Heartache and hope on Austrian border

Publicado: 17 noviembre 2015 18:41 CET

By Katie Letheren

Imagine getting a phone call saying that within the next 30 minutes, 600 people will arrive on your doorstep — all of them tired, anxious and hungry, most in need of a shower and a change of clothes. Some may only want a place to rest for them and their nine-year-old daughter or 23-year-old son who lost his legs in the war and was carried from boat to bus and along miles of muddy roads.

This is the reality at the camp in Österreich, Austria where I’ve been volunteering with the Austrian Red Cross for the past six weeks.

Adults and children alike are in desperate need of new shoes to replace their battered footwear. Many need to see doctors for first aid or a pregnancy check-up. Others just want a hot meal or a lie down, knowing that, though their journey isn’t over, they are safe for the first time in years.

The courage and strength of these refugees is amazing and the kindness and compassion of the Red Cross volunteers — many of whom are refugees currently seeking asylum in Austria — is something remarkable in itself.

Despite the chaos, they pass chocolate and toys to crying children in the crowds and offer a smile, a few words in Arabic or Farsi and an air of calmness to each person approaching for help.

Arriving mostly from Hungary, the refugees passing through the camp arrive exhausted and wary. Some of their stories show why this lack of trust is understandable.

“I was beaten in some countries and forced to give fingerprints against my will. I am so scared that my family will be sent back and forced to seek asylum in a country where the authorities will treat us like that,” one man says as I show him and his family to a place they can sleep in the camp.

Another group of men show me pictures of rubble – what remains of their homes. They show me photos of their wives, newborn babies, parents and grandparents who remain back home and explain why they are making the dangerous journey through the unknown first - so they can legally apply to bring their families over to join them in safety.

Heartache is raw and everywhere but there is some hope. Children enter the camp’s play area – hesitantly – and within minutes the kindness of Red Cross volunteers allows them to relax, learn a few words in the local language, draw pictures and express themselves.

A few children draw pictures of bombs dropping from helicopters, people lying bleeding in the street. As volunteers, we hope they will soon be drawing very different pictures of their new lives in Europe.

So many of the refugees say that Austrian people are kind and welcoming and that for the first time they feel they have a future. This makes me proud to be volunteering with the Red Cross and Team Österreich.

Seeing the refugee crisis on the news and splashed across front pages back home in America is one thing, but being here gives you a much deeper understanding.

War, persecution and political violence has destroyed homes, jobs and torn families apart.

It is now up to all of us to help people settle into their new homes and hope that someday – should we ever be in the same situation – the world will do the same for us.

Katie Letheren is an American international development and aid worker and Austrian Red Cross volunteer.