Features / December 8, 2015
Volunteers in Austria step up to help refugees
with files from Tristan Johnston and Louis Marta-Widjaja
There’s a little boy in Vienna who wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, because he wants to help people.
Unfortunately, he’s going to face significant barriers, because he’s in Vienna as a Syrian refugee.
“It’s great to see him having these big plans, but knowing that he’s missed school for a year already, and you don’t know when he’ll go back to school,” says Jennifer Hofmarcher, who lives in Austria and studies political science at the University of Vienna. “You know this little child has so many hopes and dreams, and you encourage him to keep fighting for his dreams, but you know he’s going to face so many problems—so many more than I would have if I wanted to be a lawyer,”
She met the boy at one of Vienna’s main train stations, which was receiving 1,000 to 1,500 refugees a day before Hungary closed their borders in an attempt to keep the refugees out. Most of the refugees stay at the train station, which has been converted into a refugee camp, for less than 24 hours. Some make their way into Austria, while many others go on to seek asylum in Germany and Sweden.
Hofmarcher has been volunteering at the train station since August, which is when Austria began experiencing a wave of refugees. That month, Germany announced that their borders were open to asylum seekers, and any refugees making their way there must first pass through Austria. Hofmarcher references an event in late August where a truck was found in one of Austria’s eastern provinces with 71 dead people inside as a moment that put the plight of refugees in the mind of many Austrians, herself included.
The people in the truck were travelling from Hungary to Austria, suggesting that it occurred as a consequence of human trafficking.
“That was eye-opening,” she says. “It’s so hard to see these pictures, read these articles every day … knowing that this is something you could’ve prevented, and if politicians would have been smarter, these people wouldn’t have died.”
“That’s when it started to become a big issue in Austria, because it was like, ‘Okay, people are actually dying on our streets, in our country, because we don’t do anything.’”
Her role each time she goes to the train station changes, as has the station itself. She notes that the set-up is more professional now than when it first began, because it’s had time to become better organized.
Hofmarcher has spent days looking after children whose parents were in the medical centre, she has cut vegetables and made sandwiches to give to refugees, and she has organized clothing donations. It was while looking after children that she met the boy who wants to be a lawyer.
“I don’t speak Arabic, and these kids don’t speak English or German, so you try to entertain them as well as you can with body language, or drawing,” she says. “Now there are professional kindergarten teachers and elementary school teachers there who take care of them, who also have the educational background and knowledge on how to work with these kids who are very traumatized.”
“I just did what I thought was the best for them. You try to do your best, but you know it will not be good enough at the end.”
There is also psychological support available at the train station, specifically for the volunteers, because they’re faced with new situations in hearing people’s stories that can be difficult to deal with. Many of the volunteers are university students, and Hofmarcher knows of several people who have taken leave from their jobs, or taken a year off of university, to continue volunteering for the refugees.
“Every time you’re there you do something different, but it’s nice to get to know the people, and talk to them, and although it’s hard on you, it’s nice to know that these people are safe now, and that they do not have to suffer anymore.”
No Middle Ground
During the summer and early fall, Hofmarcher believes that there was mostly positive support for refugees in Austria. The main newspapers were discussing refugees positively, and one publication printed their newspaper in Arabic with information for refugees. The Austrian government also distributed letters, welcoming people to the country.
Now, however, things have begun to change. The positive support isn’t as overwhelming, and there are two clear opinions: “Either you’re for refugees, or you’re against refugees,” says Hofmarcher. “There’s no middle ground anymore.”
Since September, 600,000 refugees have arrived in, or passed through Austria, a country with a population of eight million people. The Austrian government has also stated that around 100,000 people will seek asylum in Austria this year, and another 120,000 people next year. According to the Red Cross in Austria, so far around 1.5 million portions of food have been given out, 70,000 people have needed medical assistance, and there are altogether about 70,000 volunteers active in Austria.
Conversely, Canada has a population of around 35.2 million people, and the Canadian government has committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016, which includes both privately sponsored and government-assisted refugees. The goal is to have 10,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of 2015, according to Theodora Jean, media relations for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The refugee program in Canada works closely with the United Nations Refugee Agency, which identifies refugees for resettlement. Refugees coming into Canada have to undergo a screening process, which includes a medical examination, that scans for communicable diseases like tuberculosis, as well as biometrics and biographical information. If the decision is made to accept the refugee, the visa officer will approve and the case will proceed, with obtaining travel documents, flight arrangements, and other necessities. If the decision is negative, the visa office contacts the refugee and the UNHCR.
One of the biggest problems for refugees is being able to get official documents, as so many city halls have been destroyed, says Mario Ayala, the Refugee Services Director at the Inland Refugee Society of British Columbia. He doesn’t have a solid answer for what the solution is, but he does point out that there are refugee lawyers looking to bring ideas to the Canadian government that could assist with this problem.
He also suggests that there are actually very few private sponsorships for refugees in Canada, although those looking to sponsor can receive training and support from various organizations. While government sponsored refugees get welfare and support immediately, asylum seekers and those who enter Canada in non-legal ways often have nothing while they’re seeking protection. Ayala argues that they still need a place to stay, access to food, clothing and transportation, while they wait to receive proper documentation, and the Refugee Society offers those services. Obtaining documents can take two to three months, or even longer.
The Government of Canada has announced they will invest up to $678 million over six years in resettlement and support for Syrian refugees. “This amount is an estimation of the work required of the Government of Canada and our partners to fulfill this commitment, and includes amounts for partners such as the Canadian Red Cross,” says Jean. “The federal government is making a significant investment in bringing these refugees here, and much of this is in settlement and resettlement funding that will follow refugees to their communities.”
“Protecting the safety, security and health of Canadians and refugees is a key factor in guiding the Government of Canada’s actions throughout this initiative,” adds Jean.
Impact of Volunteers
Although governments throughout the world are beginning to make announcements regarding Syrian refugees, Hofmarcher remains critical. “In Austria it’s only been working out that well because of volunteers,” she explains. “Our government completely failed in helping them.”
She argues that most European countries don’t know what to do about the refugees within their own borders, and they also don’t know how to react on a European level through the Union. “Volunteers, we don’t have the time to think about, ‘Do I want to help this person or not? We have to help this person right now. And if I see someone standing in front of me … I have to help them, otherwise they would freeze to death … [We] don’t have time to think about it.”
On days when she planned on going to the station for three or four hours, she’d typically end up putting in 12 or 13.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but seeing these people smile just by giving them a sandwich and a bottle of water, it’s life-changing.”
“I know I’m doing it for them,” she says. “I have such a good life here, and I’ve literally done nothing to get it.” Both her parents have good jobs, and she counts herself lucky to be born in Austria, into her family, and to have access to food, clothing and shelter. “I feel like I don’t deserve so much luck, and then I see someone suffer in front of me, literally dying in our country, I feel like I have to give away some of all that luck in my life.”
“I have to give it back to them,” she says. “It just doesn’t feel right for me to feel so fortunate, and to have so many good things going on in my life, while there are people suffering in my country because of war, because of terrorism. I just don’t think it’s right. And that’s why I’m there.”