On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration.

Two weeks before we arrived, Austria elected a new president. The two candidates were Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party of Austria, whose first leader was an officer of the Nazi SS, and Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green Alternative party: far right and far left. The nation is split almost exactly down the middle: the far right lost the vote by 0.35% and have successfully won a legal challenge to force a second election, due to happen in October.

A mural on the wall in a Zollamtsstrasse corridor

The two parties are irreconcilable. In Vienna, I speak to Daniel Aschwanden, an artist who has been working in a Red Cross camp for refugees set up in a former financial law court. He tells me that the first showing of the work he created with the refugees was attacked by far right groups, who themselves came under mortal threat. The result was that the Red Cross installed bouncers to protect both sides. Daniel shakes his head: “I watch people from the right and the left argue and I don’t want to get involved in that”.


Inside the former financial court building on Zollamtsstrasse, the rooms now stand empty. The last remaining Red Cross workers clear away the children’s toys, the chairs and tables of the schoolrooms, and the books of the library. The refugees were recently moved after eight months here, and the building will become a university’s fine arts department – apt, I think to myself, as I wander around, admiring the colourful murals daubed on the corridor walls by refugees and volunteers.

A dancer painted by a Syrian woman in her family bedroom

Downstairs, a vast painting shows a woman’s head on the shoulders of a flowering tree, messages of love and motherhood in among its leaves, while a golden phoenix soars overhead. Another mural is coated with flags and symbols of all nations, with meaningful words memorialised: security, hallo, freedom. Upstairs, a Syrian family’s room is decorated with a beautiful woman in a blossom orchard dancing with a silk scarf, her skirts billowing in the gentle, petal-strewn wind. Similar flowers bloom around the electrical power outlets in the wall. An Afghani has drawn with coloured pencils two children, falling in love, playing music: Ich komme aus Afghanistan, ich liebe Afghanistan – I come from Afghanistan, I love Afghanistan. Another has drawn the crest of Arsenal Football Club.

The rooms of Zollamtsstrasse refugee centre

Around 1,200 people were lodged here, mostly young men, but also plenty of elderly people, women and children, including unaccompanied minors. The doors to the bedrooms still bear the nameplates of the former tax inspectors, as well as the administrative chalk marks of the refugee centre. Room 421, formerly the office of Helmut Hummel and Magistra Regine Linder, was converted to accommodation for six persons. Office buildings aren’t designed as living spaces, though: no showers, insufficient toilets, no clothes washing facilities, only the top-floor canteen for cooking – and no one was allowed to use the lift. At first, people were taken in small groups by mini-bus to municipal baths and might have one shower per week.

The building at Zollamtsstrasse was acquired by the university last summer and was lying empty before the builders moved in to start the art department refit. A student-run arts festival called Urbanize was due to take over the vast space last October, as the number of refugees arriving in Austria reached 5,000 per day. The university and the festival opened their doors to the refugees and from that moment this former tax court became a mixed space of students, volunteers and refugees from all over the world. It was only after civilians had turned the building into a welcoming space that the Red Cross were charged with its formal management as a refugee centre.

Zollamtsstrasse wasn’t meant to be permanent, but the refugees liked being here because, unlike at other more institutional refugee centres, there was always something to do. German classes in one of the four schoolrooms and a kindergarten for the youngest children, regular clay modelling workshops and dance empowerment classes, games of table tennis, table football and chess, as well as other projects like designing and painting the murals. Students from the university also designed and delivered two metal container shower blocks. As one of the volunteers, Stephan, told me, the philosophy of the place was that anyone could just come and do anything. “There are no rules, no bureaucracy, just openness”, he says. “This is nice for students used to bureaucracy. They have the freedom to create”.

But the heart of the building was the café, which ‘sold’ free cakes, cookies, tea and coffee, and hosted concerts, talks, films and art exhibitions. Every Saturday was women’s day, when men were forbidden, the blinds were drawn and hijabs could be removed in privacy. Although not without its problems, particularly with regards to the protection of women, Zollamtsstrasse sounds like it was a brief interlude of freedom and real attempts at integration between refugees and residents in Vienna. My volunteer guide Patricia is obviously shaken that the hall where the café once lived is now dead. The serving bar torn out, the dishwasher ripped from the wall, the stage carted away. The only survivor is a chalkboard drawing of blooming flowers and a tree in blossom: the enduring emblem of Zollamtsstrasse.

I have learnt German! On a chalkboard in a classroom

The refugees have now been dispersed across Vienna to live in other camps – all converted, disused buildings, including the old offices of the Kurier newspaper. These makeshift camps are one sign, activists tell me, that refugees are not really welcome by the state. The resources are not being put into integration, but into moving refugees on, either further north to Germany, or back to the east. Patricia tells me about an Iranian who has been ordered back to Croatia, not because he had papers or a passport stamp from there, but because the bus he was on, commanded and escorted by the Greek police, happened to pass through Croatia. “And he was one of the supposed ‘good’ refugees”, she says. “He was a doctor”.

Stephan and Patricia and the other enthusiastic volunteers of Zollamtsstrasse have found a new empty building, a former phone shop near the station. In stark contrast to the old financial court, the walls are still bare, whitewashed. Over the coming months, those walls will be filled with the imaginings of refugees and the local community, creating a communal space where everyone belongs.

Back in one of the empty ‘bedrooms’ of Zollamtsstrasse, Patricia shows me a practice dialogue scrawled on the wall in pencil, first in German, then translated into Persian. It shows the linguistic preoccupations of the student, and illustrates the challenges that lie ahead for both refugee and resident in Austria. It’s headed Meine Fehler – اشتباه من – My mistakes.

A practice dialogue drawn on a bedroom wall

Bitte zahlen sie Bar.
[no translation]
Please pay cash.

Ich habe kein Bargeld, leider nein.
متاسفم، من پول نقد ندارم
I have no cash, unfortunately no.


Ich bin kein Dieb.
[no translation]
I am not a thief.

Ich glaube Ihnen.
من شما را باور دارم
I believe you.

This post was originally published on openDemocracy.

UPDATE: Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the Austrian Presedential election after a re-run that took place in December 2016. However, 2016 will be remembered as the year populist far right movements exploited widening political divisions, not just in Europe, but across the world.

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp was originally published on Cycling to Syria

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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