Immigration. It’s the most contentious issue in Europe today. From the U.K. to Germany to Italy, countries are struggling with an anti-immigrant backlash since more than 2 million people fleeing war and poverty arrived in Europe over the past five years.
Away from the political maneuvering, a startup in Vienna is cutting through the hearsay and fearmongering to bring the public face-to-face with the reality of refugee life. Since January, Shades Tours has been running a Flight, Asylum & Integration walking tour, offering visitors the chance to experience refugee life in the Austrian capital. It aims to answer some meaty questions: Why are people fleeing their own countries? What does it feel like to arrive in a place with nothing more than you can carry in your hands? How do Austria’s asylum and integration procedures actually work?
Who better to give the tours than one of the 90,000 refugees who’ve been through the process themselves.
And who better to give the tours than one of the 90,000 refugees who’ve been through the process themselves? It starts with a short introduction on what’s happening on the ground in the guides’ home countries — Syria and Afghanistan — before participants are taken into Vienna’s central train station. This ultramodern edifice has served as ground zero for refugees exhausted after a dangerous journey through Turkey, the Balkans and central Europe. During just a few weeks in fall 2015, more than 300,000 refugees passed through its doors (with the majority departing again). The tour turns the corner to the east side of the station, which was taken over by civil society groups — people giving out food and clothing, and lawyers offering answers to legal questions at the height of the crisis.
Next up is the stunning Henke and Schreieck-designed Erste Bank campus, which served as a temporary accommodation building for refugees. At this point, the possibilities facing refugees are laid out: What happens if they decide to stay in Austria, or move on to Germany, Sweden or elsewhere; what official support they are entitled to should they stay; and what the process of asylum — something that would take up their day-to-day lives for the coming weeks and months — entails.
Organizers say most tour participants are keen to partake in a two-way conversation. “The problem we have is that our society is confronted with polarized feelings around refugees. People are afraid of what they don’t know,” says Perrine Schober, founder of Shades Tours, which also runs guided tours by and about homeless people in Vienna.
After that, participants jump aboard the city tram to the Bundesamt für Fremdenwesen und Asyl (Federal Office for Aliens and Asylum), where interviews take place, and asylum is granted or rejected. From there, it’s on to the Rochusmarkt food market for a discussion about the essentials in life, before moving to the tour’s integration leg at the offices of the Austrian Integration Fund, a state authority.
Before the tour finishes, the guide talks about the ups and downs of life as a refugee in Austria. “Building contacts with Austrians can be a little difficult for adult refugees because we don’t have the possibility to meet them a lot,” says 26-year-old Hamzeh Laila, who fled Damascus, Syria, and is one of four guides. “But [with this job], I feel responsible to convey the right message, the right impression.”
With around 700 people having taken the tour, it’s proving popular. “I thought it was awesome,” says Natalie Brügger, a student from Switzerland, “because it gives an insight into the matter, and because it’s both factual and personal.”
GO THERE: FLIGHT, ASYLUM & INTEGRATION CITY WALKING TOUR
- Where: The tour meets at the main entrance to Vienna’s central train station and finishes at the Wien-Mitte station. Book online at Shades Tours Vienna
- When: English-language tours, which are two hours long, begin in August. Tours in German are currently held once a week, usually on Fridays. Costs €15 ($18) per person, €10 ($12) for students (ages 14 and up).
- Pro tip: The wars in Syria and Afghanistan have become evermore complicated, and the tour guides are open to conversing about their experiences. Don’t be shy — use this opportunity to hear firsthand about what’s happening on the ground in these conflicted countries.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.