, whether they will remain in Hungary, or move on to other locations. Despite the challenges, Hungary holds many opportunities for Iranians seeking to improve their education and their economic well-being.

  1. The phenomenon of “diaspora”;
  2. Hungarian terms derived from Iranian languages,
  4. See You in Telegram: Iranians in Hungary,
  6. Hosseini-Nezhad, S., Safdar, S. ., & Nguyen Luu, L. A. (2021). “We Begin 300 Meters Behind the Starting Line”: Adaptation of Iranian Students in Hungary in the Post-Sanctions Era. Journal of International Students, 11(2), 341–360.
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