A Syrian Refugee Family Struggles To Start Anew In Austria

Six month later, a reporter is reconnected to a family who'd fled war in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. They wound up in a small village, where they are building a new life. Integration is not easy.

Hane, his wife Baraah and two of their children in Unterwaltersdorf
Hane, his wife Baraah and two of their children in Unterwaltersdorf
Adéa Guillot

VIENNA â€" Hane hugs us with his long arms at the Vienna Airport. It was late fall, and passersby are staring at this elegant Syrian who picked his best suit to welcome his two "sisters," as he calls us, to his new country.

"He's a refugee, isn't he?" asks an Austrian man, visibly intrigued. "He looks all right."

Indeed he does. Hane clean-shaven, well rested, looking nothing like he did when we last saw him in May â€" a worried man about to take the Balkans route with his wife Baraah and their four young children. "I wanted to go to Germany, but when we finally reached Austria, everything looked so calm, so peaceful," he says. "I remembered an Arabic song that talks of Vienna's magical nights. I asked Baraah if she would agree to stay here. She took a long look at the river and said, "OK, we're staying." I've never told her I only had 240 euros left in my pocket!" he says, laughing. "Great serenity now fills us."

Hane and his family fled Deir ez-Zor, an eastern Syrian city controlled by government forces but besieged by ISIS. It took them 44 days to reach Vienna. When we met them in April 2015, they had just arrived on the Greek island of Kos, and we followed them until the border with Macedonia.

"We then took the train there to the Serbian border, then another one to Belgrade," Hane says. "And from there, we walked to the Hungarian border."

That meant spending two days in a driving rain. Their youngest daughter, Batul, was just 1 at the time. As they were approaching Budapest, her heart literally gave out. "I managed to restart her heart and then I ran, looking for a car that would transport us to the Austrian border," he recalls. For 500 euros, one driver agreed to take them and turned on the heat full throttle to try and warm up his passengers.

The worst is over

Hane recounts all of this in the car taking us from the airport to the small Austrian village of Unterwaltersdorf, south of Vienna, where the government is accommodating them until they are granted asylum. "The first weeks here, in this countryside, I would take my bike and go cycling for hours, shouting and crying," Hane says. "It was impossible for me to do that in front of my family."

We reach the village, where Baraah and the children have set the table as if for a feast. There are fresh flowers, salads, cheese and bread. They've laid out the best offerings from their refrigerator. The landlord takes care of the basics. For all the extras, Hane cycles to the next town of Baden â€" 25 kilometers away â€" where the Red Cross distributes food once a week.

In Unterwaltersdorf, the "boss," as everybody calls him, is Gerhard Hintermayer. He owns the café-restaurant on the main square, a hotel for hunting-enthusiast tourists, a slightly sordid night club and three boarding houses where 115 asylum seekers are currently staying. The government pays him 19 euros per day and per refugee for providing lodging and three daily meals. Each month, he manages a budget of more than 65,000 euros ($70,000). "If I really wanted to make money, I wouldn't work with refugees," he says. "I'd be renting these flats."

Refugees arriving in Salzburg, Austria, in September 2015 â€" Photo: PPS/ZUMA

When we remark that he would probably struggle to find takers for such decrepit and isolated apartments, he admits he does "not run a five-star hotel," adding that "improving conditions would be a waste." The refugees are entirely dependent on this man to house them, feed them and even organize their visits to the doctor. They have free access to the Austrian health care system.

"Can we go to the park before the night falls, daddy?" asks 9-year-old Laeth, whose siblings are 8-year-old Amal, 5-year-old Hamaza and 18-month-old Batul. And off they go, running joyfully towards the swings and the slides. They play among themselves, without mingling with the few Austrian children. "We don't speak German well enough," Amal explains. "And anyway, they don't like us."

The process of integration

Since September, Amal and her older brother Laeth have been attending the local primary school in the neighboring village of Ebreichsdorf. Each morning, before they join the rest of the class, they begin with two hours of intensive language instruction with the other refugee children from Iraq, Kosovo and Syria.

"Amal is very hardworking, but her older brother Laeth struggles to respect the rules," the German teacher tells Baraah. "You know, in Austria, we have rules. He must abide by them."

Baraah, smiling, says she's very happy about the school. "I like that the teachers are demanding with the children," she says. "Back there, ISIS didn't let children go to school. Everything here is organized, and I like the order. But I know that the hardest part is still ahead of us. We need to integrate."

Integration is their greatest challenge. The obstacles are both big and small. There are the language-related misunderstandings, the veil that Baraah won't abandon but that she thinks hurts many Austrians and cultural differences too numerous to count. "We're not quite there yet," Hane says. "The journey will only really come to an end when I have a house and a job to provide for my family.

Striking a cultural balance

He also wonders how they can save some of their Syrian and religious principles in this new liberal society that's welcomed them. He would like for his daughter to start wearing the veil at around 14 or 15, but he senses that it might jeopardize her chances of integration. "She'll have to marry a Muslim," he says. Baraah is more moderate. "We'll have to change so much in the next few years," she says. "Maybe Hane will see things differently when the time comes for Amal to get married. This is a Christian land, and we need to keep a low profile."

A group of villagers is discussing veiled women whose number has grown in recent months. "Every time I see one, it's like a provocation," says 57-year-old Gerhard, a retired laboratory operator. "They demand of us a tolerance that they don't have in their own country."

Mark Ruiz Hellin, an activist from Vienna who organized a "neighbors' party" with the refugees, is worried. "I'm not scared of the refugees, but I'm starting to fear that our society can't integrate them because Austria is dividing up," he says.

Hane was among the 200 refugees who demonstrated outside the French embassy in Vienna, in support of Paris after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. He fears these deadly events will change everything for them. "The image of the Arab now scares people,” he says. "I ask the Europeans to be patient. One day, my daughter who wants to become a doctor will be caring for Austrians."

Hane and his family were granted asylum on Nov. 27. It's the first step towards the new life they've been dreaming about.

Photographs by Myrto Papadopoulos

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!