Volunteers, Many Once Refugees Themselves, Help as Guides in Vienna

2C05528E00000578-0-image-a-12_1441543507926 VIENNA — At the migration center in the east wing of the main train station here, Ragad al-Rachid, a petite 19-year-old psychology student and a Syrian Muslim, is immersed in the logistical details of helping dozens of people a day adjust to new lives in her adopted country. She shouts directions to the makeshift kitchen in Arabic, points people to a registration desk and a lawyer to advise them on legal ways to stay in Austria, gets local SIM cards for the new arrivals, helps them connect to the free Wi-Fi at the station and shows them how to buy tickets for trains to Germany and beyond. Often she just sits with refugees and listens to them talk about their experiences. But even as she spends her days helping the thousands of people transiting through the Austrian capital, she said, she is also benefiting. As one of dozens of Arabic-speaking Muslims among the 2,000 or so volunteers here who tend to refugees, she has for the first time since coming to Vienna found herself among Austrians who “look like me and think like me,” she said. As Europe absorbs the multitudes heading its way from the Middle East and Africa, it has often left unresolved the integration of earlier waves of Muslims. In Germany, it was the Turks. In France, the Algerians. But all across the Continent, Muslims are in various stages of acceptance, and the young, in particular, have been seeking ways to fit in. 25VIENNA-facebookJumbo Ms. Rachid’s family’s story illustrates the recent arc of the exodus from the Middle East into Europe. She arrived in Austria this year. One of her uncles sought asylum in France, and another is waiting for his residency papers in Sweden. Two of her aunts are being processed in Germany, and a third is in Austria, where Ms. Rachid, her parents and a younger brother are also seeking asylum. Just last week, nine months after they officially requested international protection here, they obtained a decree allowing them to remain in the Alpine nation of 8.7 million people. “It’s been really tough on my family, but we are the lucky ones because we have the means to support ourselves in the waiting period,” Ms. Rachid said. Her father owns a business in Nigeria. With the war in Syria raging into its fifth year, the family has not been back to its home in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, an opposition stronghold that has been under government siege. enhanced-20347-1441531517-1 But while Ms. Rachid longs to return to Syria, the country has come to her through the Syrians who descend every day from trains at Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, exhausted by the journey through the Balkans, traumatized by the past in their war-wrecked homeland and fearful of a future in exile. “I think about these stories a lot,” Ms. Rachid said. “I’ve had sleepless nights, and the hardest thing for me now is the realization that my country is gone.” It is the refugees’ questions about Austria that she has the hardest time answering. Does she like Austria? How long does it take to get asylum, and how long before they can bring the family over? Should they go on to Germany? She struggles with a reply because she knows it is a long process in Austria, and most of the refugees landing here now do not have the means to support themselves while they wait. The asylum policy is being amended constantly because applications for international protection in Austria have risen sharply. In the past three days, the Interior Ministry has registered a record number of requests — 500 to 700 applications a day, compared with 100 to 150 at this time last year. By the end of September, officials expect more than 9,000 asylum applications on their books, compared with 3,000 in March. Her advice to refugees often is to move to Germany — and not just because Austria’s list of asylum seekers has grown so long. “I feel strange here sometimes, maybe because of my head scarf,” Ms. Rachid said. “People are always staring at me.” She is particularly uncomfortable taking Vienna’s underground commuter trains. “Whenever I enter the metro, I see people stiffing up, pulling away from me slightly, and I think, ‘Oh, no, what did I do?’ ” Ms. Rachid, who has not mastered German, said she tried to limit her movements around Vienna to the apartment her family is renting in a middle-class district, to a supermarket across the street and to a private university, where is taking English-language courses in psychology. And to the east wing of the train station, where the migration center has sprung up as a primary service point for the thousands pouring through. This week, trains kept pulling in, each with 150 to 350 exhausted and nervous migrants, from the Hungarian border. On a recent day, volunteers counted nearly a thousand people at the station in their care. Earlier in this crisis, Austria was heavily criticized for the appalling conditions of its refugee centers in the border areas. Protests for better treatment occurred this month, and a group of people broke away from the official collection centers and established their own refugee relief effort. Within three weeks, one effort, known as Train of Hope, was established at Vienna’s main train station. It is now on par with the refugee center run by an Austrian Christian charity, Caritas, in the capital’s oldest station, the Westbahnhof. Starting with a few boxes of clothing and a shopping cart full of medicine, a core group of eight volunteers, all in their 20s, initiated the relief effort in a corridor of the train terminal’s east wing. Now they have a clinic with two beds; closets stacked with medicines and first aid and hygiene kits; and X-ray and ultrasound machines. There are six doctors and four nurses by day, two of each at night. There is a makeshift kitchen and dining area, a restroom with several toilets at the entrance to the station and a tented area that is organized as a bazaar for migrants to choose from donated clothes. There is also a missing-persons desk and a legal-advisers desk with two volunteers who talk about asylum policies and onward journeys with migrants. Elsewhere, SIM cards are handed out, and free food and snacks are available at every corner. Another volunteer, Monika Alamgir, a 24-year-old Austrian of Indian and Bangladeshi origin, said she could relate to Ms. Rachid’s feelings as an outsider. Ms. Alamgir was born in Vienna to a Muslim family and has a degree in Islamic education. She has four sisters, and three of them, along with their mother, cover their hair with head scarves. “I like it here, but it is different. People perceive you differently here if you wear a hijab,” she said. “You are a Muslim, visibly, and not everyone likes us.” But Ms. Alamgir said she had a good life in Austria, where her father, a journalist, sought asylum nearly three decades ago, when he was forced to flee Bangladesh. “I consider myself and my family fortunate because we are safe here and we have all we need,” Ms. Alamgir said. “I want to help others now because I know how it is to be in their place, in danger and with no money left.” Train of Hope lists its needs on a Facebook page that has more than 40,000 fans, and through its Twitter account, which has more than 5,500 followers. It also now oversees seven halls, industrial spaces and an indoor sports stadium that it has turned into sleeping areas. “What we do here is try to have people who have been through hell smile again — let them know they are safe with us,” said Ashley Winkler, 24, a graphic designer from the southern Austrian city of Graz, who quit her job at an ad agency to help found and run Train of Hope. “The City of Vienna supports us, but not the federal government,” Ms. Winkler said. “They should, though. We are doing their job without any pay.” Ms. Alamgir’s main task at the train station is to coordinate hundreds of volunteers, many of them refugees themselves or descendants of previous generations of asylum seekers. It is essential they speak German, Ms. Alamgir said, but the languages most in demand are Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Kurdish. What is most needed is for the volunteers to know and understand what the refugees are going through, Ms. Alamgir said. “It does not matter what language you speak, I tell volunteers,” she said. “You have to be kind and loving to these people who have been through so much.” Source