Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

‘Now we feel safe’: Refugees arrive in Austria for final leg of journey

Austrian volunteers are welcoming thousands of exhausted refugees at the border with Hungary

NICKELSDORF, Austria — “Now we have food, water, and we are not in Hungary,” said Syrian refugee Ibrahim Momtaz, standing at the vast customs station just inside Austria’s eastern border.

"We will see what comes next … but for now, this is all we need."

Momtaz is among some 6,500 refugees to arrive in Austria from Hungary since Friday night, when Budapest’s authorities agreed to take them by bus to the border after hundreds breached police lines and starting walking west down railway tracks and the country’s main highway.

Now they are recovering at Nickelsdorf, where scores of Austrian Red Cross workers and local volunteers are providing food, warm drinks, medical help, clothes and blankets. Dozens of buses are lined up to ferry the refugees directly to Vienna, the Austrian capital, or to the local train station for onward journeys.

Austrian officials said that more than 2,000 refugees had already continued on to Germany, the most popular destination of the more than 350,000 refugees to arrive in the European Union so far this year — and the country most willing to accept them.

“I want to go to Germany to study computers,” said Momtaz, who left Deir Al-Zur in Syria a month ago.

His friend, Beder Jasim from Aleppo in Syria, said he wanted to work as a cook in a restaurant in Germany.

“We feel great now. Thank you to Austria. In Hungary, things were very bad, and we were scared. Now we feel safe,” he said in Arabic, translated by Momtaz.

As the two Syrians walked around the customs area, people from several of the world’s other conflict zones — Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, and others — collected sandwiches and fruit from the Red Cross and picked through warm coats and sweaters in a pile of second-hand clothes. Meanwhile, children chased each other around the car park and organized impromptu soccer games.

“You can see people coming back to life,” said Aytekin Yilmazer, a 37-year-old volunteer from Vienna. “Finally, I now have the feeling that my government is trying to help. The way they opened the border and are providing for people here is good, and of course Germany is doing a lot.”

Behind him, hundreds of refugees queued quietly to board Austrian buses — a stark contrast to scenes in Hungary the previous night, when some feared that the buses sent to collect them from the motorway would take them to overcrowded camps.

Many of the refugees lost trust in Hungary when it allowed hundreds to board a train at Budapest’s main station, thinking it would take them to Austria, but instead tried to drop them off next to a major refugee camp.

Hundreds refused to leave the train until yesterday afternoon, when they defied Hungarian police and set off walking down roads and railway lines toward Austria.

“If you know European history, you don’t put people on trains and take them against their will to camps,” said Yilmazer.

As he waited at Nickelsdorf for a bus to take him further west, Ahman Urabi from Damascus in Syria said he was sure the worst was behind him.

“I have passed the toughest point in my journey now,” he said.

“Yesterday, at the station in Budapest, I was ready to pay the ‘mafia’ to take me to Austria,” he recalled, using the term most refugees use for people smugglers.

“The price was not fair — they wanted 750 euros in advance — but I was almost ready to do it. My family wired money to me in Budapest. But I changed my mind, and now I am here.”

“I would like to live in Berlin, and do my masters. I qualified in civil engineering in Syria,” he added.

Urabi said he estimates that he gave about 3,000 euros to different people smugglers to get him on a rickety boat from Turkey to Greece and then to help him cross Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Budapest.

“We changed our mind about using mafia when we heard about the truck,” he said, recalling the deaths of 71 refugees in a truck that was abandoned late last month just a few miles down the highway that runs past Nickelsdorf.

"The man who says he will help you for money — he could be your killer,” said Heytam from Homs in Syria, who traveled with Urabi from Turkey. He declined to give his name because he fears for the safety of relatives still in Syria.

“We’re alright, but we really need sleep and a shower,” said Heytam.

Urabi nodded agreement: “We haven’t slept for seven days, and we’re really tired. But we have to be strong now, to complete the rest of our journey to Germany.”   

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