Austria still offers some of the nicest aspects of worldly existence. Deer feed in the meadow across the road from our house. They graze contentedly, seemingly oblivious to all else, then suddenly stiffen and look up, alert, staring, when a car, or more likely a tractor, passes by. Even at a distance you can see the sudden tension in their flanks, which start to quiver before they take off on what appears to be a lazy lope, but is all about covering ground fast!
The material aspects of Austria are also entirely evident. Other than a few shabby streets in the larger urban areas, there are no slums, no ghettos. Austria is home to the best water in the world, as well as some of the best medical services and surgeons. Austrians are tough minded and diligent. From a material point of view Austria has it all. Moreover, they probably donate more per capita to charity than any other nation in the world. Germany, of course, is much the same.
Above all, Austria is a tidy country of great beauty; like a gigantic golf course landscaped by a hand from above. Where else would a refugee wish to head for if not an earthly paradise?
When the United Nations decided to cut, by more than half, the funds needed to maintain its refugee camps in the Near East, its members were apparently unable to foresee the consequences. The more than fifty percent saved has now resulted in costs amounting to three or four times the supposed savings. With little hope of a decent existence, the refugees fled the camps, bound for Europe. Hundreds of thousands have come. In response, the politicians talk, and the tax payers groan. Without volunteers there would have been little chance of helping the refugees at all. But the challenge is not really about giving – it is about how!
We added our names to the list of those offering accommodation and got caught up in a bureaucratic muddle to end all muddles. Our idea was to have a neat little family – one husband, one wife, one child. We were informed that personal wishes were not part of the deal, something we were bound to admit was fair enough.
It took about four weeks before a man from a refugee agency knocked at our door. He brought with him a young woman and two children from Afghanistan. The woman was an attractive 32-year-old; the children were lovely. The little boy, aged seven, was delicately serious. The little girl, aged three, was tiny, her face reminding me of a Burgundy grape. She was also a bundle of determination on two legs. Their father was still lost in a crowd of ten-thousand currently getting ousted from Hungary and being ushered, without ceremony, through Croatia and Slovenia. After four days we got a call that he was on his way to us and his arrival was about par for the course, which means nobody knows anything until it happens. He brought a ten-year-old boy with him. Romana and I had visions of collusion. We felt put upon (something we were to regret). Our house is not that big and already our ideal three persons had become four, and then five. It turned out that the ten-year-old boy was separated from his parents a full month prior. Our man had taken care of him as they trudged and bussed the last hundred miles to the Austrian border. Endless telephone calls finally located the boy’s parents, down-country at a camp near Klagenfurt, in Carinthia. A trip was made, and the boy was reunited with his parents.
As a writer living in Austria, I am bound to be writing about the current influx of refugees. I will be ashamed if I find myself attempting any sort of stylistic flourish; there is obviously no fun to be found in the matter. Mr. Hemingway’s reporting mode would be most appropriate. The winter is coming. They sleep on the earth, wrapped in a blanket. There is frost on the blanket at dawn. They shiver, waiting for the sun. This is what Mr. Hemingway called the “real” and “true,” given in a writing style that is no style at all.
But I can afford to be lighter now because our guest family has integrated with amazing speed and is doing well. Romana switched into high gear and got her network of lady friends into the deal. Stuff arrives daily. There are now more clothes than any family could reasonably need. We heard the funny story of our neighbor, Inga, informing her husband, Franz, that he needed a new anorak. This was news to Franz, but our man from Afghanistan got rigged out for the winter. The flow of cakes has accelerated, with no end in sight. Toys arrive for the children. I'm running around putting up shelves and rails to hang things on. Romana took on the paperwork and within a week the young boy, Milad, was attending school, going in stone-cold, without a word of German. The little girl, Setahesh, is now attending kindergarten. Their dad, Nazar, and mum, Shaima, are amazed at how things can change so quickly. They have asylum-request cards, but acceptance is by no means guaranteed. The cards bear their names and dates of birth. The family name is given incorrectly. Dates of birth are often unknown and guessed at. Many of those getting registered say, “1st of January,” and then add an approximate year. The paperwork seems somehow pointless, but the people do get a lot of government support.
These people are Shia Ismaili Muslims, of which Romana and I have not the slightest knowledge. It is enough to know that the Ismailis are persecuted by extremists. The horror stories about life in Afghanistan are sobering, indeed.
Everyday life at our house has been reduced to pure logic, when and where possible. Cultural differences are largely ignored. Shaima had a toothache and I was quick to point out that the pain is definitely the same the world over. We slowly instill the idea that there is little fun to be had at our house, but from here they can build their lives. Shaima is a sensational cook who, to my delight, uses tons of spice. Her meat is placed in the oven in onion water, which makes it wonderfully tender. Our meals are now sublime.
What has become evident is that we, Romana Madar and Lawrence Padar, have achieved the status of family chiefs. Seldom have we experienced such deference and seldom felt so grand. I get the feeling that I should be exercising gravitas. We are aware that families in Afghanistan are almost tribal, and run strictly on hierarchal lines. There is a distinct danger of Romana becoming a sort of ersatz tribal mum. Lord knows how I shall cope with such unaccustomed respect. Our own children, who are all grown up, keep a wary watch. They have, anyway, always considered us to be a bit daft.
Since Romana and I are retired we are all thrown together each day. Shaima speaks a little broken English, Nazar a bit of simple German. Finding a Quran on our shelves must have been baffling, not to mention my suddenly muttered “Allah” when I bang a knee. We have come to terms and get along well. Although we are Christians, our openness to Islam has helped.
We have adopted an Inshallah attitude. Trusting in God, in Life, in Anticipation.
“By the way,” Romana said the other night, “did you know that Shaima is pregnant?”
I sighed, stroking an imaginary beard.