Alex Hesling is originally from the UK but moved to Vienna when she was 17 and now manages the Four Bells Pub in Vienna’s 4th district. Her boyfriend David O’Connor, from Ireland, owns the O’Connor Old Oak pub in the 3rd district.
Last week they set up an Expat and Austrian aid for Refugees group on Facebook - originally with the aim of gathering clothes, food and toiletries for the thousands of people now kept in the overcrowded Traiskirchen refugee camp near Vienna.
Since the weekend she, David, and other volunteers have focussed their efforts on taking donations to Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, where a self-organised team is doing a fantastic job caring for exhausted refugees arriving on trains from Nickelsdorf, on the Hungarian border.
“We had space in the pub to store donations and we realized that lots of our expat friends in Vienna and also around the world wanted to help the refugees arriving in Austria but weren’t sure how to and don’t speak German,” Alex told The Local.
After setting up the Facebook group and a wishlist on the Amazon website, packages have been arriving from America, Canada and Holland - and Vienna-based expats have been turning up with bags stuffed with donations. “We now have 200 boxes filled with sleeping bags, clothes and tents - people have been brilliant”, Alex said.
The storage room where donations are sorted.
The team at Hauptbahnhof have been telling Alex and David "exactly what they need, and we’re only five minutes away,” Alex said. “We’re like an emergency response team! We’re open until midnight so have had many late night phone calls from people.
For example a youth centre has been opened in the 16th district, where all the unaccompanied minors from Traiskirchen - about 100 of them - have been taken as it was becoming dangerous for them to stay there. We got a call at 10pm that they needed bedding, sheets and pillows, which we delivered, and later that night we were sent a photo of them all in their new beds.”
She admits that she is exhausted as she and David have been organising donations on top of managing the pubs and are working 14 hour days, but “it’s been completely worth it”.
“We plan to take truckloads of donations to Traiskirchen in the coming weeks, to help families there build their new homes. We’re getting new people coming to volunteer with us every day - and I think we can keep the momentum going, definitely until the end of the year. We’re also supplying things for the convoys travelling to the Serbian border, where conditions are reportedly awful.”
Donations of money from international friends are “being funnelled to the people most in need - such as traumatised Syrian children living here, so that they have school supplies and counselling.”
She thinks that Austria’s “open arm policy has been amazing. Vienna is a city which was built on immigration. Most Austrians here are accepting of new people - and the incredible response from the volunteers at the train stations shows that they don’t want to wait for the government to do something, but will take things into their own hands.”
“A few weeks ago people in Austria weren’t that engaged but after spending one day at the train station, it really brings it home - these refugees are just like us, they were doctors or teachers, and they’ve been forced to leave their homes”.
She said she “wants to spread the message that this is nothing to be afraid of. Yes, it is change, but if we welcome people with open arms it will make the transition easier for all of us.”
At present donations of sleeping bags and tents are urgently need for the refugees who are having to sleep outside, as well as baby foods, non-perishable foods and hygiene products such as wet wipes and disinfectant gels. Follow the Train of Hope group for up-to-date requests from Hauptbahnhof.
A team of clowns cheers up refugee children at Vienna's Hauptbahnhof. Photo: Johanna Godwin-Seidl