“Three people in one room want to commit suicide? Stay cool.” What keeps everyone going is the sense of humanity.
You sense the Train of Hope camp before you see it. Gliding up the escalator to the main ticketing hall of Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, you feel goosebumps, your eyes scanning for this terrifying wave of refugees. As you leave the escalator, you step right into the crisis. The ticketing hall is packed. That night, as most of the city prepares to sleep, the train station is in a state of emergency.
Vienna is a way station for some 6,000 refugees a day. “It began with just ten students, with these big trains coming in!” laughs volunteer Martina Barwitzki. “The Austrian Railway couldn’t cope.” Six weeks later, the camp is now indispensable. “Many people don’t get the situation,” said Austro-Canadian Ashley Winkler, 28. “It’s like standing in front of a burning forest, complaining about the ashes, but not doing anything to stop the fire. We’re trying to stop this fire.”
Spread out along the Gürtel, the Train of Hope looked like a war zone: a patchwork of tents, a field clinic. Still, there was a comforting level of organization. Within half an hour, I was registered. I would soon learn that no one behaves normally under these circumstances.
Volunteers were everywhere, some coming for a few hours, some ending up working two days straight. What keeps everyone going is the sense of humanity. A steady stream of donations arrives from a cross-section of society. Mehar Singh brings 100 kg of curry daily from his Sikh temple. “We will not stop, unless they say ‘ok, no more trains are coming, you can go home. ’ ”
What the volunteers see is real and immediate, not second-hand scare stories discussed far from the frontlines. Lena Limmeroth, a volunteer psychotherapist, has seen it all. “Three people in one room want to commit suicide? Stay cool. Many translators are refugees themselves, so the history overwhelms them. They cry and that’s OK. Sometimes I watch the news and I’m crying too.”
For musician Timna Eisenreich, 22, there were definitely moments when it got too much. “Refugees coming beaten up, some of them really bloody.” How did she go on? “There’s this little smile when you give them a toothbrush. The way they look at it. It’s heaven for them.”
By 4:00, I had my own mini-breakdown – over missing baby milk. I text Nadja Hudovernik, a photography student. “I’m feeling so many things: frustration, anger, sadness, joy. A state I am sure you guys deal with everyday.” “Yes,” she replies. “Aggression, fear, hope, definitely go with that as well.”
The Train of Hope has survived mostly on private donations. Volunteer numbers go down during winter. Damp fog seeps into the blankets. Mismatched donated clothes make the refugees look the part. Proud men awkwardly ask a female student to help them find underpants. The office tweets for gloves. They appear within the hour – still not enough for the hopeful, silent line.
“These people are not just a big unknown, evil mass,” said Winkler. “They’re people who’ve been through hell. No one leaves their country because it’s a fun activity for a Sunday afternoon. People should know more about every story that’s happening here, then they will understand.”
Back among the commuters, I still felt connected to the ragtag volunteer army coping effectively with the unintended consequences of so many global conflicts. Far right election posters blanketed the city: Einer für Alle, Alle für Einen. “All for one, one for all,” they proclaim! Aus Liebe zu Wien, “For love of Vienna”
The irony is so apparent.
The Train of Hope has received the 2015 Austrian Human Rights Award.