Today was an emotionally charged day for many Syrians and friends of Syrians in Vienna. When we heard that trains were running from Nickelsdorf (on the border with Hungary) to Vienna, those of us who could went straight to Westbahnhof to help welcome mostly Syrian refugees and to assist them in this stage of their epic journey. It was crowded, it was chaotic at times and it was overwhelming.
As they came off the trains, exhausted refugees would be met by dozens of volunteers offering drinks, food, medical help, and general assistance. We wore signs on our chest listing the languages we spoke, and we directed them as best as we could. For all the goodwill of all involved, it was difficult to know which trains would be the next to leave, and where to direct those continuing to Germany (the vast majority).
Platform 1 was entirely occupied by trolleys overflowing with food, drinks and hygiene items, with blankets, with clothes. Medical staff was on standby in a dedicated area clearly marked for all to see, in Arabic as well. On another side, some volunteers offered sim cards while others gathered cash donations for those who were continuing their journey beyond Munich. All travellers to Munich travelled for free, courtesy of the Austrian National Railways. Inside the arrival hall, multiple outlets were available for people to charge their phones, and signs in Arabic explained that free WiFi was available.
Amidst all the chaos was great dignity. The dignity of the refugees, who smiled when we said “alhamdella alsalameh” and who often politely refused to accept offered food, merely asking to be directed to the trains to Munich. The dignity of the children, who when handed chocolate bars and urged to take another would say no thank you, one is enough. The dignity of the volunteers, who seemed to instinctively know when to circulate, when to initiate contact, and when to stand on the side with trays of warm drinks, small things to eat and even cigarettes.
The generosity of the Austrian people and of the Austrian authorities was incredible; Caritas couldn’t accept more donations of clothes, shoes and toys for today. The kindness and calm shown by the police force was stunning; at one point, as a departure to Munich was announced, the platform became so crowded that a couple of employees were pushed and fell (on their feet) on the tracks. Yet, police remained calm and managed to restore order without force or roughness.
It was cold, windy and rainy in Vienna today, but to those fleeing war, misery and genocide, and especially after the stupefyingly harsh treatment they received from Hungarian authorities, Mother Nature was no match for the warmth of Austria’s welcome.