Newspaper article International New York Times

Former Refugees Embrace Role as Guides for New Arrivals

Newspaper article International New York Times

Former Refugees Embrace Role as Guides for New Arrivals

Article excerpt

Dozens of Arabic-speaking Muslims are among the 2,000 or so volunteers in the Austrian capital helping migrants adjust to new lives.

At the migration center in the east wing of the main train station here, Ragad al-Rachid, a petite 19-year-old psychology student and a Syrian Muslim, is immersed in the logistical details of helping dozens of people a day adjust to new lives in her adopted country.

She shouts directions in Arabic to the makeshift kitchen, points people to a registration desk and a lawyer to advise them on legal ways to stay in Austria, gets local SIM cards for the new arrivals, helps them connect to the free Wi-Fi at the station and shows them how to buy tickets for trains to Germany and beyond.

Often she just sits with refugees and listens to them talk about their experiences. But even as she spends her days helping the thousands of people transiting through the Austrian capital, she said, she is also benefiting. As one of dozens of Arabic-speaking Muslims among the 2,000 or so volunteers here who tend to refugees, she has for the first time since coming to Vienna found herself among Austrians who "look like me and think like me," she said.

As Europe absorbs the multitudes heading their way from the Middle East and Africa, it has often left unresolved the integration of earlier waves of Muslims. In Germany, it was the Turks. In France, the Algerians. But all across the Continent, Muslims are in various stages of acceptance, and the young, in particular, have been seeking ways to fit in.

Ms. Rachid's family's story illustrates the recent arc of the exodus from the Middle East into Europe.

She arrived in Austria this year. One of her uncles sought asylum in France, and another is waiting for his residency papers in Sweden. Two of her aunts are being processed in Germany, and a third is in Austria, where Ms. Rachid, her parents and a younger brother are also seeking asylum.

"It's been really tough on my family, but we are the lucky ones because we have the means to support ourselves in the waiting period," Ms. Rachid said. Her father owns a business in Nigeria.

With the war in Syria raging into its fifth year, the family has not been back to its home in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, an opposition stronghold that has been under government siege.

But while Ms. Rachid longs to return to Syria, the country has come to her through the Syrians who descend every day from trains at Vienna's Hauptbahnhof, exhausted by the journey through the Balkans, traumatized by the past in their war-wrecked homeland and fearful of a future in exile.

"I think about these stories a lot," Ms. Rachid said. "I've had sleepless nights, and the hardest thing for me now is the realization that my country is gone."

It is the refugees' questions about Austria that she has the hardest time answering. …

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