VIENNA — 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 — 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 — 25 kilometers away — 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 — 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."
Hane's children playing in a park in Unterwaltersdorf — Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos
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