BUDAPEST — Muhammed al-Ahmadi, a Syrian who had lived in Hungary for decades, was handing out bread to migrants camped at this city’s train station when a man rushed over to deliver the good news.
“She had the baby?!” Ahmadi, 51, responded. He had first met the new father a few days earlier, when the refugee arrived in Budapest after his journey from Syria with his pregnant wife. Now, Ahmadi walked with him to the hospital so that he could translate updates from doctors.
For years, living as a Muslim in Hungary meant existing somewhere between obscurity and derision. Muslims made up less than 1 percent of the population in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation. But as thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa have streamed into the country, hostility toward Islam has flared.
In response, Hungarian Muslims have mobilized. Rarely have their acts of service felt so necessary to them.
“Yesterday, I helped two people find their families, and today I’m helping a new father with his baby. It has been such a blessing. Allahu akbar!” Ahmadi said, using the Arabic phrase for “God is great!”
Few countries in Europe have been as blunt as Hungary in turning away the asylum seekers, many of them from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, declared this month that he would reject many of the newcomers because “we do not want a large number of Muslims in our country.” When migrants tried to push through a new razor-wire fence at the Hungary-Serbia border, officers beat them back with tear gas and water cannons.
Since the number of asylum seekers crossing Europe surged in recent weeks, many Muslims say they are facing widening animosity. “Go back to your country” has become a familiar phrase to Muslims shopping in stores. Billboards have sprung up along rural roads reading, “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture.”
Such sentiments are emblematic of the nationalist rhetoric rising in many parts of Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, one leader recently warned of an “Islamic invasion.”
Many Hungarian Muslims have responded to the crisis by providing aid to asylum seekers. In recent weeks, they have donated pizza and Capri Sun fruit drinks, bars of chocolate and containers of hummus to hundreds camped out at Budapest’s Keleti rail station. They have given out blankets and tents and have translated instructions from the police on how to board trains to more welcoming countries, such as Germany and Norway.
“The Hungarians are good people, but the politics have gotten bad,” said Josef Elhindy, a brain surgeon from Jordan, as he helped deliver medical supplies to refugees at the Keleti station. “We have to show them who we are.”
Some of the Hungarian travelers at the station watched the volunteers in awe, while others glared in disgust. One day last week, a young blond man looked at the sea of migrants and shouted, “Get out of our country. I hope they kill you.”
The ill will did not surprise Randa Rustom, a 22-year-old dental student from Sudan, who had lived in Sweden and Saudi Arabia before coming to Hungary for school. Of all the places she had lived, she said, Hungary was the hardest. The language was difficult to master. Her headscarf, or hijab, attracted mean looks and snide remarks.
Two years ago, she said, she was walking by the Hungarian parliament when someone spit in her face. She considered giving up the hijab but instead concluded that “it’s my right, and it’s the agreement I made with God.”
On Fridays, when she can make it, she prays at the Islamic Center — the largest of Budapest’s four mosques. A typical Friday brings together about 300 local Muslims in a nondescript building that has a small security camera on its side.
More people have come to the center since the crisis began, said Sultan Sulok, president of the Organization of Muslims in Hungary. But they aren’t arriving at prayer time.
“Mostly, [non-Muslims] come because they have questions,” Sulok said. Some typical questions, he said, are: “Why does your religion not respect women?” and “Do you know any terrorists?”
On the first night of prayers at the Islamic Center, in 2011, someone set fire to a parked car outside, Sulok said. Other vehicles were vandalized. That explains the security camera.
When Orban began using more incendiary rhetoric in recent months, Sulok sent a message to the prime minister reminding him that there are Hungarian citizens who are Muslim. Most came as students during the Cold War, fell in love with Hungarians and stayed. They learned the language, added paprika to their cuisine and raised their children here.
“We are worried about the future,” said Sulok, a native Hungarian who converted to Islam.
There are only an estimated 40,000 Muslims in this nation of 10 million people, and many Hungarians barely realize a Muslim community exists. Just steps from the mosque, Anna Csakuri said she didn’t know much about the faith.
“Only the cliches,” said Csakuri, 19, a student. “I’m not against them, but many people are against them, and if there are going to be more Muslims here, that would only add to the tension. A lot of people are concerned this will start World War III.”
For some Muslims, the greater concern is whether they will ever win respect in Hungary. On a recent night, at a cafe popular with Muslims near the city center, friends shared food, played backgammon and wondered about their futures.
The scent of sweet tobacco from hookah pipes and the sounds of Arabic filled the air. Darin Saud, a 35-year-old manager wearing a bracelet bearing the Syrian flag, shifted from table to table.
She warmed the coals on the hookah tray, creating an orange glow. Four college students studying abroad gathered around.
“Don’t be ashamed,” Milan Nana, a 22-year-old from South Africa, told one of his friends.
“It was embarrassing,” Fawad Momand, 22, demurred.
Momand, who is from Afghanistan and studies in Denmark, said he had joined about two dozen students on a recent bus trip through Central Europe. He and another Muslim student were questioned at every border, while the other students were not. The two weren’t let into Macedonia at all.They had no choice but to turn back to find an airport in Albania and return to Budapest. “They treated me like I was a refugee,” he said. “People here say it’s just politics. But it can’t just be politics.”
Saud, the manager, moved to another table, where a group of friends talked about the difficulties of integration while they were finishing up bits of pita.
“Things will change one day, but not for now,” Diane Ali, 30, an Egyptian Hungarian banker with a shock of red hair, told her friends.
“They don’t know there are modern Muslims, like us,” added Ihab Elsherbini, 39, who is from Cairo and moved to Budapest nearly two years ago.
Ali acknowledged, though, that she had seen small examples of kindness. For example, she said her colleagues were courteous enough not to eat around her while she was fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
“People will try,” Ali said.
Saud’s shift ended, and she thought about what she had heard. She had come to Hungary four years ago to be with her Syrian husband while he finished his doctorate. With the bloody turmoil increasing at home, she couldn’t go back.
“I didn’t want to become Hungarian at first, but when I had my daughter, then I had no choice,” she said. “And now I love my life here.”
Still, she said, Syria is a part of her that will never disappear. After getting off work, she headed home to get ready for the next day. More migrants were expected at the Keleti station, and she wanted to help.
Grego Saling contributed to this report.