December was different. I was encouraged by the results of my survey about volunteering and the many interesting discussions I had with friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
Thank you for your help so far.
I reached a point where I had to make a decision about what to do next. Am I going to single-handedly convince companies that they’re doing stuff wrong and if only they listened to me, everything would be rosy? I don’t think so.
With the help and inspiration of a few very clever people, I’ve discussed what to do with my findings, and how to turn my oh-so-noble intentions into actions.
And then I stepped back for a moment and looked at what was going on right around me.
Through my modest participation at the Station Wien (the wonderful association supporting integration) I came into contact with a few people who have fled the war in Syria, and who urgently and acutely needed help. So I’ve been spending some time doing what I can to ease the strain of arriving as a refugee in a foreign country.
My experience is far from admirable, but I have tried to make a tiny difference by accompanying people to meetings, standing in line waiting to be told there are no homes available, helping people understand the sometimes bizarre rules and regulations, and sometimes just sitting down with someone and having a coffee.
I have been moved, touched and impressed by the warmth and generosity of the Austrian people and the efficiency and stoicism of the aid organisations, and – it has to be said – the Austrian state. For all the justified criticism about big headline-grabbing decisions and actions, the daily reality is that Austria has been making a massive contribution to the wellbeing of people fleeing from war and persecution.
I have heard first-hand of the incredible strain being put on the police, army and immigration services, but also on the Red Cross, Caritas, Diakonie, Volkshilfe, Fonds Soziales Wien and many more. And I have been overwhelmed by the calmness, dignity and professionalism displayed by so many people in difficult circumstances. (I’ve also been shown that the plight of refugees is inextricably linked to the use of WhatsApp! Who knew that this app would be one of the most important tools in the management of refugees!)
And I have been frustrated. Frustrated by an estate agent who against my explicit wishes went behind my back and called the social services to try to get confidential information about the financial situation of a refugee.
I’ve been frustrated by forms, bad websites, insufficient information, contradictions, and bizarre bureaucratic figures of speech in documents that not even an Austrian would understand (or do you understand ‘Die Familie hat die positive Zustimmung für den Sichtvermerk erhalten’?).
But one of the things that has frustrated me most is the way in which the public media and through it the public has moved the discussion away from a vicious civil war in a developed country to a discussion of red doors, wristbands, confiscation of property, quotas, integration failures, Islamist terror, and right wing feminism (I love that phrase!).
I’ve tried to find an analogy here with a burning building, but I can’t think of anything suitably witty or clever. Something about complaining about the manners of the people you’ve rescued from a burning building while the building is still burning, and while there are still people in it.
It has to be said: There is an agenda to suppress discussion of the war itself. I understand that it’s not good for selling newspapers, and the British red door story was a good headline (and indeed, the reporting was notionally pro refugee – but then came the comments, like “You give them a free house and they still complain”).
Good newspapers, including the Guardian, the Süddeutsche and the New York Times, have consciously decided to concentrate on reporting on the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ and not on the war that is creating it. People suffering a terrible war in their own country just isn't clickbait these days.
It's only a crisis because we're not dealing with it.
This 13-year-old Syrian boy in Budapest last year summed up the whole situation more eloquently and succinctly than any politician ever has:
So just stop the war.
I know, easier said than done.
But stop looking away. Stop thinking that it’s over. Stop thinking that this is about you and your country. It’s not, it’s about a civil war in a country not so far away that has already killed more than 200,000 people. Yes, 200,000 people. Did you know that? And the number is rising.
This isn’t about you.
It’s not about Paris. It’s not about Cologne. It’s not about Middlesbrough. It’s about Homs, Rakka, Damascus. It’s about men, women and children starving to death in the 21st century. It’s about tuberculosis and polio rearing their ugly heads when we'd forgotten about them.
Stop talking about quotas. This isn’t about quotas.
Stop talking about Islam. This isn’t about Islam.
Stop talking about the strain on your local services. This isn’t about them.
Stop talking about ‘the refugees’ and start talking about Ahmad, Mohammed, Aaliyah, Hafiz, Husniyah. They’re real people, with real stories, real fears, real interests, skills and ideas.
Stop deliberately using dehumanising language to describe your fellow human beings.
And don’t you dare talk about Christian values or being a Christian country, when the message of helping those in need is the most fundamental core of that religion. If that's your belief of choice, ask yourself ‘What would Jesus do?’. Would he be bitching about suspending the Schengen agreement right now?
Don’t let the genetic fluke of your birth in a rich, stable country blur your vision.
As Sting sang: ‘Don't judge me. You could be me in another life, in another set of circumstances.’
It isn’t over yet. Stop letting weak politicians scared of losing their fragile power frame the narrative of one of the greatest horrors of the 21st century.
So that’s where my ‘research’ into volunteering and paid work has led me. So be it. I’m learning, and I’m meeting new interesting people all the time. I’m alive. I live in a safe country, I have food and shelter, family and friends. I’m privileged and I’m grateful.
Do me a favour. Share this blog entry. Start a discussion. Ask your friends what they’re doing. Talk about the war. Talk about what you can do to get the discussion back to the problem and not the side effects.
Please let me know what you think.
And please keep donating to one of the wonderful organisations making a difference.