On a recent work trip to Vienna, I visited a Red Cross centre hosting refugees. As an Irish Red Cross staff working closely with our colleagues in mainland Europe, I wanted to better understand the vastness of the migration operation the Red Cross has in countries like Austria, or Germany, or other countries where migrants and refugees come in much higher numbers than Ireland.
The Austrian Red Cross have several centres around the country and this one was their smallest one, hosting a few hundreds of people and children in an office building turned by the charity into a reception and hosting centre.
When I arrived, the first thing I saw when I entered were lots of faces, all very close to each other, looking at me, not saying a thing. Their expression was that of a big question on their faces; we stood and starred at each other, no one saying a word. Memories started to flow of how I was a migrant myself many years ago, being on the run, getting strange looks, afraid to ask questions in case I’d be asked for papers… Actually I had it easy I realised; at the time, on route to Ireland, at least I knew more or less the system around Europe or I didn’t have to freeze on a boat trying to escape war. Selfish thought, I know.
I was brought back to reality by a lovely volunteer, Ulli, who welcomed me and gave me a tour of the building, explaining how the volunteers and the public worked together to make the centre clean; played with children; translated; brought various things to make their stay and journey further a bit more enjoyable.
While Ulli was talking to me, a young girl ran smiling to her and after giving her a big hug, asked Ulli for an orange. ‘My father has a headache’ the little girl said ‘and he only needs an orange and it will pass’! I looked at her, admired her cuteness, smiled to her and tried to make conversation. Of course Ulli talked to someone and managed to get her an orange. The happiness on the little girl’s face was infectious! Only until it was replaced by my embarrassment when I realised I actually had an orange in my bag myself! I felt like hiding from them all and I could only look down for quite a while.
Ulli continued to explain how the volunteers managed to build shower rooms for the centre! How the public comes in and helps with the changeover of beds for new people coming in. How they all helped with insulation work to make it a bit warmer for them!
It was all so interesting but only when I sat down with another little girl and gave her my orange, then I found some sort of relief. I talked to her parents who said they were fleeing persecution in Iraq. I also talked to someone from Iran, where his art work was censored.
Today, I only know of the Iraqi family I talked to that they started a new, safe life in Salzburg! And that their little girl is happy! We are in touch on Facebook and maybe one day we will meet again! But so many others like them have not been so fortunate and are still struggling at borders, sleeping outside in the rain, trying to cope with the cold with the t-shirt in which they probably arrived.
With worse winter conditions now settling in, these people on the run need our support more than ever. If it was just some oranges, it would be just fine, wouldn’t it. But we need to do more. Food, thermal clothing, heaters, sleeping bags, even if they are used straight in the open air, it’s still better than nothing. If you want to help, you can donate now to the Irish Red Cross Migration Appeal. Thank you.
So far, the Red Cross in Austria has provided support to 570,000 refugees this year. The Red Cross assistance to refugees included the distribution of 1.5 million meals, medical care for 70,000 people, and the transportation of 3,000 people to hospitals. The organization also provided 50,000 field beds, 400,000 blankets, 10,000 mattresses, and 7,000 sleeping bags.