Austria: A special birthday party for thousands of migrants

AP News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2015 4:34 PM
Austria: A special birthday party for thousands of migrants

TRAISKIRCHEN, Austria (AP) — Aytekin Yilmazer's bash will be a night to remember — both for him and the hundreds of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other troubled corners of the world who took up his invitation Wednesday to celebrate his 37th birthday.

Nobody sang "Happy Birthday." There was no cake, no presents and most of those attending were strangers. But both Yilmazer and the guests pouring into the grounds of a Turkish mosque near Austria's main refugee collection center in Traiskirchen, south of Vienna, showed no signs of missing the usual trappings of a birthday celebration.

"I'm having dinner as actually every year at my birthday with my friends," the Turkish-born marketing specialist explained, as migrants formed two lines behind him next to volunteers ladling out lentil soup, rice, vegetables and lamb stew . "This year I found 3,000 new friends at the refugee camp."

It was unclear if all of the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the center would follow the invitation. But tables set under canopies were quickly filled after the gates to the mosque grounds opened and a babble of languages soon filled the evening air. As people finished eating, new guests came to take their place, with an estimated 500 people taking their fill within an hour.

While the adults concentrated on the stew, most of the children were busy with other delicacies — bananas or Krapfen, Austrian doughnuts filled with jam. Out came the paper napkins to wipe little mouths smeared but smiling in delight at the new taste.

"This food and the camp food? No comparison!" said English literature major Widad Rageb, who came to the camp with her husband from the Aleppo, among the hardest hit Syrian cities in that country's more than four-year civil war. "This is a special night."

Yilmazer said the idea to celebrate his birthday with those less fortunate was spontaneous, at a time Austria and Germany are overrun by tens of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"I never asked myself why," he said. "I just asked what can I do (to help the migrants) and I did."

He said his Facebook post advertising the event first drew overwhelmingly negative comments from those opposed to the influx. But the response quickly spun to positive, in line with the outpouring of help from Austrians who have turned out by the hundreds at Vienna's rail terminal since the weekend to help the thousands of migrants arriving from Hungary, near the end of their hazardous Western Balkans route to safety.

Asked about the lack of birthday presents, Yilmazer laughed. This time, he said, they will be the donations by friends to finance the bash — and work from others portioning out food, directing the guests to the tables, translating for them in Dari, Farsi or Arabic, or washing up plates and cutlery in large plastic tubs.

Simon Rehan paused, his hands still dripping suds, when queried about why he was helping out.

"A sense of duty to be honest," said the 20-year old law student from Vienna. "We have it so good in Austria.

"That's not the case for everyone in the world."