When I left the USA last month, I hadn’t even really heard about the refugee situation in Europe. I had maybe heard a little soundbyte on NPR, but it wasn’t getting major coverage yet. I knew that there were some people leaving dangerous areas in the middle east and north africa, but I didn’t realize that right now is one of the biggest mass exoduses in recent history.

My first experience with refugees was my first day in Europe, as soon as I got into Munich. They tend to hang out in the train stations. A local I met in Munich said that in Germany, they are trying to spread the burden of accepting a big influx of refugees (“flüchtlinge” auf Deutsch) among the different German states, and the train stations are the way to get to wherever they might be going. If everyone was sent to one city or place, there is a huge burden on the local government and people to be able to support and integrate such large numbers. It seems to me that most developed countries have some desire to help, but the degree to which they can accept flüchtlinge depends on a lot of factors, including the country’s economic status (among other things).

So Germany and Austria for example have accepted a large number and therefore that’s where a lot of refugees are trying to go. Other countries such as Hungary have to consider capping the number of people they can accept because they can’t afford the integration as easily. I suspect that there are other issues in the opposition to accepting refugees in all these countries that are more based on prejudiced, nationalist, and even racist ideas, but that’s kind of speculation on my part.

I’m no expert on foreign relations or immigration. I won’t pretend to know the complex issues around a country’s ability to accept a massive number of immigrants. What I can tell you, though, is that the needs of the refugees are real. People are fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other areas of high conflict in staggering numbers, and risking their lives to get themselves to someplace they can establish as a new home.

One of the first things that struck me with the seriousness of the situation was a big poster in the main train station with the faces of missing persons. Family members became separated in attempts to flee their home countries and the faces on the posters represent many individuals’ hopes that somehow, some way they might be able to find their way back to each other. I don’t know how common it is to be able to connect people to their loved ones, but I know that there are lots of volunteers trying to create databases that might be able to help.

In fact, there are a lot of volunteers doing a lot of things. Not everybody, but a lot of people in Europe are receptive to the idea of supporting these people in need. There are self-run volunteer groups doing everything from feeding refugees to medical care to collecting and distributing clothing and everything in between. It reminded me of something Mr. Rogers said.

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I knew that I wanted to do some volunteering at some point on this trip, but I didn’t quite know what that would look like. As I learned more about the refugee situation by talking to locals and reading stories on the internet (Humans of New York deserves some credit here), it became clearer what my first job would be. Seeing the tent city in Salzburg of people who were waiting and lining up– literally crowding the bridge and being stopped by police officers– trying to get across the German border solidified it in my mind. This is my first opportunity to be one of the helpers.

Some google searching for how to help in Salzburg didn’t turn up much for me. I was only there for two days anyway, so I searched for the next city to visit: Vienna. I found an organization called Train of Hope. It’s an entirely volunteer-run organization based out of the main train station in Vienna that helps refugees with food, new clothes, simple medical care, and getting some basic hygiene products. I didn’t know what an English speaking volunteer who could only commit to a couple of days would be able to do, but I tweeted them to ask. They said they’d be happy to have me and I should just come on down.

When I got there they asked me if I had any special skills, such as language translation or medical training. I think that my unique skill sets were largely irrelevant in that context (the refugees don’t need a mascot). I just told them I had two hands and a desire to help.

So of course the volunteer coordinator put me on garbage duty. It’s not glamorous, but it needed to get done. When you have several hundred people living in a train terminal, the trash starts to stack up. So I got some gloves and tackled it, with the help of two other new volunteers, Philomena and Astrid. We were brutally efficient.

We cleaned the whole terminal in about an hour, and went back to the volunteer coordinator to find a new job. Astrid and I were assigned to one of the kitchens, where the kitchen coordinator put me on a new mission: fruit salad. I stood there in the kitchen and made fruit salad for three hours. I made SO MUCH FRUIT SALAD.

Refugees love my fruit salad! I must have made 500 servings.
Refugees love my fruit salad. I must have made 500 servings.

I then did another round of garbage and headed back to where I was staying, because I was starting to get really hungry and working with food wasn’t helping.

The next day before I got on a train to Budapest in the afternoon, I went back in for a couple of hours and did some other menial tasks, cleaning and organizing. It’s not glamorous, but it was what they needed and I’m glad I got the opportunity to pitch in.

I did take a couple of pictures. I’ve debated whether or not to post them because these are pictures of people at a desperate time in their lives, but I think in the interest of making it as clear as possible to you (the dear reader) that this is a serious situation, I will. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. Or 1153 in this case. The refugees didn’t seem to mind or even pay attention, and honestly I saw some of them taking pictures too.

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Hopefully my experience and what I’ve seen can open some eyes back home and elsewhere, even just a little bit. These people were forced out of their homes in violent circumstances while much of the world is sitting comfortably, far away. I’ll be looking for more ways to help as I go.