Surprising Expats: Ágota Székely, Charity Founder, Felter & Teacher

  • 15 Feb 2023 3:05 PM
Surprising Expats: Ágota Székely,  Charity Founder, Felter & Teacher
This is part of a series of in-depth interviews with some surprising members of the community, written by Marion Merrick.

“I became British before I became a Hungarian citizen,” states Ágota – something she long ago gave up trying to explain to those unfamiliar with the complexities of central European history.

Ágota was born in the small town of Szilágycseh (to Hungarians) or Cehu Silvaniei (to Romanians), in northern Romania.

“I am Hungarian, but from Romania. Actually, for 32 years, I did not exist as a Hungarian according to my papers. I was born in a small town in the north of Transylvania called Szilágycseh, into the Hungarian minority – everyone in my family is Hungarian, and the language spoken at home is Hungarian. At school, I was enrolled in the Hungarian section of the school, so I was able to study in my mother tongue, apart from Romanian, of course.”

It was a closely-knit community where Ágota spent as much time at neighbours’ homes as in her own, and where if anyone had a problem, they could count on the help of others.

She goes on to explain the background to what outsiders sometimes find difficult to understand or sympathise with: “You see, after WWII, borders moved and Hungarians were stripped of their Hungarian citizenship, often of their names, too.

My grandfather, for example, left Hungary to fight at the age of 17 – he was taken prisoner of war – and by the time he got back, he was returning to Romania. His papers were all taken away and he was given Romanian documents in their place. His name was changed from Sándor to Alexandru. So, it’s no surprise that there is an exaggerated veneration for the Motherland among Hungarians living across the border.”

During communism, when Ágota’s mother was en route from Romania to Czechoslovakia, she jumped off the motionless train which had made a stop at a station in Hungary, and ran down the platform, only to be able to experience what it had felt like to set foot on Hungarian soil.

Ágota remembers the revolution in 1989 when Ceauşescu was executed: “I was too young to really understand, but we were just tearing out the first pages of all our school books – every one of them had a photograph of Ceaușescu - we threw them on the floor and danced on Ceaușescu’s face!” she laughingly recalls.

Following her school studies, Ágota was accepted to Babeș-Bolyai University in Kolozsvár (Cluj Napoca) to study English and French Language and Literature.

“Before I finished, I took a gap year and went to the UK to be an au pair near Southampton. And that was hard.” She pauses.

“People were very distant; building relationships was very difficult. It was hard to relate to people of my age, they were all kind, in a western way, but we had almost nothing in common. I was somehow able to relate more to the older generation, they’re the ones I remained friends with. My English ‘mum,’ Beryl is 93!”

After finishing her last year at university, Ágota returned to England again for the summer to look after a friend’s children. “Then one thing led to another, and I was offered a job.”

Successive stints in a pub, in a Co-op and as a waitress eventually led to Ágota’s decision to undertake an MA in Applied Linguistics at Southampton University. “That opened a lot of doors,” she says.

She was offered a university post involving the teaching of English for Academic Purposes, assisting foreign students embarking on MAs or PhDs with their academic skills. “I didn’t plan to stay in the UK, that wasn’t where I wanted to settle, but in the end, I was there for eight years,” Ágota says.

It was at this juncture that Ágota applied for, and was granted, UK citizenship. She had also applied to become a Hungarian national, but by this time, she had decided to go and work in China, and was already in Suzhou when the invitation to a Citizenship Ceremony in London was sent – luckily, it proved possible to transfer it to Shanghai. “So that’s how I became British before I became Hungarian!” Ágota laughs.

Ágota taught at Xian Jiaotong Liverpool University for three years; by then, she was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the pollution. She decided to move closer to home, and settled on Budapest.

Ágota was a very well qualified teacher, though not a native speaker, but was not offered well-paid work opportunities. “My name was too Hungarian to get decent jobs,” she says, “I felt humiliated in Hungary. Better paid teaching jobs, international schools and universities prefer native speakers.” Thus, Ágota started to teach English online to Chinese students living in China, instead.

She outlines a predicament with which others may also be familiar: “I went from being the member of a minority in Romania to being an immigrant in England, to then being a British expat in China. The status of these is very, very different, the salaries are considerably different, and how people approach and speak to you is very different as well. I really have an insight into being regarded with respect – in China – to ‘well, we really don’t want you here,’ in England, and then to being told in Hungary that you’re not good enough because your name is Hungarian.”

Then came Covid, and Ágota’s thoughts turned to taking up some voluntary work involving children – something she had already done in the UK, in Kenya and in China. 

Csaba Böjte is someone I have always admired,” she says, talking of the Franciscan monk in Romania who founded children’s homes for those removed from their families. Ágota established contact with his organisation and was soon teaching English online to teenagers in several homes, alongside her now full-time job at the International School of Budapest.

She soon enrolled a small team of like-minded English teachers, willing to give of their time alongside their jobs, and established her foundation, HEARTFELTENGLISH.

“We teach English online to children from disadvantaged backgrounds with the aim of preparing them for the C1 Advanced English Language Exam. Our students are from Romania aged 12 – 22.

In our team, we have seven qualified teachers, and ten teacher assistants who are IB students in grades 11 and 12 at the International School of Budapest, where I teach English. Our Hungarian students are from the Szent Ferenc Alapítvány and our Romanian youngsters are from the state-run children’s home from Szilágycseh (Centrul Plasament Cehu Silvaniei). 

English lessons at the summer school – Anna and Csilla during a vocabulary competition

“We don’t just teach English,” she explains, “there’s a lot of pastoral care involved. Lack of confidence is a huge issue.” Some of the children were not taken to school by their parents, thus they have fallen behind and have low self-esteem as regards, their English skills.

“There are times I need to have conversations with the students to give them confidence to continue studying with us, which ordinarily their parents would have. Having worked with our students for over two years now, we’ve learnt that if we want to provide them with a unique programme that really meets their needs and supports them, we have to meet them where they are at first. Teaching English is the core element. But they need way more than that, and I strongly believe we can make it happen.

So, I’d like to see HeartfeltEnglish grow.

I’d like to be in a position where we can offer one-to-one tuition to each student, university preparation (i.e., career advice, essay writing, taking notes, presentation skills, and so on), psychological support including mindfulness training, and trips abroad to English speaking countries like the UK, South Africa, Australia or Canada.

In order to achieve these goals, we need teachers and teacher assistants (high school students who speak English at native, or near-native level), psychologists, people with fundraising expertise, advice on how to set up an NGO, and financial support.

All our teachers are volunteers, so to reward their work I’d like to be able to offer them ongoing quality professional development, the opportunity to take part in a mindfulness course for their own well-being, and for them to be able to join us on our trips abroad.”

Running a charity is very time-consuming, especially alongside a full-time job, however, for Ágota this is unnegotiable.

“It is easy when you know you’ve found your calling in life. I feel that all the experiences and skills I gained through my travels all around the world prepared me well for this mission. You know, when at the end of your online lesson you want to say goodbye and your student says: ‘Can we chat a little longer….?’, it doesn’t matter that it is Friday 6pm and that on Saturday, you have your next online lesson with her older siblings at 8:30am, you stay a little longer. Because you want to. Because you believe that every child is a hope for this world.

“I named the foundation HeartfeltEnglish since all our teachers are volunteers, everything we offer comes from the heart. Also, I am a qualified felter and fashion designer. I am inspired by Hungarian folk art and I recently won an award given by the Hungarian Heritage House.”

Ágota’s winning entry for the Little Black Dress 2023 competition

(Courtesy Hagyományok Háza, Gábor Dusa/model: Imágó Tánc Társulat)

Ágota uses patterns and motifs she has discovered in her research into the Hungarian folklore of her home region in Romania, incorporating these into the clothes which she designs.

Summer School: teaching cookery vocabulary by baking yummy carrot cake muffins

Felted keyrings made by the children at the Summer School

Mártika wetting the wool with warm soapy water, before felting

“During our summer camps, I teach students how to felt, with the aim of raising funds by selling our finished articles. The students help me with the production of my designs, so these clothes can be sold at our yearly Fashion show. We’re now planning our first Fashion show and we’ve been struggling to find an affordable venue. We would be incredibly grateful if anyone could help us with a centrally-located place!”

Ágota looks for people who share her vision and who can relate to her ideas; thus, in acknowledgement of all that has been accomplished with the help of Orsolya Szűcs, her assistant founder, and their volunteers, she chose the following saying as the guiding motto for the HeartfeltEnglish community:

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

If you have some special expertise, or can help her innitiative in any way, please contact Székely Ágota at HEARTFELTENGLISH or at

Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.

If you would like to be interviewed as a Surprising Expat, please write with a few details of what you do, to: Marion by clicking here.

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