Picture: ©Christopher Klettermayer

Part I

It started with a post on Facebook, Martina Barwitzki told me. It was her friend Julian: Some refugees were coming to the Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) and there was no one around. “I’m here with some friends,” he told her. “I think they could need some help.”

The Viennese had long since become adept at using social media to launch social action. In a particularly dramatic incident in 2009, a facebook campaign by two young students resulted in a 3,000 person Lichterkette – a chain of light – that encircled the Parliament following the election of a Far Right youth group leader. This time, a small group of Viennese students, under the banner “Train of Hope”, have again used social media to react in very concrete ways to a global refugee crisis that has paralysed professional politicians, overwhelmed seasoned journalists, and thrown citizens on every continent, already numbed from two decades of Middle East conflict, into a renewed spiral of fear and confusion.

Since the first trains arrived from Hungary at the end of August, many Viennese have chosen to face the wave head on. “It started with just ten people, and there were these big trains coming in!” Martina Barwitzki laughs.

At first, it was just a group of people who brought bottles of water and cookies to the Hauptbahnhof. But the refugees just kept coming, so the Austrian Railway (the OeBB) was forced to move them from the main hall to another at the far side. “We were there just with our little tables. It felt like we couldn’t do anything,” she said, “because they are just coming, even more and more. It’s not under control. They are just coming.”

Vienna is a city that has weathered many refugee challenges, each triggered by major global events: The Second World War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan War, and more recently the rise of Isis and other extreme terror groups,. Now, the combination of local fighting and external bombing campaigns has driven a huddled mass of exhausted, uprooted and hungry refugees into the peaceful territory of Europe. Understandably, many have reacted with panic; it’s a lot of people. But while other border countries, like Hungary, have chosen a barbed wire fence and well-armed police, Austria has, perhaps surprisingly, become the most important and most welcoming way station for refugees en route to a safe haven in Germany or Scandinavia.

From that single table, the Train of Hope has since grown into an essential service for the city, making Vienna’s current reputation as the only European city so welcoming to refugees. When the  borders East of Vienna open and those in the West close, bottling up refugees in Austria, the camp feeds, clothes, gives medical and psychological treatment, finds shelter, and provides much-needed human comfort daily to thousands of refugees. All by volunteers solicited via social media.

“Train of Hope gave me a lot of faith in humanity. It’s awesome to see what people can do just because they want to help,” said Austro-Canadian Ashley Winkler. “I don’t think anything like this has happened before.” Winkler is one of the leaders of Train of Hope. She has been active in various local demonstrations, and was also affected by her father’s charity work.

“The first night that I spent here in the first week, there was a family here, two adults and six kids, and the kids were sick.” It was the first real contact the volunteers here had with the refugees. The next morning as the sun rose, it was rather beautiful, she remembered. “I stood there and it was so clear to me that this needs to be done. People are needed here.”  So she called my boss, to say that she couldn’t come in. “I could have called in sick, but I’m not sick. ‘I’m at the main station,’ I told him. ‘And they need my help, and I need to be part of this.’ He gave me the day off.”

The many refugee stories of life-threatening ocean crossings, gouging smugglers, police brutality, and local hostility from European citizens are relatively well-known. What is not so known is how people-power actions like the “Train of Hope” operate, how they manage so rapidly to draw helpers to volunteer and donate often beyond what they can afford, and often from thousands of kilometers away. And how untrained volunteers as young as 16 become actively involved in the seemingly Sisyphean task of resolving this crisis that is stumping their parents’ generation and short-circuiting public institutions.

As Martina notes, “The Austrian Railway supported us from Day One, because they knew they didn’t have the infrastructure, the personnel, just a few security people. And we are here, we are volunteers, we have food, we have bottles of water. We tried to give them some other stuff, like doctors coming even as volunteers too.”