Inside Europe's only hotel run by refugees

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Inside Europes only hotel run by refugees
STARTING OVER: Refugee Anita Arakelian

Vienna - It wants to set an example for Austria and Europe as a whole, by employing refugees and asylum seekers and proving they can be integrated into society.

By Bernd Debusmann Jr.

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Published: Sat 28 May 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 28 May 2016, 1:24 PM

At first sight, Vienna's Magdas Hotel looks deceptively normal. But the 78-room boutique hotel - a retro building on a quiet, tree-lined street not far from Vienna's Prater Park and its iconic Riesenrad Ferris wheel - is on a mission. It wants to set an example for Austria and Europe as a whole, by employing refugees and asylum seekers and proving they can be integrated into society.
Of the hotel's 30 staff members, two-thirds are asylum seekers fleeing war or repression, from countries including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan and Guinea-Bissau. The hotel finds potential candidates through Austria's Public Employment Agency (AMS), which manages all the country's unemployed.
The hotel - which was once a retirement home - was refurbished in early 2015 using a ?1.5 million loan from Caritas, bolstered by another ?60,000 collected through crowd-funded donations. The hotel uses no public funds, and is meant to make enough profit to cover the cost of the loan and its operations.
"It is very, very difficult for refugees, even though they've already received their (asylum) status, to get a job. Employers are very hesitant to employ them, for several reasons," said hotel manager Gerhard Zwettler. "Caritas had the idea to do a project to show that it's possible to employ refugees and give them a chance."
According to Zwettler, a key mission of the hotel's 'project' is to use longtime hospitality professionals and volunteers to give the refugees skills - such as German, IT literacy and intercultural communication - that they can later put to use living in Austria, and even at other hotels.
"We have a pretty good training programme for these co-workers, most of whom have never worked before in the hotel and tourism industry," he said. "We don't only want to give them a job. We'd like to support them in their integration into Austrian society, and develop them further," he added. "As soon as they've developed better self-esteem and have some experience, they can apply to other hotels, and make room for other asylum seekers."
Anita's Story
Among those currently working at the hotel is Syrian-Armenian receptionist Anita Arakelian, who'd fled overland to Austria from her native Damascus to join her mother and two sisters a year-and-a-half ago.
"The war was so difficult. There was no more security. My country is destroyed, and its economy is destroyed. There was death everyday," she said. "I couldn't live there anymore, so I decided to come here and start my new life. Before the war, I came here as a tourist, but I never thought I'd live here. Syria is my soul," she added. "But I couldn't continue. I was just sitting at home. I couldn't even go out to buy bread for a week once, because of the shooting and the bombs."
About four months ago, she found work at the Magdas - which was a perfect fit, as she had previous experience working in hotels in Damascus. "When I first came, there was nothing to do, and I was disappointed about the war. But I had to move on," she added. "I had no work, no friends, nothing... just the Internet and YouTube, and every day five or six German movies, and a German course. I speak German so well now.
"I have experience, and this job gave me a chance. Refugees are allowed to work here, but most refugees aren't given a chance, and have no experience," she noted. "This is a perfect idea. There are so many people searching for work that they love. There are people here like me that have so much experience, but then come here to clean. People change their whole lives, but there are no opportunities for them to show their experience, their languages."
Among her greatest hopes is for her other sister and her three children who remain in Syria to come join her in Austria. "I hope they come, if only for the children," she says. "They're just sitting at home, with no schools and nothing to do. What future will they have? There is no electricity, no water. It's a hard life."
A Message to Europe
The Magdas Hotel project comes at a contentious time in European politics, particularly regarding the influx of refugees.
Last week's presidential elections in Austria, for example, pitted the far-right, populist, anti-immigration Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer against Alexander Van der Bellen, a liberal Green Party member who ran as an independent. Van der Bellen narrowly won, preventing Hofer from becoming the first far-right president anywhere since the European Union was established.
"They couldn't be more different in their approach. One is very open-minded, and the other is rather Austria-first and wants to close our borders," said Zwettler. "We definitely represent the first approach. We believe diversity is very important for society, and we need to do our share to integrate refugees... We try not to look at the disadvantages, which are looked at by employers. We change those disadvantages into advantages, such as their languages and nationalities," he said. "We see ourselves as a light tower project in terms of showing others what's possible."
On a wider scale, Zwettler said the successful integration of refugees as demonstrated by the Magdas benefits everybody. "This is a small-scale example, that focuses on solutions, not problems," he said. "Multiplied on a European level, the whole issue can be easily handled."

TRAILBLAZER: Manager Gerhard Zwettler
TRAILBLAZER: Manager Gerhard Zwettler
ALL ARE WELCOME: The interiors of the Magdas Hotel in Vienna
ALL ARE WELCOME: The interiors of the Magdas Hotel in Vienna

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