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In Austria’s treatment of immigrants, a lesson for Seattle

Police in Hamburg, Germany block an entrance to a building that activists wanted to make a center to welcome refugees in 2014. Credit: Rasande Tyskar/Flickr

Oddly enough, about every two decades or so, I have found myself right in the middle of a moment of historic proportions. The first time I drove into Memphis, headed to new job and apartment, right past the Lorraine Motel early on the evening of April 4, 1968. All around me was pandemonium. For the next week, as the nation mourned the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the city was shut down and armored personnel carriers patrolled the street outside my window.

Twenty-three years later in the third week of August 1991, I found myself walking through the streets of Moscow, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating before my eyes. Blood still stained the pavement where several men had been killed by tanks as hardline Communists unsuccessfully tried to carry out a coup against reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. One of the many memorable moments of that trip was seeing a Soviet General in full-dress uniform with a chest of medals, sprawled dead drunk on the filthy floor of the Moscow subway, his otherwise neat tie askew and life as he had known it over.

So another 24 years later –  in May, my wife and I found ourselves in yet another incident of momentous import. And it can tell us something about our moment now in Seattle.

We were on a train from Verona to Munich, in order to fly back to Seattle after spending a full month in the bucolic Italian countryside. Everyone on the train was oohing and aahhing at the magnificent Alps, topped with snow and dotted with enormous castles and tiny villages.

The train came to a stop at the last hamlet near the Italian border with Austria. Within minutes, hundreds of people boarded the train and hunkered down on every available seat. Into our compartment walked a mother with two children – a girl around 10 or 12 and a boy around 3. As we soon found out, all of them were various refugee families that were desperately headed for Germany, one of two countries in the European Union that would theoretically grant them asylum.

An Austrian soccer demonstrates its support for helping refugees (2013).
An Austrian soccer demonstrates its support for helping refugees (2013). Credit: Fare network/Flickr

The woman spoke a small amount of English and explained that they were from Eritrea and asked if we were Christians – a curious question of strangers. She exclaimed that gangs were killing her relatives and friends and they had had to leave quickly. The only items they carried were two small plastic shopping bags filled with some clothes for the children. All three, mother and children, exuded fear and distress. The woman kept holding her hands up, wrists touching as if handcuffs, and asked if saw any polizia. This, all within a few minutes of the doors opening and closing at the platform.

During the next few minutes, we learned there was a family from Syria in the next compartment and a family from Tunisia farther down. An international stewpot of people fleeing the disarray or dissolution of their native countries for the safety of Germany. Indeed, at each subsequent stop through Austria, the woman looked out the window and asked us, “Germany?”

While the train continued its route through Austria, we gradually became aware of the presence of the Austrian militia. Big, bulky guys dressed in black uniforms were at the ends of each car. They didn’t hassle the refugees; they didn’t even speak to them. Their job was a very specific one – to b lock the doors so none of them would get off. The message was clear: “We don’t want you in our country. Keep on going.”

At one point, the woman asked us to warn her if she saw or heard any police coming. Her intent, she explained in snippets of English and by pointing, was to lock herself and her children in the bathroom in the event the guards looked menacing. We sat in mute horror, knowing full well that plan was foolhardy. We were baffled as to what to do. How could we help this family? Was there anything we could do at all? My wife bought some food from the snack bar and they took it, eating some and squirreling the rest into their bags.

Once we were through Austria, those police exited the train but were quickly replaced with a large contingent of German border guards. These guys were decked out in black military uniforms, boots, belts bristling with sticks, metal cuffs, guns and tasers. Buff, blond haired and brusque, they were barking questions and orders in a combination of German and English. After briefly glancing at our passports and tickets, while the train’s conductor stood silently at few feet away, the guard looked sternly at the mother with her two children.

There was a breathless half minute during which nothing was said by anyone. Everyone was just frozen, staring into the space flanked by the window and the bulky guard.

Finally, the woman held up both her hands, palms toward the guard, forming a sort of barrier between the man and her family.  “No tickets! No passports!” she exclaimed.  Over the next 20 minutes, the guards clomped down the corridor, ordering the various refugees to get ready to be taken off. The woman looked at us and the guards with a mix of fear and despair. We tried to allay her angst by talking about processing camps and other in-migration methods that we imagined were awaiting her. But I don’t think our communication skills were sufficient. The guard came back, leaned into the compartment and ordered, “Out!”

Then he moved down the passageway a few paces, out of sight. In that brief moment, the mother tried to stuff her 3-year-old son under the seats.

In those few horrible few seconds of supreme desperation, we felt the enormity of the refugee crisis that had already been making headlines for more than a month. After traveling for thousands of miles, including across the Mediterranean in who-knows-what conditions, this woman was willing to give herself up for deportation, or who knows what, with the small chance that her young son might make it to a life without rampant torture, violence and genocide.

I do not think this “Sophie’s Choice” is one that people in the First World ever have to even contemplate. I’ve got to think that this family, as they made their long journey, never knew what the next five minutes would bring. Just how long would each of us survive, with no resources and in multiple foreign lands, not knowing the language, customs or laws? It was truly a miracle that she made it all the way to Germany.

So what is the meaning of this ongoing human tragedy for those of us comfortably ensconced in the safety of the Upper Left Coast of the United States, thousands of miles from that train track though the Alps? Although they might not be boat people, we have newcomers from those same countries – Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and others – all shattered by conflict and civil (and religious) warfare.

We could be like the Austrians: “Nope, they’re not welcome to be a part our nice, tidy culture.” Fortunately, we have accepted many immigrants from those broken countries. Programs, services and housing have been made available by a number of agencies and non-profits.

So the next time a noisy neighborhood group moans about a bit of new, lower income housing being added to their territory, maybe, just maybe they might want to think about acquiring some compassion.

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