Fellow travelers

“Everyone has a right to live a life that’s not in danger”

A young American woman shares her experiences from the ground in Budapest and Vienna, embedded with volunteers assisting thousands of refugees trying to reach Germany

A migrant woman takes care of a baby at Vienna's Westbahnhof train station on September 6, 2015. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Julian Pöschl, a 22-year-old filmmaker and photographer from Vienna, sat across from me at a long, cafeteria-style table surrounded by open laptops, cords and half empty coffee cups. “Many people who came here have never been political before in their lives, but they felt it couldn’t go on like this anymore,” he said.

We were straddling a bench in a storage room beneath platforms 11 and 12 at the Wien Hauptbahnhof, Vienna’s main train station. This space serves as ground zero for Train of Hope, a private refugee aid organization that was just taking shape when we spoke in early September.

An hour earlier, Pöschl and his team sent 500 people on trains to Germany, and were expecting another 2,100 people to arrive the next day. During his first day at Train of Hope, Pöschl worked for 32 hours straight, yet he remained vibrant and wide-eyed, with a soft smile that put everyone around him at ease.

Migrants who arrived from Budapest rush on the platform to make it to their German connection at Vienna's Westbahnhof railway station on August 31, 2015. After arriving at Vienna's Westbahnhof, many of the migrants then boarded a train to Salzburg, while others climbed on to another one headed for Munich, with police looking on, an AFP correspondent at the scene said. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK DOMINGO (Photo credit should read PATRICK DOMINGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Migrants who arrived from Budapest rush to make their German connection at Vienna’s Westbahnhof railway station on August 31, 2015. (Patrick Domingo/Getty Images)

Having begun as a Twitter hashtag, this grassroots, ad hoc effort was in its first week, bringing much needed structure to a solely volunteer-based group that was literally growing by the hour.

“I didn’t create it, but it’s something I adapted from shooting movies. We could start tomorrow — just change the name, do the same thing and there would be a movie in the end,” he laughed.

Not one to accept praise, Pöschl is the founder or, as he puts it, the coordinator of a 30-person volunteer team, with eight people specifically dedicated to social media. The social team does research and gathers information on the unfolding crisis and relays any organizational needs to the public. Most of the refugees here are just passing through Vienna, many of them headed to Germany.

Julian Poschl. (Larissa Sawka)

Filmmaker and Train of Hope co-ordinator Julian Poschl. (Facebook/Larissa Sawka)

It was late when we spoke, but everyone was still buzzing, wired on coffee, cigarettes, and the pace of it all. Volunteers fielded calls, stored supplies and posted updates and donation needs to Facebook — all constantly dialed in to keep up with the latest information on numbers, travel patterns and fickle laws and regulations that seemed to change each day. It was a constant race against the clock to get refugees on trains under the threat that the government would step in and send people back to Hungary.

According to the Dublin Regulations, which governs asylum-seekers in European Union member states, people are required to register their claim in the first state they enter. The system is intended to assign responsibility to a specific member state and promote efficiency in the asylum process. However, since the refugee crisis reached a boiling point last month, with hundreds of thousands pouring into Europe, the law has begun to break down. The E.U., originally formed as an economic union rather than a social and political alignment, has struggled to take a cohesive stance on reinforcing its system, leaving governments to play a game of “not it” when it comes to legal registration of refugees.

If the E.U. countries decide to enforce these regulations, many refugees could be sent back to Hungary, where the post-communist, culturally conservative government has made futile attempts to keep them out — even building a razor wire fence rather than seeking diplomatic solutions. “No fence will ever hold back anyone who wants to flee from a place like Syria,” Pöschl said.

Outside the office, I was introduced to Therese Esezobor, a 20-year-old language student, who saw the organization on Facebook and had just arrived for her first shift when we met. Therese got involved after watching the refugee crisis escalate, shattering a façade of control that the government had painted for the public’s peace of mind. “Right now it seems like the government doesn’t know what to do, and so it just does nothing at all,” she said.

Young Syrian migrant children wait for a train to Germany at Vienna's main train station on August 31, 2015. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Young Syrian migrant children wait for a train to Germany at Vienna’s main train station on August 31, 2015. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

We walked around the bottom of the platform where there were outposts set up both inside and outside of the station. The system was designed to allow incoming people to filter through and easily pick up clothes, food and medical supplies. Inside, there were Ikea-style dividers forming makeshift spaces for families to stay in overnight and recharge before the next leg of their journey.

As volunteers handed out juice and water, we watched children run around, taking advantage of a safe space to play. The sense of relaxation was palpable despite the heavy foot traffic.

In search of another English speaker to translate for me, we came across a volunteer with a sign that read, “Arabic, German and English” across her chest. Though she understood our questions, she shook her head hesitantly and led me to another translator who was speaking Arabic to a small woman in the corner.

As we huddled against the wall, traffic flowed around us. A Syrian refugee named Nermyn, her son and daughter and two volunteer translators were circled up in what could have been misconstrued as a poorly constructed game of telephone. Nermyn’s voice was soft and steady but sharp with inflection as she told us how she had been reunited with her children that morning.

As part of the wave of nine million Syrian refugees who have fled since a civil war began ravaging the country in 2011, Nermyn and her family had been on the move for 20 days. For most of the journey they had traveled by foot, including a 13-hour trek straight through Macedonia.

Police and Refugees-Budapest Train

At the station in Budapest, one of the epicenters for the crisis, in early September. (Katie Flaherty)

Arriving in Vienna, their train from Budapest was overcrowded, and the doors closed abruptly, forcing Nermyn to watch helplessly from the window while her children were left alone on the platform and she was carried off to another station.

In Syria, austerity and brutal warfare have driven a mass exodus of civilians who are seeking shelter in Northern European countries. Home to the largest economy in Europe, Germany publicly set a precedent early in September, opening its doors to asylum-seekers, and since then, many have risked everything to travel thousands of miles by land and sea to reach the country. This year, Syrians make up the largest group of asylum-seekers. Germany estimates that it will accept more than 800,000 to settle within its borders alone.

Traveling as a single parent, Nermyn had little money, and lost her passport in the sea during the first leg of their trip. Her children, who are both under 18, did not have passports, only ID cards. Aware that she could easily be sent all the way back home, she risked everything by going to the authorities to find her children. “The police told me I was safe and that I could go to them,” she said.

Waiting for the translator, I turned to Nermyn’s daughter, who stood stoically next to me with her eyes fixed on her mother. She didn’t engage, but sustained a hollow stare that seemed drained of the desperate hope her mother still clung to.

Although the police in Vienna helped Nermyn find her children, the family’s previous encounter with authorities did not end as well. While trying to pass through Hungary, police stopped Nerymn’s son-in-law at the border before he could meet the train to Vienna.

Train station Home Sweet Home JP

The central rail station in Vienna, or “home sweet home,” as Train of Hope’s Julian Pöschl calls it on his Facebook page. (Facebook/Julian Pöschl)

Listening in disbelief, I met eyes with Nermyn’s daughter again, and this time connected to her empty look. She stood strong and silent as Nermyn described her daughter’s missing husband and the callous treatment they had endured in Hungary. With nothing to offer but a half-strung smile, I looked away to avoid offering a condolence that would carry no weight.

In Budapest, Nermyn and her family were forced to sleep outside the door of a full hotel. One of the epicenters for the crisis, Hungary is very poor and has gained a reputation for its low tolerance of refugees and foreigners within its borders. Unlike in Vienna, Nerymn and her family received no food or water there, and were kicked off the hotel property for loitering. “The inhumanity was unbelievable,” she said. “We were treated like animals, and they didn’t even care about the children.”

Throughout my stay in Vienna, I heard many portray refugees as greedy and entitled, and fielded blank stares when I told them I was also traveling to Slovakia and Budapest. “With the migrants?” A coffee shop owner smirked with pursed lips.

While listening to a CNN report in the bar at my hotel, the bartender chimed in and said she empathized with the refugees but could not justify their stay in Vienna. A native of Poland, she had heard through the media that refugees were requesting a certain amount of money from the government, an amount she did not make while working two jobs and learning three languages in a new city.

Sign by Train of Hope in Vienna

A Train of Hope sign, in several languages, in the train station in Vienna. (Katie Flaherty)

The city’s official treatment of refugees has been similarly grudging. Traiskirchen, Vienna’s main refugee aid center, garnered international attention for its shoddy accommodations and inadequate care. Pöschl explained that it was not until protests began to break out at the train stations that anyone was willing to pay attention to the treatment of the people behind the sensational media headlines. “It’s a big thing and big things are always scary, but people who are angry are always much louder than people who are happy,” said Pöschl.

The political far right in Vienna views the situation strictly in terms of numbers. Since World War II, the left Social Democrats and Conservatives have ruled diverse and charming Vienna. But as of late, the right extremist Freedom Party (FPO) has capitalized on the public’s mounting fear of the refugee crisis. After tens of thousands of asylum-seekers poured over the border from Hungary this past month, the FPO made xenophobia a hardline campaign plug and catapulted themselves to second place over the Social Democrats in the state election on September 27. “People are talking about waves, not separate personalities,” Pöschl said.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Refugees welcome" during a pro-Asylum demo to welcome refugees in Vienna on Oktober 3, 2015. In recent months Austria has become a major transit country for tens of thousands of migrants entering from Hungary -- having travelled up through the western Balkans -- bound for northern Europe, in particular Germany. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK DOMINGO (Photo credit should read PATRICK DOMINGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters hold a banner reading “refugees welcome” during a pro-asylum demonstration to welcome refugees to Vienna, October 3, 2015. (Patrick Domingo/AFP/Getty Images)

Like many others, Nermyn and her family are looking to start a new life in Germany. Her eldest son, who left a month earlier than the rest of the family, lost all of his documents on the train but arrived safely at a refugee camp in Erfurt, Germany. “I hope to be together with him again, but I’m worried it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Despite her apprehensions, Nermyn seemed to harbor an unspoken faith in the whole process. Vowing not to leave for Germany without her son-in-law, she and her children waited at the train station despite having no reason to believe Hungary would free him or that they would ever find him if he were released.

As I headed back to the office to see Pöschl, I watched a little boy play catch with a volunteer and her dog. Though these people had hundreds of miles left to travel and no guarantees they’d be accepted when they finally reached their destinations, it was clear that everyone at the station found solace, safety, and, most importantly, acceptance in a place that acted as a suspended space of hope between a past life and an uncertain future.

Turning the corner, I found Pöschl pacing around outside on his phone, which rang constantly. Interrupted by everyone who passed him, he politely took pauses to thank people and hand out directions to volunteers. “We are trying to welcome everyone and give them back what we owe…or the world owes to them as human beings. Everyone has a right to live a life that’s not in danger and we have a right and a responsibility with our lives to protect others, so that’s why we’re here,” Pöschl said. “Here they are not refugees anymore; they are travelers.”

As I waited, a man in a tattered winter coat with coffee-stained sleeves approached me, staggering slowly. He had a huge smile across his face, his eyes squinting and strained, bloodshot from the kind of intense fatigue that renders a strung-out look. Without hesitation he folded his arms around me, kissing me on both cheeks, and pulled me in close. Rocking back and forth with excitement, he slowly let go and pulled back, pointing to my chest. Curious as to why I didn’t have a nametag like the other volunteers, he gestured a question with his hands. I told him my name and that I was just a reporter, and gently pulled away. Though I knew he didn’t understand my words, he pulled me back in again and held tight, uttering a carefree sigh of relief that radiated through his whole body. We may have gotten lost in translation, but it was obvious that we were both just travelers that day.

Since this article was written, Nermyn’s son-in-law has been released by the Hungarian police and was on his way to the Wien Hauptbahnhof train station to reunite with his family. According to volunteers at Train of Hope, Nermyn and her family were still trying to coordinate their trip to Germany since not all members, including her daughter, had passports. At the time, Germany was only admitting Syrian refugees with passports.

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