After Julian Pöschl saw television coverage of hundreds of migrants and refugees arriving at Vienna's main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, he decided to take some food and water over in his car. When he arrived at the station on 1 September, he found more volunteers than migrants, and very little organisation. For the first few days of September, daily arrivals at the station were stable at about 1,000, but then rose steadily to a high of 5,300 on 17 September. All of these newcomers are met by an entirely self-organised initiative, the Train of Hope - and Pöschl is now one of its two coordinators.
Train of Hope doesn't just provide food and non-food items to the migrants: they have a fully-functioning medical clinic, a legal helpdesk, and a kindergarten. “Every night I come in, there's something new here and there,” says Amos, one of this group of volunteers with no previous experience who have established the type of support many formal humanitarian organisations struggle with – from scratch and with no budget.
Pöschl says the magic ingredient in this grassroots initiative is his background in film production. The group's troubleshooter, Jochen Petri, was called in by Pöschl after the first day precisely because of his background as a film production manager. “Just like a location shoot,” says Petri, “you need to structure it from the start in order to make it easier for everyone.”
“It's social media that makes us powerful,” says Ashley Winkler, a graphic designer.
A similar voluntary initiative started at Vienna's other main railway station, the Westbahnhof, where a group started working with the first groups of refugees to pass the Hungarian border on 31 August. Although their needs were met through donations made through calls on social media and personal networks, a larger number of arrivals than at Hauptbahnhof led to an early agreement with the OBB, the Austrian Railway Office, that the NGO Caritas would take charge of the response.
At Hauptbahnhof, however, Train of Hope was performing so well that the OBB decided that they should remain the overall coordinators, with the support of NGOs and community organisations. When Hungary closed its border on 14 September, the temporary dip in migrant numbers gave the group time to consolidate.
“When somebody left, somebody else had to learn everything from zero,” Pöschl says as he holds up their new organigram, which they plan to open source so that other groups can learn from their experience. Both Pöschl and the coordinators who work with him believe that they've created a resilient organisation that would continue to function if any one of them failed to appear tomorrow morning.
“It's social media that makes us powerful,” says Ashley Winkler, a graphic designer who started as head of the social media team but is now the second coordinator, alongside Pöschl. The name “Train of Hope” itself is a product of social media. Originally a twitter hashtag, the group appropriated it as a means of coordinating requests. The social media team has been the backbone of the entire operation, and Winkler estimates that when they post an online request they can expect donations to arrive within 30 minutes.
“We exist mainly on private donations,” says Kristine, a member of the social media team, as another volunteer carries over a box and states, “We have too much hairspray.” Inappropriate gifts – including evening dresses and ice skates – are clearly a universal problem for charities that rely on donations, and the only thing they're short of is space. “We could have three times this space and make it full,” says Kristine.
One area of expertise where Train of Hope is still lacking is interpretation. Most of the interpreters they have are drawn from local Muslim community groups. They deal with the majority of enquiries, but also bear the burden of hearing all the stories the migrants bring with them from places such as Syria.
All the coordinators agree that the volunteers are what make Train of Hope so inspiring – both to them, and to the migrants that use their services. Volunteer teams have now increased to around 150 during the day and 70 at night. Some of the volunteers I spoke to regretted the loss of the heart of the effort, describing how, in the early days, teams would wave the migrants off at the station – a gesture that had to be sacrificed as the workload grew.
The future of the operation is uncertain. The next university semester begins on 1 October, which could see a significant drop in the number of volunteers, who tend to be younger people. The coordinators now talk about formalising Train of Hope as a registered NGO, which would enable people giving to claim back tax on their donations.
No matter what form Train of Hope takes in the future, however, the intention will remain the same.
As Pöschl rushes to another meeting, he points out something that should be obvious, but often gets lost in the coverage of the migrant crisis: “The welcome they get here will make a huge difference to their integration in the coming weeks and months.”