Thursday 18 January 2018

Refugee crisis: Elation and relief at Vienna's main railway station

Vienna train station.
Vienna train station.

Graham Clifford in Vienna

Omar sits on a camp bed at Vienna’s main railway station cradling his two-month-old baby boy Mohammed.

For the last 33 days the 21-year-old and his young family have undertaken the most dangerous of journeys from Iraq to the Austrian capital. His wife, two-year old daughter Amira and three-year old son Ahmed, have travelled in the back of lorries, paid people smugglers to get them onto a crowded inflatable raft and spent two days on a train in Hungary without food or water.

“Today is a good day,” he tells me his eyes the only sign of his tender years. “I haven’t been able to wash properly since we left Iraq. I don’t remember what a bed feels like. My children are exhausted, we are all exhausted but we are here, finally, we are here.”

He shows me the scarred arm of his daughter but wells up before he can explain how the injuries were caused. The young girl looks towards the floor and shakes ever so slightly.

Volunteers hand out rolls, hot drinks and fruit to the 400 refugees just arrived from the Hungarian border. Many will remain here in Vienna but more will continue their journey onto Munich and further afield.

Waiting on the platform to welcome the weary travellers are David O’Connor from Naas and his partner Alex Hesling.

Just six days ago the couple, along with John Milner from Bantry, hastily set up the ‘Expat and Austrian Aid’ charitable group to assist the refugees. What started out as a commitment between friends has become something much bigger as David, who’s been living in the city for 18 years, explains.

“We decided we needed to do something to help. I run an Irish bar in Vienna called O’Connor’s and we asked people we knew to bring some clothes, hygienic materials, blankets and toys here which we would then distribute at the nearby Traiskirchen refugee camp. News quickly spread and now we’re receiving hundreds of boxes of aid a day, the generosity of the Irish and expat community in Vienna has been overwhelming.”

Rooms adjoining the popular Irish bar have been converted into a makeshift aid storage centre.

Friends and colleagues have rowed in behind the charity founders delivering aid to the camp each day as well as the railway station and local youth centres where young refugees who’ve become separated from their families are being looked after. There are rumours than many young refugee children are missing.

“We keep an eye on social media and when we know a train in arriving we go down with whatever is needed. The refugees arriving have nothing, many are scared, frightened and exhausted. When they see the reception of the people of Vienna the penny drops that now finally they are safe,” says Alex Hesling.

Amongst the refugees at Vienna station is a blind 13-year-old Syrian boy. He sits on the floor, his back resting against the wall. His brother carefully breaks a ham roll in two pieces and hands one half to his sibling. The brothers look dazed and they appear to have no possessions but the clothes on their back.

The crowd eventually clears and the station falls quiet again. But another train is due in two hours and the elation, relief, welcome and salvation will begin all over again.

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