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At a Hotel Run by Refugees in Vienna, a Breath of Sanity


At the Magdas Hotel, located in the Prater neighborhood of Vienna, refugees who have won asylum status in Austria do paid work while learning new marketable skills. An Algerian employee, above, tending bar. DULCIE LEIMBACH
At the Magdas Hotel, located in the Prater neighborhood of Vienna, refugees who have won asylum status in Austria do paid work while learning new marketable skills. An Algerian employee, above, tending bar. DULCIE LEIMBACH

VIENNA — Not far from the palatial city center that symbolizes so much of old and modern Vienna, the Magdas Hotel presents an altogether different scene for visitors to this capital. At Magdas — which opened this year and means, in German, “Like that!” — the hotel is managed mostly by refugees: 20 people from a total of 16 countries speaking up to 27 languages: a micro United Nations.

The refugees working at Magdas have approved asylum status in Austria, but as in so much of Europe, asylum seekers in Austria have limited job opportunities for many different reasons.

“Very often they are condemned to lead a life in standby position,” said Anna Radl, a spokeswoman for Caritas Vienna, the main financer behind Magdas.

Amid the explosion of people seeking refuge in Europe from various points in the Middle East and Africa and the panicked decisions by leaders to stop the flow, Magdas represents a voice of sanity in how to cope with the unprecedented numbers of people seeking asylum, having left behind everything they know and relatives they love to find a better life in a foreign setting that can be unforgiving and unwelcoming.

Dinis, who left his home in Guinea-Bissau in 2003, operates the front desk at Magdas; his relaxed grin reveals his natural affinity for his work as he described how he ended up in Vienna after years in Paris, how he has a diploma in hotel management and accounting and that he speaks five languages, including German. He came to Europe on a container ship, he said, as a young boy.

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“I can never, ever miss Guinea-Bissau,” he said in English, “but I miss my sisters.”

Sarah, from Guinea, admits that her new life in Austria has been difficult.

Sarah, who works at the front desk, too, is also from West Africa: Guinea. She left three years ago and speaks German, English and her native French. She could not talk much because she was too busy, although she confirmed that creating a life in a new country was a hardship she could never have anticipated. Yet she has persevered.

At the hotel bar and cafe one April evening during this reporter’s overnight stay at Magdas, an Algerian ran the show; on another afternoon visit, in June, a male refugee from Afghanistan was dispensing drinks with a female co-worker, Maryam, from Morocco. She came to Austria in 2001; until 2012, she existed in legal limbo, unsure whether she could stay or she would have to leave. Now, she has positive asylum status, enabling her to work in the Austrian job market. Tall, fit and relaxed, she exuded confidence behind the bar.

Sitting at that spot back in April was another hotel employee, Según, who was born in Benin but grew up in Nigeria. He speaks English, German and French and has been living in Austria for 12 years; he said he “loved it here” – at Magdas, where he is a cook. Según said he left Nigeria because of politics.

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The point of Magdas, Radl said, was that although the refugees who work there have legal status to do so, many of them had not had a job for years while they waited for the government to decide their status, leaving them inexperienced in the working world of Europe.

“That is where Magdas Hotel wants to give them a chance,” Radl said.

Besides the refugees employed at Magdas, five other people, who are not refugees, also manage the daily tasks, said Sebastiaan de Vos, the person in charge and a Dutchman. Another employee, for example, is a “job coach,” helping the refugees with the hotel duties and their private lives, like dealing with Austrian bureaucracy and “integrating with Austrian society.”

Magdas is a “brand” of Caritas Vienna’s “social business projects,” Radl said, referring to the local branch of the international Catholic charity. Magdas in general supports people who have problems getting work, such as those with disabilities, refugees and the chronically unemployed, de Vos said in an interview at the hotel.

The main staircase at Magdas, hung with the national flags representing the refugees who work there. JOHN PENNEY

A Magdas restaurant in Vienna, called Kantine, was set up first, followed by a recycling and catering business. The hotel opened in the Prater neighborhood, a few miles from the Zentrum, or city center, in February 2015.

Caritas is run through donations, public funds and the Catholic church; Magdas has been financed by Caritas Vienna but must become, de Vos said, self-sustaining.

How is the hotel doing? “It’s running good,” de Vos said, sipping water that Maryam, the woman from Morocco, brought over to him and to this reporter. “Bookings are coming more and more. We are different than other hotels,” he added, saying that it offers the usual amenities as well as being located near to the famous Prater amusement park, where scenes from Orson Welles’s “The Third Man” was filmed.

The hotel’s extra selling point? Its humanitarian virtues, de Vos said.

The lobby and lounge could not be more inviting: seats are low-slung, with tables positioned at corresponding height. Most walls are sided with bookcases or full-length windows and doors facing the hotel’s budding garden and patio. The building was a former senior citizens’ home, owned by Caritas, and Magdas renovated it, recycling much of the furniture, with a mere budget of 1.5 million euros, or $1.7 million.

“We didn’t throw anything away,” de Vos said.

Some new things were bought, like seat cushions for the lounge’s arm chairs, de Vos conceded, noting that guests expect certain services and comfort, but they also appreciate the quirks, like the coffee tables in the lounge, “upcycled” from a university in Austria and covered in doodles from student imaginations of long ago. The renovation was done by a Viennese architecture firm, AllesWirdGut; in English: All will be well.

For refugees who need to work before they win their asylum status, they have just two stark legal choices in Austria, de Vos said: as seasonal laborers on farms or as prostitutes. (It is legal in Austria, where Viennese red-light districts are interspersed, for example, in the Prater neighborhood, a mix of university dorms, brothels and apartment buildings.)

As for farm work, it is not easy to obtain because refugees cannot register themselves in the labor market service, hence they must find the job themselves, said Ruth Schoeffl, the press officer for the UN refugee office in Austria.

In the lobby, portraits of some employees.

Austria became a main crossroad right after World War II for refugees moving from Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe and vice versa, so it has a history of contending with people streaming through its borders or trying to stay, more recently as a destination during the Bosnian war.

Now it has tightened its border with Italy to thwart the large flow of refugees arriving in Italy’s southern ports (and Greece) from the Mediterranean. Hungary is planning to build a wall to block refugees coming through Serbia. Italy looks the other way as migrants enter to cross into France, creating friction between the two neighbors.

“Austria has a very elaborated, and thus, also very complicated asylum system; however, it has been proved to be solid over the last years and recognition numbers have been quite high compared to many other EU countries,” Schoeffl said in an email, referring to the numbers of people recognized as refugees.

“However, currently it is facing a lot of challenges due to rising numbers (prognosis for up to 70,000 applications for 2015),” Schoeffl added in an email.

Syrians dominate the refugee list in Austria, as asylum applications to the country soar. In April 2015, nearly 4,000 people applied to Austria, up 183 percent from April 2014, levels consistent for 2015 so far.

Signage on the walls, sparking amusement.

After Syrians, many of the other refugees flocking to Austria come from, in order: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Somalia and Russia. Eighty percent of the applicants are male.

Back at Magdas, the 78 rooms are simply furnished with a bohemian kick — no sight of a Hapsburg swag but plenty of artful touches, like lampshades decorated in crochet. Some rooms have balconies overlooking the garden. A gallery space off the lobby shows local artists; in April, a photography exhibition on homeless people in Vienna depicted a side of the city that tourists may never see. (Next door to the hotel is the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.)

Rates for the rooms go from 65 euros to 110 euros a night. Breakfast meals are cooked in the hotel kitchen — another source of training for the refugees — and served in a spacious white dining room that recalls a school cafeteria without the clamor or grubbiness. Signage painted on a wall in the lobby is meant to amuse: eyeglasses stand for the library.

On the night in April when Dini explained his passage to Europe, he revealed how far he had come from Guinea-Bissau, a struggling country flush on the Atlantic Ocean, as he muttered about the professionalism of a particular staff member from North Africa, saying, “This is not a house, this is a hotel,” turning his gaze back to manage the bookings on the computer.


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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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