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Welcoming refugees in Austria

Austrians, including many Christians, are engaged in tireless short and long term support to the thousands of traumatised people arriving in their country, writes Vienna-based Baptist church planter David Bunce

Over the weekend, more than 13,000 people arrived in Vienna as refugees.

Many of them were clearly traumatised and in need of emergency medicine. All of them were exhausted. Some of them had started the journey by walking out of Budapest along a live motorway in the hope of getting somewhere safe. Lining the sides of the platforms as trains drew in were hundreds of ordinary Austrians – distributing water, fruit, medicine and clothing.
The issue of refugees traveling through Austria came to a head two weeks ago with the horrific deaths of 71 refugees in the back of a refrigerated lorry.

The following Monday, 20,000 people marched through the centre of Vienna under the banner 'refugees welcome', partly as a show of solidarity, partly out of frustration at the perceived inaction of the government.

Since then, members of the public have been organising themselves, collecting donated items, organising an army of voluntary interpreters and seeing to the basic needs of those caught up in the central European refugee crisis. Using Facebook and Twitter, practical donation needs could be altered on an hour-by-hour basis, which meant that energy was being used in an efficient way.
Amongst the many volunteers were many from the Baptist church I serve in, who have been giving tirelessly of their time and energy. Many people spent long days at train stations over the weekend, helping give aid and just spending time with people and listening to their stories. They are everyday heroes of the faith, working unseen in response to the promise of the Kingdom of God.  
Our small church (Project:Church in Vienna) has a long history of working with refugees, having more than 10 years experience in Refugee and Integration work (as part of Austrian Baptist Aid).

We're active not just in crisis relief work (though many of us are), but in offering long term practical support, accompaniment to legal hearings and government offices, integration German courses and counselling. Many of the refugees who arrived in Austria over the last week headed on towards Germany. For those who stayed, the existence of long term projects such as our Refugee and Integration work will be key.
We also have an awareness of some of the realities behind media myths of left and right. When I think of UK headlines about refugees having passed through many 'safe-countries' for example (the implication being: 'why should they continue to Germany, other than greed?'), I have to shake my head and think of the many horrific eye witness account I've heard about human rights abuses in these so-called safe European countries.

Stories of police brutality, sexual violence, organised crime, appalling hygiene and inadequate medical care experienced by refugees in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Hungary are all too-well documented by organisations like Amnesty International – and all too ignored by many political (and Christian) commentators in the United Kingdom.
I've been asked to write a couple of ideas about how churches in the United Kingdom can help.

Firstly, please pray. The work is hard, often discouraging and frequently comes up against the 'powers and principalities' of the world. Outpourings of short-term sympathy such as those seen this month are encouraging, but all too rare. But the hope is that Christ has unmasked the powers as being ultimately powerless, and that He is building His Kingdom through His church.
Secondly, I would urge churches to study the realities of the issue. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Pro Asyl have been researching the current crisis for years, and there are a lot of good resources easily accessible.

I would urge churches to question the easy myth of 'economic migrants', the look hard at the definition of 'safe country', to understand the realities of physical, sexual and psychological trauma which many refugees are living with.
And finally, I would like to encourage churches who would like to help out practically to seriously consider donating to organisations with a focus on long term integration and support, rather than immediate disaster relief.

Donations of food and clothing for crisis situations can be easily organised by local cities according to need; material donations from abroad is often the wrong type or at the wrong time or in the wrong place.

However, church and organisations such as Austrian Baptist Aid who work sustainably over the long haul with people, who continue after the media attention has died down, are what will make the real difference in people's lives flourishing. 


David Bunce works as a missionary and church planter in Vienna and is on the pastoral team of Project:Church. He is married to Mairi

Baptist Times, 08/09/2015
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