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Austrian Town Historically Welcoming To Refugees Overwhelmed By Crisis


The massive numbers of people coming from Africa and the Middle East are already changing many places in Europe. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley takes us now to a provincial town in Austria that houses a refugee center.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The small town of Traiskirchen - population 20,000 - has leafy, tree-lined sidewalks and brightly painted houses. It's the kind of place where neighbors stop and speak to each other. Today, Traiskirchen is overwhelmed with refugees. Andreas Babler is mayor.

ANDREAS BABLER: We try our best. We try it in a humanistic way. That's my philosophy, that there are people coming here. They are fleeing. They have no existence in their countries, so we have to give them a little bit of welcome culture. But it's difficult.

BEARDSLEY: Traiskirchen is no stranger to refugees. Waves of asylum-seekers have been housed in a facility here since Hungarians fled Soviet tanks in 1956. Babler reels off the different nationalities taken in over the years.

BABLER: 1968, people from Czechoslovakia. We had the 1973 people from Chile. We had Uganda...

BEARDSLEY: But the mayor says the town has never known anything like the numbers arriving today. In a nearby park, small groups of migrants are sitting on the grass and learning German. University student Nicole Uhlick is one of the volunteer teachers.

NICOLE UHLICK: Yeah. We're just coming here with our blankets every afternoon and sit down. And then students just come to you and ask you if you can learn them some German. And yeah. It makes fun, and they're really, really motivated.

JAFAR ABASHI: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: Sixteen-year-old Jafar Abashi is practicing his newly learned German. He came alone from Afghanistan. The refugees include increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors.

SHPETI JANUZI: Where are the womans? I don't know.

BEARDSLEY: Not far from the park, Shpeti Januzi is giving out clothes and toiletries from bags in her trunk. She has a warm smile for everyone. Januzi is Austrian but has family in Kosovo.

JANUZI: I feel good if I can help (laughter). And from the Kosovo War, you know - and I know how it is to be a refugee because one part of my family was refugee.

BEARDSLEY: The refugee center is the largest in Austria, but it cannot cope with the nearly 4,000 people here. And more people arrive every day. Some are accommodated in tents behind the center, but many end up sleeping outside. Basil Saloukha and his wife, Dima, push a baby stroller down the sidewalk. They just arrived in Traiskirchen. The couple decided to leave Syria when their child was born.

BASIL SALOUKHA: In the war now, there is no place to raise a child. I have a 1-year-old. She had her first birthday on the Macedonian border.

BEARDSLEY: While many migrants want to go to Germany, Saloukha says Austria was always his first choice, perhaps because he loves classical music.

SALOUKHA: Yeah. It was my dream to maybe hear a recital or watch an opera in the Vienna Opera House, the best venue for classical music in the world. It's a nice place to raise a child, very calm. And yeah - people are here - are laid-back, a bit like us.

JANUZI: They have fun with me (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: On the way out of town, I passed Shpeti Januzi surrounded by a swarm of Afghan boys. She's given out all of her supplies, but now she seems to be offering something even more valuable - the chance to laugh and flirt with a pretty girl on a warm fall afternoon. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Traiskirchen, Austria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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