Having spent the greater part of the last couple of days at Westbahnhof, and at the border at Nickelsdorf on Sunday, I hesitate when I claim emotional tiredness after having heard Syrian refugees’ stories about their long road to Vienna and seen the state they were in. What they have lived is incredible, and painful to hear. Every person and every family stays with you, and you find yourself wondering how much more they will endure, and how many more will follow in their path.
This week was better organized overall, and the many Austrian volunteers, donors and helpers who continue to show such solidarity and compassion are truly a shining example of the power of civil society, especially when coordinated with and facilitated by authorities. Metal barriers have been brought in to organize arrivals and departures, and Platform 1 has become the transit area. In the midst of the main arrival hall, a new makeshift area for children to rest, snack and play amid a pile of plush toys has been set up and the scenes are heartwarming.
The Caritas operation nerve center has begun to issue badges for volunteers, listing spoken languages. This enables paramedics and police to call for help easily, especially when the inevitable rush happens as long awaited trains to Munich are about to leave, and volunteers are asked to explain the process – and to calm rising tensions amongst exhausted people. There have been slight scuffles and complaints about people cutting the long lines and positioning themselves in front; police and volunteers always try to bring families with young children to the front, but young men travelling alone are faster and less patient, especially when their journey has begun way beyond Syria.
Arrivals to the station can also be chaotic; most refugees are now mostly being brought in by buses from the border (yesterday alone there were 50 buses and 2,500 refugees, and many had not arrived by the time I left), and they are often unsure about what will happen next to them. Cordons of police officers line the platform, and volunteers guide them to the area where food and drinks – and another long waiting period – await them. Yesterday, a lovely choir of some 20 adults moved along the platform singing inspirational songs to bemused refugees. And when Austrian President Heinz Fischer made an unannounced visit as well, thanking officials and volunteers and chatting with some refugees, I can say with great confidence that at least 99% of them had no idea who he was.
The badges also encouraged incoming refugees to ask for help. While most Syrians I met were hoping to start a new life in Germany, many are desperate to know the rules and logistics of asylum requests in different countries, asking a myriad of questions which we simply could not answer, to their frustration. It would be so helpful if relevant NGOs could establish a reliable information base, allowing refugees to understand legal positions across the EU. Refugees arriving here are welcomed with huge posters from the City of Vienna telling them “You are safe” in English and in Arabic, and volunteers continue to explain that they will be taken by train to Munich for free, should they wish to continue beyond Austria.
I happened to spend quite some time taking newly arrived people to the Ambulatorium and translating for the paramedics, whose professionalism and kindness with refugees is to be saluted. At Nickelsdorf on Sunday, we were lucky to have an extended conversation with the official spokesperson of the Austrian police force, who told us of many cases of exhaustion, of extended walking and falling (and worse) related bruising and aches, but also of dehydration and lack of nutrition (that day alone, for instance, 7 small children had to be hospitalized because of severe dehydration), and Austrian medics at the border have been taking care of the most urgent cases.
Vienna doctors were busy too. The situation in Macedonia and especially Hungary has gotten much worse over the last week, the effect evident on the faces of many. On Thursday, l was led to a small Syrian boy who had headaches and had been feverish for several days. I touched his forehead and went straight into the anxiety mode most mothers feel when a child is that hot. After l accompanied little Ahmad and his mother Nour to a doctor, she wept on my shoulder as she recounted their ordeal from Bab Al Hawa to Vienna – from Assad’s bombs to a camp in Turkey, to a terrifying sea crossing, to the long journey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and finally through Hungary. And that is when Nour cried.
If there is one common denominator to the conversations I have had with Syrians refugees this week, and I am sure this is the case with most volunteers, it is their shock at the surreal violent and degrading treatment they received in Hungary. Most thought we didn’t know, that this was not being reported in the media, and they were shaken to their core and bursting to tell those who would listen. I took a young woman limping on one crutch to the paramedics; she had been pushed to the ground in Hungary and seemed to be in great pain. Dima, however, categorically refused to let the Viennese doctor touch her swollen leg (to his shock), traumatized by the Hungarian nurses and doctors who handled roughly and rudely. After she shared some shocking details with me (including bruises on her arms after they woke her up by pinching her), I asked her father to convince her that she was in good hands here and that I would be by her side the whole time; he was in his late sixties and trembled with indignation as he gave me details of “what they did to us in Hungary” – a sentence I heard repeatedly. Dima looked for me half an hour later, still in pain and still traumatized, and told me her father was now crying. After holding back for so long, he was finally able to break down, in the safety of Vienna.
He was not the only grown man crying. On one side of the platform, a Syrian man tried unsuccessfully to control his tears as he told us how he was separated from his wife and children as they were led into buses. This refugee had no phone and could only wait, and save for a few comforting words, I could only think of our own impotence in the face of a catastrophe of this magnitude. How many Syrians will be looking for family members across the world in the years to come, just as people, Jews in particular, did for years after WWII?
While despair was palpable in many refugees, so was a definite sense of determination in most. Two young couples (from Aleppo and from Hama) chatted with me about their plans in Germany. One man was a mechanical engineer, the other a graphic designer, and as their pregnant wives sat by a pillar resting their aching backs, both told me they couldn’t wait to settle down, learn German and start anew. In a world where there are inevitably haves and have-nots, they were clearly of the former, turned into the latter when barrel bombs pushed them into exile with a only small bag to their name. Likewise, a grandmother from Deraa tearfully explained her family had no choice but to flee the barrel bombs (“al barameel”), worried that one of her disappeared sons would not be able to find them. Her young grandson listened to us chatting as he munched on some peanuts handed out by volunteers; I told him that he looked like a very bright boy who would learn German quickly and do very well in school; he nodded smilingly and, as any Syrian would, offered me some of his peanuts.
Each refugee is a story of hardship, of tragedy, of a desperate attempt for safety and dignity and of hope that the next generation would at least have a chance for a normal life. The one who will stay with me forever is Loujeyn, a little 8-year old Syrian girl from Damascus whose little bag sank into the sea during a storm, taking with it the few possessions she had chosen. She had been in the same clothes for weeks, and was given some old sneakers when her wet ones finally gave out. She was sneezing, was clearly exhausted, and incredibly sweet as she patiently waited to go on to Germany while her mother Salwa recounted their journey to me; still outraged about what was done to them Hungary, she told me it had been the first time since they left Damascus that she had nearly regretted leaving.
I felt an immediate attachment to them, perhaps because Loujeyn was nearly my own daughter’s age, and perhaps because Salwa was a fellow Damascene with a shared environment and roots, and I arranged to have some clean clothes and a Barbie doll brought to her later that day and to Loujeyn’s priceless smile. As I prepared to leave them, Salwa reached into her handbag and tried to give me the one “luxury” item still with her: a small bag of Arabic coffee, carefully wrapped in plastic. She was pained when I refused, insisting “please, it’s from Syria.” I told her it would make me much happier to know she will drink it when she has a roof over her head, safe from the Air Force Intelligence unit which had taken her older son and prompted the family to flee when they got him out, and that one day I would accept her hospitality in Germany.
As I left the station, my badge already removed, I suddenly noticed many more people than usual begging. A young woman who appeared to be Gypsy approached me; out of habit after talking to so many refugees in the last week, I asked her where she was from as I reached into my purse. She replied: Syria. I was stunned for a second and furiously told her: No you’re not! Ask for money but do not pretend to be a Syrian refugee.
I make no apology for being protective of the people who have shown so much dignity throughout their ordeal, and who have endured every calamity as most of the world watched in silence. That others should exploit their plight adds insult to injury and distorts the reality, and we have gone from having to explain where Syria is, to having our mostly useless passports stolen, our identities borrowed and our tragedy abused. And yet, even in their time of need, Syrians’ generosity – and generosity of spirit – remained legendary.
It took a flood of refugees and dozens of encounters with my Syrian compatriots in the most unexpected of circumstances, here where they saw real solidarity and compassion for the first time in weeks, but I am beginning to think that the cliche just may be right: Vienna really is the heart of Europe.