Europe's Refugee Crisis and IES Abroad Vienna

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Ashley Houston
September 25, 2015

The European Union is continuing to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis. In Vienna alone, thousands of asylum seekers are flowing through the country daily, some wanting to stay, others hoping to get to Germany and further north. The Austrian and German chancellors have announced that they will not be turning away refugees, but that border controls will be stepped up. Those seeking asylum will still be permitted into the country.Train Station in Vienna

National support for migrants and refugees in Austria continues, and our IES Abroad Vienna Center is no different. IES Abroad Vienna has a long history of helping refugees in Austria, going all the way back to the Hungarian crisis of 1956.

A note from our co-founder Clarence Giese from the 25th anniversary Festschrift tells us more about how the first group of IES Abroad students aided their new community:

During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, when refugees began pouring into Vienna, IES students willingly shared the burden of caring for them. Most of the students found some kind of job in the hastily erected refugee camps. IES students donated blood, took care of children, gathered and distributed clothing. This group took personal responsibility for a young Hungarian medical student and donated money for his living expenses and tuition.

IES Abroad Vienna alumnus and current faculty member, Erik Leidal was featured in a recent interview with Democracy Now about the refugee crisis. Last week we asked him a few more questions to get a better sense of what things are like on the ground:

IES Abroad: You mention in your interview with Democracy Now that the Austrians are “showing enormous compassion with their help during the crisis.” Can you tell us more about how Austrians are supporting migrants and refugees?

Erik: Whether these asylum seekers are migrants or people fleeing their home country has yet to be decided; I believe it is important to refer to them all as refugees until the system has decided who will be granted asylum and who will be sent back. Europe is not accepting migrants, except in key economic areas that are seldom going to be filled in this way; moreover, there are probably a few migrants looking for a better life in the mix of the whole sum of people coming in, but we are not in a position to say how many. Most (maybe even over 90%) are fleeing war-torn areas in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria, where no place they can go is safe. Many are under 18 years of age. Most Syrian boys and young men I meet are simply conscientious objectors to a war they claim Assad will send them to die in, against both the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. They are unwilling to say this openly to the public for fear of retribution against their family members still in the country back home….

Thousands of Austrians, including many recent migrants to Austria, are helping in various ways. Tons of donations are received and then sorted and stored. To my knowledge, few Austrians are accepting refugees into their homes to offer private housing. But many are opening up their bathrooms to allow the refugees a chance to get themselves cleaned up in private. Sleeping places, clothing, food, water, medicine, medical care, and legal and transit support are offered to thousands per day at the train stations Westbahnhof (organized by Caritas and the Red Cross) and the Train of Hope at the Hauptbahnhof. This is in addition to the camps run by the government, including Traiskirchen, which still has around 400 people sleeping in the open, and camps that have popped up recently along the Austrian border to Hungary, in Nickelsdorf and elsewhere.

IES Abroad: You’re a volunteer with Train of Hope, a self-organized group, can you tell us more about what they do? 

Erik: Train of Hope started not even 3 weeks ago, and now there are over 1,500 workers registered at the Hauptbahnhof, Vienna's new central (and southern) train station. It's a very mixed bunch of volunteers—all ages and backgrounds. Most prominent among them are the translators, most importantly Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu, who are a real help to the refugees. English translators like myself are helpful for freeing those translators (often in short supply) to assist those who cannot speak English. We offer the newly arrived persons medical care, medicine, WiFi/WLAN and power to charge their phones, warm food (including Halal), drink, warm clothing, shoes, blankets, legal assistance, counseling, and travel assistance, including funding to particular destinations, both within and beyond Germany. We have helped nearly 20,000 refugees so far.Train of Hope volunteers

This video is mainly in German, featuring a very good mix of the folks involved at Train of Hope.

IES Abroad: What is the Train of Hope center, and what kind of support is offered there?

Erik: We are located on the back side of the train station and are able to provide sleeping accommodations for nearly 500 people, mainly to families and those who have grown weak or too ill along the journey to continue. These areas are located in halls around the corner from our center. Space in our center is devoted to the serving of food and drink, legal counseling, and transportation assistance. We have a very active social media desk that reads and posts messages on Facebook and Twitter, continuously updating what we need (or don't need) at the moment. Our average answer time (for a particular donation, for instance a baby stroller or a particular phone charger) is around 10 minutes. That means from the time someone asks for something we don't have at the moment, within 40 minutes, it has usually arrived on site.

We provide day care for children, we have a missing persons desk, and even a coordinator for the buses to take hundreds to mosques and various large halls around town with sleeping areas set up so that, should the need arise, we can temporarily house around 2,000 people with a few hours' notice.

In addition, we send volunteer groups to locate and inform the surrounding areas of the train station to make sure that we don't forget there are other refugees who are passing through the train station onto Germany, but may get stuck here. (Trains have been traveling sporadically, the borders have been closed repeatedly). We let them know we can help them find a place to sleep—the police will not allow them to stay in the station overnight.

IES Abroad: How has the crisis affected students at IES Abroad Vienna? What have been their reactions so far?

Erik: I start teaching Monday, so I am not sure.

Since I have access to the English speaking population at the IES Abroad Center, I look forward to being able to set up language buddies with refugees who want an American college friend. They are middle-class people, kind and courageous, who just need someone to talk to.

IES Abroad: What are some ways folks can help the cause if they are not in Europe?

Erik: We [Train of Hope] do accept donations through PayPal with a campaign that has already raised over €12,600 in 12 days. The money goes directly to the refugees for their travel: Train of Hope's Indiegogo campaign.

Update: This week, the IES Abroad Vienna Center organized an information session with Erik for the students. He spoke about his experiences during these last few weeks as a leading member of Train of Hope. He also provided information regarding how students can help, including organizing work groups at the Main Train Station.

All students were encouraged to attend Erik’s info session in order to be informed about what is happening during this historic time.

IES Abroad Vienna Center Director, Morten Solvik, has been consistently keeping students on the ground informed and advised about transportation schedules and safety. Additionally, he has sent students several links about the outpouring of support in Vienna. The Center has also started a food drive of non-perishables.


Editor's Note: If you would like to make a voluntary contribution to Train of Hope, please do so via the link Erik provided above.

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Ashley Houston

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