#5YearsWeFled: Syrian Hospitality

We were warned about Hungary: my friends had warned me that it was very dangerous there, and that the authorities in Hungary are really bad to refugees. I had heard this from my friends who traveled through before us: they were arrested in Hungary and put in jail for one month. The authorities beat them, took their clothes and searched them, stole their money—everything you can imagine.

So the Hungarian army takes us to where we can start walking, and that’s when we meet up with observers from the United Nations and Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF). They accompany us all the way from Croatia to Austria. They keep us safe and are always asking us if anyone from the Hungarian army or police has laid a hand on us or made any trouble for us. They have us walk in groups, two by two, in long lines, and the observers are walking with us.

I don’t know where we are exactly the whole time, but suddenly we think we are across the border. There are train stations, and they put us on a train. Apparently we are in a designated place shared between Austria, Croatia, and Hungary. This is a deal of some sort among the countries: The United Nations had arranged for a window of time—just one week—to let refugees pass safely through in this manner. They watched over the borders for just one week to get the refugees from Croatia over into Austria. We were lucky. Many refugees go to jail in Hungary, and are made to register in jail there.

These are very good people from the United Nations and MSF. They said, ok, we will put you on the train to Austria now, and after that, you are free. You can stay in Austria, or you can go to Germany—no one will ask you about your business. You are welcome in Europe.

When we arrive in Vienna, the people there ask me, are you going to Germany? The train station is very crowded and busy, so they say, you should get your train tickets to Germany for the morning and spend the night in Vienna. I look around. It’s beautiful in Vienna. So I told them ok, where can we sleep? They told me there are places where you can spend the night for free, if you want. You go to the Red Cross, and they show you where refugees can spend the night.

So we go there, but it’s the same problem as before; it’s a bad place. The people there tell me, you have a choice, of course—you can go to a hotel. I tell them, yes, I don’t care if it’s the very last of my money, but this is the last night before we arrive in Germany. We are almost there. I have already bought our train tickets to Germany, so I figure we can spend money on a hotel. So they say, ok, you can tell any of the taxis outside to take you to one of the city’s cheap hotels. So I ask a taxi driver. Unfortunately, he doesn’t speak English, but he says the words “Arab” and “hotel.” So we go with him.

He takes us to a hotel, and oh my God! It’s a five-star hotel! I tell him, what are you doing? Oh my God! He says, no, no, this is for people from Saudi, UAE, Kuwait—they all come here. I say, oh no, I am not Saudi, I am Syrian! What you doing with me? I can’t really understand him, and the place looks expensive. I know we can’t stay here. But what can we do? Should we at least enquire about a room? We had already paid the taxi driver. I think, oh my God, now I will lose all my money. But I can’t take another taxi. Money is too tight for that.

So I go to the reception and say, I would like a room for the night, please. The man at reception says, do you speak Arabic? I say yes. It turns out that he is Egyptian. I say to him, I must tell you that I have no bank account, no papers—I am just a refugee. He asks me, where are you coming from? I tell him, from Syria. Ah, you are Syrian? He tells me, thank God, no problem. I say, why? He says, this hotel, like many hotels in Vienna, is owned by a Syrian man. And I have orders that if any refugee from Syria comes here, I am to give him a room with complete service.

Now I know why the taxi driver was so insistent, why he told us over and over again that he had to take us to this hotel! So the man at reception says, no, I will not ask you for a credit card or for any papers, and your meals are on the house, as well. We ask that you pay 10 euros for the night. I say, are you joking? I tell him, perhaps you can just put us in tiny room. He says, we are ready, come with us. A man takes us and all of our things and opens the door to the room, and it’s a suite with everything! There’s a big TV, Wi-Fi, a refrigerator with drinks, biscuits, everything! There are nice bathrooms—what more could you want? After that, people come knocking on the door, asking us, “Do you have any laundry? We will do it for you, for free.” Go to breakfast, eat lunch—it’s all for free just because you are Syrian. 

Ayman Jalwan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a Syrian lawyer now living in Germany as a refugee. Interviews conducted by Claudine Weber-Hof.

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Image: Photo: "Refugees welcome" is written on a wall made of carton boxes during a protest for a better asylum law in front of the Parliament in Vienna, Austria, April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger