Vienna hotel offers hope, skills to its refugee staff

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 16, 2015 8:33 PM

By Amelia Wong

VIENNA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Many hotels in Vienna offer guests great views, luxurious rooms and a convenient location, but there is one hotel that offers something for refugees – a job.

Most of the staff at Magdas Hotel, from the receptionists to the cleaners, cooks and electricians, are refugees who have been granted asylum in Austria. Coming from 14 countries, many of them risked perilous journeys to escape persecution or conflict.

With an investment of 1.5 million euros ($1.7 mln), Caritas, a Catholic charity, set up the social enterprise to give refugees a chance to learn the hotel trade while on the job.

Located on the premises of a former retirement home, the hotel which opened in February has been a lifeline for many, who have not worked, or been allowed to work, for years, while awaiting a decision on their claim for asylum.

"All this waiting time, one has to be strong, otherwise you won't make it," said Dinnis, 29, a former activist from Guinea.

Fleeing political persecution in the West African country by smuggling himself onto a ship bound for Europe, Dinnis waited more than 10 years to be granted refugee status in Austria.

Maryam, 38, who left Morocco after being persecuted for being a lesbian, waited almost 13 years to gain asylum and admits to working illegally to survive.

"I'm an active person. I don't want to live off social contributions, I simply want to work," she said.

Asylum requests for Austria rose nearly 160 percent in the first four months of the year to 14,225, official figures show.

Last week, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner was quoted as saying Austria had stopped processing asylum requests to pressure other European states to do more to take in thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats.

WHAT HOME?

Both Maryam and Dinnis studied, volunteered and learnt German to improve their employment prospects, but with no work experience they struggled to find a job - until they heard about Magdas Hotel.

While they are now happily employed, not all of their colleagues have been as lucky or successful.

One employee, who later quit the hotel, was an Afghan who fled his homeland after being threatened by the Taliban for helping Western non-governmental organizations.

Making his way across Europe via Turkey, he managed to gain refugee status, but the trauma he endured stayed with him.

"It was difficult for him to work," hotel manager Sebastiaan de Vos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"You could see he was working but in his mind he was elsewhere, you could see that the things he brought with him were deeply in his heart."

A 21-year-old Algerian worker, who declined to give his name, told how he had struggled since coming to Austria as a child with his family.

Life became easier when he gained refugee status, and was no longer living in limbo, or regarded as a "scrounger", he said.

"When you are an asylum seeker, you're trying to escape from something. You wish for a better life."

However, some people suffer depression because they have been waiting for refugee status for so long. "They can't start a family, they fled alone, have no wife, no children, they're 50 years old," the Algerian worker said.

Others simply disappear, deported suddenly to their home countries, he added.

"The immigration authorities come at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning and take them. They have to go home, to their home country, but they have no home. There is nothing for them."

Thrilled to be legally employed, Maryam spent her first salary paying off her mother's medical bills and other debts.

"In the future, I'd like to save some money, do a few nice things, just like a normal person," she said.

(Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)