Kindness, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Read on about the work of a group of Viennese Jewish women intent on helping their newest neighbours - refugees.
JEU spoke to Dr. Verena Krausneker and Miriam Tenner of Shalom Alaikum - Jewish Aid for Refugees, the volunteer initiative based in Vienna, Austria. Earlier in October this year, the initiative was awarded a special recognition as part of the Intercultural Achievement Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.
How did the initiative come together?
Shalom Alaikum was founded and is still run by women who were very involved in Summer of 2015 when the crisis took place and refugees travelled through Vienna by the thousands each day. We all helped individually and in the course of Autumn found each other. We decided: let’s be visible as Jewish Viennese refugee helpers! And let’s start caring for those refugees who have decided to stay in Vienna and who will be our new neighbours. So we founded Shalom Alaikum – Jewish Aid for Refugees in Vienna.
We are still a small group of active women, with a big group of supporters, and we are just celebrating our 1st year anniversary.
You help out with everything from homework help to bike wishes. How do you define the scope of your activities?
Our strength is that we don’t have a set plan or map or agenda, except: be there as a resource and as friends for the 20+ families we have been accompanying.
We do what friends would do when they are asked for help. We do what friends do when they are invited for lunch.
We do what friends do when they see their friends in trouble.
As people who have lived in this city for a long time and who speak German fluently we can make our network of professionals (medical doctors, university contacts, lawyers, real estate agents, etc.) available to the newly arrived neighbours. Our goal is to make their start here as smooth as possible and to feel welcome.
Where do you gather support and find partners?
Most of the families live in one house run by the City of Vienna. So that organisation, Fonds Soziales Wien, provides housing and is an important partner, of course. For all the other resources we need there are over 1000 friends on Facebook who are active, who support us, who donate things and money.
We, the 6 active board members, donate our time, our knowledge, our spaces, our offices, everything. Our infrastructure and work is completely free, Shalom Alaikum really uses every single cent it receives for the refugee families. We are proud of this. We don’t get any official funding so we are free to make decisions and plan activities as we see fit. For now, this is ideal.
Helping refugees, and being Jewish - what is your take on, and experience of that role?
From day one we have clearly said that we are Jewish. Our first big event with the families was a Chanukka party. In the whole time since, we have not had any negative responses. Some refugees have questions or are interested, or they tell stories of their former Syrian Jewish neighbours... others don’t make a big deal [out of it]. The truth is that when you meet under such difficult circumstances, in such a vulnerable and fragile situation and with so little shared language, some things become more important, and others, that might seem like barriers, become so small. Our friendships have really grown on the basis of a full acceptance of each other as a Mensch, not so much on a careful selection of a person [based on] political beliefs, identities, opinions, or prejudices that fit my own. You know what I mean? There are tons and tons of trust and good will and caring involved from both sides that make these partnerships between “us” and refugee families quite stable.
Supposing public feedback is not all positive, what are some of the common negative attitudes you encounter?
Publicly, there is way more positive feedback than negative. And it really matters to us, it is very important to know that what we do is supported by many people. But each one of us has friends who don’t appreciate what Shalom Alaikum does. And some of us have experienced the loss of friends over this, which is painful. Because all we do is practice kindness to new neighbours who are just as kind in return.
It’s hard to say this, but: for some Jews just because these people are Muslim, it is suddenly a problem.
And of course we have comments from people who say - Keep living in your dream. Well, I like the peaceful reality we have successfully built together a lot.
What about the response from the local Jewish community?
Responses from our community are mixed, with a strong group that is unable to differentiate between refugees and their own fears, between Muslims and terrorists, between our very real and true experience and their own prejudices. At the same time each and every Jewish person has had moments of flashback in this refugee crisis because stories of flight and refuge and kind help from strangers run strong among us all, of course. But not everyone has come to the conclusion that building stable social relations with the new neighbours is a good strategy.
Most of the time, and understandably so, the public and media focus is on remedying immediate needs and problems. What about the reality once people settle in Austria, what challenges do they face?
Once asylum has been granted the most urgent wish is to move out of the refugee housing and to find a place to stay. We try to help with that and we see that often just being there next to the refugee family as a blonde, middle-class Austrian makes a huge difference. So experiencing our own society’s racism has been part of the learning process this year.
Then comes learning German as fast as possible and making contact with the former field of profession.
Really, what all of our friends want is to build a new life.It’s as simple and complicated as that. And depending on their background, their knowledge of languages, experiences in the world and competencies, that is easier or more complicated [to achieve].
And finally, what pointers could you give to readers across Europe who want to get involved, and share some kindness in their own communities?
Make yourself available.
Make sure all parties involved can save face, so accept all the kindness that comes in return even if it means having 2 lunches and 3 tees in one day.
Be accepting and willing to learn, because refugee help is not a one-way street.
And if you can’t do any of this: support the people who do.
To learn more about their work, visit: www.facebook.com/ShalomAlaikumVienna/
And if you can donate, the address is:
IBAN: AT30 2011 1284 2476 7201