Julia Widowitsch is a choir member and has been volunteering to assist the refugees. This is her story.
I am writing this letter to explain to you all why I have been unable to devote any time in the past month to my passion of singing with you and the friendly, lovely people in the choir on Sunday morning in the VCC.
The reason is the refugee crisis. It began for me the first weekend in September. While I work full-time with the United Nations in Vienna, I also work voluntarily with the Red Cross, and following several months of training some years ago my main work is with the cancer children in St. Anna`s hospital. I also engage in other initiatives. One of those initiatives is the Team Osterreich Tafel on a Saturday night where we give out several tons of donated food to poor families.
On the first weekend in September, I worked on Friday night in St. Anna, and, to my surprise, I received several SMS on my cell phone from Red Cross asking for support with the refugees. What refugees? What support exactly? I was unaware that thousands of people were on their way to Vienna. The first big wave had just hit Nikelsdorf border crossing with Hungary. The next evening, Saturday, I went to work with Team Tafel and several of my colleagues looked dazed and exhausted. They reported that they had spent 48 hours with little sleep at Nikelsdorf, tending to the wounded feet of many, many people. I did not yet realise what was about to hit Vienna.
It hit Vienna like a tidal wave. The next morning, Sunday, I took on duty to assist these refugees. My first port of call was a building donated by Die Erste bank beside Westbahnhof where we set up the food, water and bedding supplies, and waited…..and waited…we realised that the refugees were too afraid to leave Westbahnhof and come to the bank. Some of my colleagues and I decided to go to the train platform and, to my astonishment, there were hundreds and hundreds of faces, mostly men, some holding up signs for cameramen to film saying “Thank you Austria”. It was difficult to move through the crowds. Helpers were everywhere.. A lady with a tray of cigarettes and a lighter…a man offering cups of coffee,,,a young girl with a box of mandarine oranges…a woman arrives on the platform with a supermarket trolley filled to the brim with bottles of water and a cheer goes up from the crowd as they welcome these kind humanitarian gestures.
Suddenly, a woman stood in front of me asking for help. She had found three children alone in Haptbahnhof and begged for help to find the parents. A moment later, a lady came to me saying a baby was having a heart attack could I get them some help. In that same instant a young man from Afghanistan asked me if I could assist to find his missing 14 year old nephew. The young man had the missing boy´s 16 year old brother with him, who looked stunned and traumatised because his brother was missing. I took both of them by the hand and told the police barricade to please let us go through to the Infostand in the main hall because a young boy was missing. They allowed us through and we were sent to a small room where the train station crew make announcements around Westbahnhof. They had an Arabic speaking staff who could place the announcement for the missing boy. The announcement was also made in Linz, St. Polten, Graz, and Salzburg. I do not know if they found him. I had to leave them to wait with their family. It was chaos on that train platform. As a train pulled in with refugees there was a roaring cheer from the crowd and they were all taking photos of the arriving train, which they then boarded to travel to Munich, Germany. Their dream destination.
As you are no doubt aware, the tidal wave of refugees has since then surged and we now have sleeping capacity for many thousands in Vienna. Last weekend I was at the Stadthalle, a big bus pulled up to the door and a man with writing on his vest “Bernard – Lawyer” told me he was with the Train of Hope and was picking up 50 refugees to take them to an address in 19th District to sleep. I talked to a handsome, well-dressed Syrian man who told me that he has a degree in English Literature and his dream is to be a teacher, he is now registered to seek asylum in Austria.
Last night I worked in the Zollamt, We checked in 1,300 to rest, eat and sleep. It is an enormous building with five floors of many rooms. The women and children are on the first few floors and the men on the very top. It was chaos. The army arrived about 8pm with hot food to serve to the exhausted people. Many people told me they were travelling on the road for several weeks. Two young women told me they were terrified of the perilous boat crossing from Turkey to Greece, they hit rocks, and it was a nightmare journey. One of these women had a six week old baby girl in her arms and the other a one year old girl. They travelled up the Balkan Route by different means, bus, train, and foot.
In all this chaos, I went into the storage rooms to get something and I noticed two boxes of children`s toys – teddy bears and other stuffed animals and dolls, balls, colouring pencils, pens and books. I asked another female colleague to help me and together we took armfuls of these children things up to the rooms where the women and children were resting. You should have seen the look in their eyes when we walked into each room offering them toys to play, their eyes lit up like súnshine, full of excitement and joy. The mothers were extraordinarily grateful. We played football with the tiny, little children. We gave colouring pens and books to the small children who were waiting to see the doctor who was then sending them by ambulance to hospital for specialist treatment. These children were overjoyed.
What can VCC do? There were only two boxes of childrens toys and they are now emptly since last night. I called the Red Cross central phone service this morning to request that they arrange delivery of more toys but they told me that those two boxes were donated at the door of Zollamt, and so they just depend on kind people to make donations. Do you think that perhaps some people in VCC would be willing to donate cuddly toys, balls, dolls, colouring pencils, pens and colouring books?
I noticed that the people are all carrying just a rucksack. That is all they have. The women told me they have lost their homes, they have lost everything. They all want to go to Germany.
But for the children last night, there was magic. The toys were something extraordinaly special in this extraordinarily hard time for them.