The Train of Hope: Organized Chaos at the Encampment on the Gürtel

Picture: © Christopher Klettermayer

Part II

You sense the Train of Hope camp even before you see it. Exiting the underground into the train station, gliding up several escalators to reach the main ticketing hall, you feel something in the air. Your senses become more alert, a prickle up your spine, your eyes scanning for this terrifying wave of refugees you’ve only read and heard about on the news and in social media for months. My first time was around 8pm at night. A friend had been there several times already, and had urged me to go.

As my feet left the last escalator, I literally stepped right into the crisis. The ticketing hall was packed. Young, old, babies, toddlers. Neighboring countries had opened their borders earlier in the day, and that night, as most of the city prepared to party or sleep, Vienna was in an emergency situation. Far from feeling fear, my immediate reaction was some version of “Oh my God.”  There are people here who need help. Someone has to do it. It is the same feeling that draws every volunteer to Train of Hope, the feeling that keeps them coming back day after day, night after night.

It was bone chilling cold that day, when I returned to meet Lena, the camp’s resident psycho-therapist. She was knitting woolen caps for refugee children. We found a warm spot in the tent for the Samariterbund EMTs. She had been working there since September 6th, two or three days after they set up the camp. She had seen the posting on Facebook, and called. Did they need a psycho-therapist? “They said, yes please!”

It was really chaotic, she remembered. “They just said, ‘OK, here’s a patient. You shout out for a translator, you shout out for a doctor, everything will be fine.’” She smiles. “And it was really working like that. We’re the fastest hospital in the world.”  She felt a bit like a stewardess: Men go there, women there, and children over here. “You got the flu? Or the man flu? The first day I stayed for 28 hours straight through.” The next day her legs gave out.

The Train of Hope camp sits by the Gürtel – the belt that encircles the inner districts of the city. The area, for years a rather ugly wasteland for working class Viennese and immigrants, is being rapidly revitalized, ironically to prepare for a projected population growth of around 10% over the next decade.  Half-built mini-skyscrapers, nondescript hotel chains, and glass and steel office buildings loom over the last remaining unprepossessing post-war social housing. The Hauptbahnhof, a modernist dark steel behemoth completed last year, is the largest presence in the area. At the very end of the train station, the volunteer camp is glued to the train station like a last scrappy holdout before being swept away by gentrification.

The Train of Hope encampment looks like a settlement on the edge of a war zone – a patchwork of tents storing donated food, medical and hygiene supplies, clothing, blankets, baby prams. You approach the camp along with a steady stream of refugees, coming and going in buses, taxis, on foot. A refugee passes, poking a finger through the tattered shoe in his hand. A weary family exits a taxi, a baby asleep in its mother’s arms. Pairs of young men checking their mobile phones.

As you cross the main entrance, between a large open store of donated water and an ambulance from the Samariterbund, the surprisingly large scale of the camp hits you. And the comforting level of organization.  There was someone at the entrance wearing a yellow jacket, who directed people to the office where you could sign in as a volunteer. In my case, within half an hour, I was registered in the computer database. They put my name was on a sticker with the time I arrived (a therapist would check on volunteers who might feel overwhelmed after a few hours), and I was passed on to someone who asked me if I had any particular skills, such as translation or medical background. Rather shamefaced I had to admit I had neither – I speak several languages but Arabic Kurdish are not among them.

The staffer then directed me to one of the stations that needed the most help, which that night was the Hygiene section. I was not sure what that entailed, nor was I sure how long I would stay that evening, but I felt prepared to face my fears, roll up my sleeves and dig in.

It quickly becomes habit forming, something my new friend Ashley Winkler is very familiar with. “It’s an addiction,” Winkler said. “This doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like a purpose in life, so it’s easier to be here 24/7, and from Monday to Sunday, and do night shifts.” One night she did a 52 hour shift when there were over 6000 refugees. “At some point I wanted to leave, but then someone needed something and I stayed.”

Andrew Standen-Raz
Andrew Standen-Raz
Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app

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