Austria received around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, the majority of whom are from Afghanistan but also Syria, Iraq and other conflict-affected countries. Reuters recently released an article about crimes rising sharply in Austria amidst this refugee and migrant emergency. These are not crimes committed by refugees and migrants but rather crimes committed against refugees and migrants, primarily by far right groups driven by xenophobia and Islamophobia. The article notes there were 1,690 cases related to right wing extremism in 2015, the highest recorded in a single year and up from 1,200 in 2015.
Emergencies can bring out the best and worst of societies. In Austria, these incidents represent the worst. However, it is important to also consider the good that is being done by individuals and groups throughout Austria and the broader European Union to help refugees and migrants. An article in Rotarian Magazine written by Mark Baker, entitled “Crisis at the Doorstep”, highlights what an Austrian Rotary Club (Feldbach) has been doing for refugees. The Feldbach Club’s involvement began when Malla Hamzah, an exhausted Syrian refugee, walked into a local bakery to get some bread to eat. The baker and longtime Rotarian Fritz Hummel started a conversation with Hamzah, noting he had been to Syria 40 years ago and was treated very well while there. The two hit it off and Hummel saw an opportunity to help. As he put it, “Rotary means helping people, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Hummel’s club started collecting donations of money, bicycles, and other items that would help refugees adjust. They began to think about how they could help the refugees integrate. On one hand, this meant helping the refugees learning German so they could make contacts and work. It also meant helping the community better understand the refugees – that they are individuals with a story, families, with hopes and aspirations – not supporters of terrorism, but rather victims of it. Another member of the club was able to arrange temporary housing at a former hunting lodge for refugees. It was not the first time the lodge was used to house people fleeing conflict – it sheltered displaced persons after both world wars. Hamza was subsequently hired to manage the shelter. The article goes on to describe how the community was inspired by the Rotary Club to get involved. For example, a local high school started classes for school-aged refugees, led by volunteers from Caritas Austria.
One chance encounter, with two people who recognized that their shared humanity is more important than any cultural or religious differences, was the start of this effort. During emergencies, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by sheer numbers. There will always be something we can do. We can help as individuals, but our efforts are amplified when working in groups. In Europe, there are many volunteer organizations doing great work with refugees and migrants. These include National Red Cross Societies, Rotary Clubs, religious groups, and many others. There are also many volunteer groups in the United States and elsewhere doing their part to support them.
Rotary’s motto is “Service Above Self” and the Feldbach Rotary Club is putting this ideal into practice. I hope they will continue to inspire others to do the same. Please send your thoughts or tweet them @bryan_schaaf