In Austria: First Bank of Refugees


Erste Bank, or First Bank, offers a branch as a temporary home to 85 asylum-seekers in Vienna.
Itemad Al-Asadi poses with three of her sons in their room in a refugee shelter in Vienna, Austria. While their applications for asylum are being considered, the Iraqi family lives in this temporary shelter constructed in a branch of Erste Bank. 

By Linda Unger, senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries

Some unusual living quarters are springing up in Austria, as the government, churches, humanitarian organizations, commercial companies, and individual volunteers respond to the daily influx of tens of thousands of refugees here.

In Vienna, Blaue Haus, an ornate blue building near the city’s West Train Station, used to house administrative offices for the Austrian Railway Service. Today, two stories of Blaue Haus offer overnight accommodations to some 600 asylum seekers from the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.

Within eyeshot of Blaue Haus, a branch of Erste Bank, or First Bank, has become the temporary home of another 85 Syrian, Afghan, and Pakistani refugees. In mid-October, a notice was pasted to the front doors indicating “Keine Bank”—“Not a bank.” Volunteers now stand outside ready to redirect would-be patrons.

As you walk inside, though, you can still see familiar bank fixtures: cubicle walls, ribbed throw rugs, and a reception desk, where, before the branch closed last spring, you might have been greeted and asked if you’d like to open a checking account.

Today, volunteers in bright orange vests run the desk. They ask questions such as: Do you need tickets for the train? May I help you get school supplies for your children? Do you need to see a doctor? May I translate that government document for you? All to the occasional flutter of the still-working ATM.

Big numbers, human faces

The volunteers are organized by Die Johanniter, a humanitarian aid organization and member of the Austrian Protestant relief group, Diakonie. Die Johanniter started as an ambulance service in 1974, and later added disaster relief to its work.

Samar, from Iraq, helps her daughter Maria, 2, get dressed inside their room in the Erste Bank refugee shelter in Vienna.

Samar, from Iraq, helps her daughter Maria, 2, get dressed inside their room in the Erste Bank refugee shelter in Vienna. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Today, it is collaborating with an organization called Maltese and with volunteers of Erste Bank to bring relief to the refugees streaming into Austria, attending to those in Blaue Haus and Erste Bank.

“Behind the big numbers, there are different faces and stories—tragic stories,” said Belinda Schneider, communications director for Die Johanniter. She said Austrians are worried about the large number of refugees coming to the country and about how long they will continue to do so.

But while considering these practical matters, she said, it is important to bear in mind the stories of the individual persons who comprise those numbers.

Among the stories is that of Lina, a Syrian woman, and her family, who live at Erste Bank while they await the outcome of their asylum petition. Insisting only first names be used, Lina, her two grown sons, a daughter-in-law, and two college-age daughters agreed to talk about their flight from their war-torn country.

Ordinary lives, extraordinary risk

In Syria, Lina was a stay-at-home mom. “The hardest job,” her accountant son, Almontazbellah, said.

His elder brother, Ahmad, agreed. He said Lina had the worrisome task of keeping tabs on the whereabouts of her sons and daughters as their ordinary activities of getting to and from work and school put them at risk every day in Syria.

For Almontazbellah, who worked in an import/export firm dealing in nutrition supplements, this meant tracking imported weapons for government forces—not part of his company’s usual stock. Because of the pressure to do this, he said, the owner of the company had long ago fled to Egypt.

Ahmad worked as a sales representative and supervisor. “I had to travel 19 kilometers [more than 11 miles] every day to work. It was a bad situation on the road,” he said. “Three times my car was shot at,” he added, attributing the random shootings to Syrian government troops.

In addition, he said, the troops would exact payment for safe passage on the road. It wasn’t the amount that mattered, but the power over commuters, he said. “They would take whatever was in your pocket—even if it was just a bar of chocolate.”

Ahmad’s wife, Kamilia, her face framed by her dark head scarf, listened quietly while her husband spoke. In Syria, she stayed home and looked after the house. One day, while visiting her family in their small village, she left for two hours to go to the dentist.

When she came back, she found the village bombed and her family dead, Ahmad said, adding, “Even the animals were shot.” He said the opposition Free Syrian Army was in the area, but so were a lot of civilians.

When the family decided to flee, Lina’s two daughters, Rouba and Rana, were both nearing completion of their university studies. Rouba had just one course to finish to get her economics degree, and Rana had 10 courses left to graduate with a nutrition specialty.

“At college, it wasn’t safe,” Rana said. “I heard about kidnappings. Most of those who were taken were girls. It isn’t fair that we had to leave. We want to graduate!”

No future in Syria

None in the family felt safe. “My friend died in a bombing,” Ahmad said. “Both sides want us to die. This war is like a cancer.”

“To ISIS,” Almontazbellah said, referring to the extremist Islamic State, “we are infidels. We are Muslims, but we live peacefully among Christians and people of other faiths. ISIS says we should not live with them, that we are infidels if we do.”

“We are a peaceful family; none of us has ever touched a gun,” said Ahmad.  When the family lost everything in Syria, he continued, they realized there was no future for them there and that their lives were in danger. So, they all decided to make the long, risky trip to Europe.

All, that is, except Lina’s husband, who remains in Syria. When asked why, her accountant son responded with two words: “Insufficient funds.” Almontazbellah said the trip cost $2,500 per person in smugglers’ fees, a total of $15,000 for the six family members.

Starting over in Austria

Their long trek took them from Syria to Lebanon to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Croatia to Austria. They traveled by car, air, flimsy rubber raft, on foot, and by train, and reached Austria in the evening of October 1.

Lina’s family were among some 218,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to reach Europe in the month of October, a record for any given month—and higher total than in all of 2014.

“The refugee crisis in Europe is not just Syrian,” Ahmad said. “On this trip we have met people from a lot of other nations: Pakistanis, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, people from Tunisia—people from a lot of countries where there are wars.”

He said the people of Austria had been “very friendly and lovely.” His mother, Lina, said she was happy just to reach a safe place, and his sisters are already looking forward to resuming their university studies, graduating, and getting to work.

Although the lighting in the former bank is dim and the makeshift walls that separate each family are simple plywood, no one in Lina’s family is complaining.

“I want to say thank you to Austria. This is the first time in my life I can sleep,” Ahmad said. “I am exhausted. But I am breathing my first free breath. I can’t thank you enough for giving us this second chance.”