The Magdas Hotel: Where your hosts are refugees
Next time you travel to Vienna, why not book your accommodations in the Magdas Hotel? The Magdas is Europe’s first hotel run by refugees. Refugees who arrive in Austria without any professional qualifications have almost no chance of ever entering the job market. Not so at the Magdas, where refugees from Morocco, India and Nigeria run the kitchen, the restaurant, the housekeeping and organise bookings. Read More
The refugee crisis has dominated the headlines for months now. Europe is currently being overrun by people fleeing war and desperate circumstances in hopes of a better life. But they are not always welcome.
Many locals resent their presence. Most refugees struggle to gain a foothold in their new homelands after being granted refugee status – whether because they don’t speak the local language well enough, because their qualifications are not recognised, or because the terrors they have suffered have left them deeply traumatized. Refugees with few marketable skills find it especially hard to enter the job market in Europe. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, many European countries have no idea what to do with these new arrivals and, for lack of a better plan, simply entrust them to the social system without providing any opportunities for efficient integration.
For a few months now, a model project has been underway designed to provide jobs for poorly qualified refugees in Austria. A hotel run almost exclusively by refugees opened its doors in the centre of Vienna this past February. This completely unique concept has drawn quite a lot of attention from the media.
The Magdas Hotel is operated by the Magdas Society, part of the Caritas Archdiocese Vienna. The association runs a number of social business in the city that serve disadvantaged Austrians – the handicapped, long-term unemployed, or people recently released from prison.
A hotel run almost exclusively by refugees opened its doors in Vienna this February.
The hotel is the only project specifically designed to serve refugees. It targets those who so often get the short end of the stick: people with few or no qualifications. They learn all there is to know about a hotel from the ground floor up: the reception, the kitchen and the laundry. The hotel’s goal is not just to help refugees put a roof over their heads and food on the table; it also seeks to provide marketable skills.
Centrally located in the green heart of Vienna
Located near Vienna’s Prater Park, the Magdas is perfectly situated in the heart of the tourist area. The hotel can afford to offer reasonable room rates because it is in a building owned by the Caritas charity. It used to be a retirement home, and some of the furnishings from its former life have been repurposed for the hotel. Every room is unique: The furniture is from the Caritas’ hodgepodge collection of outcasts. All have been lovingly restored – upcycled if you will. 50s furniture is back in vogue today, so the hotel’s vintage charm is right in step with the times.
The project was financed by a 1.5 million euro loan from Caritas which is being paid back through the rent. Because the building is subsidized by charity, the rent is much lower than average for this popular area.
Some of the start-up capital was invested in modernizing the building, redoing the electrical lines, getting it up to fire safety code and other important improvements. “We also started a crowdfunding campaign that brought in some additional money – we still had to buy plates, flatware and the like. It was very gratifying to see how much people appreciated this social project – we took in an amazing 60,000€,” says Hotel Manager Sebastiaan de Vos. “I was both surprised and thrilled!”
The Magdas started off with a staff of 26: 20 from refugee backgrounds, 5 hotel professionals and one job coach. This turned out to be unsustainable though. “If you think about it, we basically had 20 trainees. There is no way 5 professionals can cope with that number. So every department head got an assistant with hotel experience as well. We now employ 31 people.”
Sebastiaan came on board in autumn of 2014. He knows from personal experience what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. When he was ten years old, his parents moved from the Netherlands to Tirol in eastern Austria. In the first few years, he found it hard to integrate and felt shut out. “I was always the outsider, the foreigner. This feeling of not being accepted for who you are, I can really identify with our staff. It was one of the main reasons I wanted to be involved with the project. That, and the fact that I love a challenge, a chance to be creative. I enjoy creating something new.”
“You haven’t held down a job in the last ten years? There’s the door.”
The legal system in Austria can also be quite difficult for refugees to navigate: While their asylum application is being processed, they can only work in two areas: as seasonal workers for the harvest and as prostitutes. The application process can take a very long time: Sebastiaan remembers one case in which an applicant had to wait twelve years before he was granted asylum. Twelve years of purgatory in which he could not undergo any training or get a regular job. Prostitution was not an option. Today he works in the Magdas and is happy he was able to find work at all after such a long stint of unemployment. The Magdas can only hire refuges who have completed the entire application process and been granted asylum. “This is an untenable situation. You can just imagine what a prospective employer will say when your application crosses his desk after such a long period of unemployment: ‘I’m sorry, you have not held down a job in the last ten years? There’s the door. You don’t speak proper German? There’s the door.’ These are the people we want to give a leg up, a place where they can get the experience they so desperately need.” This includes learning the local language. The Magdas is now offers German lessons for employees when they are not on duty.
In Austria, while their asylum application is being processed, refugees can only work in two areas: as seasonal workers for the harvest and as prostitutes.
16 nations under one roof
People from sixteen countries work together at the Magdas. They have come from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Nigeria, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Congo, Venezuela and Ghana, to name a few. These countries of origin have no shared cultural background, which can be a source of conflict: “Everyone brings their own cultural experience and value system. It affects the team, of course. In the beginning we had some issues: men who found it difficult to work with women or refused to accept a woman as a supervisor. So we established an intercultural training programme. The teams sit down together and explore the various value systems: What is very important to someone, what is not that important?” The training has in fact raised the level of respect among the workers and improved the working atmosphere.
In the six months the Magdas has been up and running, there has been some turnover. Some have left because they discovered working in a hotel was just not their thing, while others were so traumatized by past events that they found it impossible to integrate. The Magdas Society continues to work with them though, maintaining contact and trying to help those who have left find other ways to acquire marketable job skills so they can one day find gainful employment elsewhere.
Overcoming all the obstacles
Any project that works with refugees is bound to run into resentment and opposition. Hotel employees live scattered throughout over Vienna, but the building complex also houses 25 young refugees. Caritas cares for these unaccompanied minors, children who arrived in Austria without a parent or sibling. Perhaps surprisingly, agitation against these children did not come from local residents, as is happening in parts of Germany, but from the ranks of politicians. The nationalist, conservative and at times populist party, the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) submitted a request to the Vienna District Council asking that the youths be investigated to determine whether they were intimately involved with the drug scene, creating a drug trafficking hotspot, raising the level of criminality and organising gangs. The Magdas responded to these accusations by organizing informational events. They talked to local residents, explaining that the hotel only accepted refugees who had already been granted asylum, that there was no danger of the young people being drawn into a life of crime, and that some would be given jobs at the hotel to offer them a chance to improve their marketable skills. This counter-campaign was successful, and pulled the rug out from under the FPÖ’s attempts to whip up resentment among local residents.
Overall things are going rather well for the hotel. It were 64% booked in August, which is quite impressive. A lot of guests have come to satisfy their curiosity, to get to know the project and support it by booking a room. The price is also very attractive, particularly for young people. It’s hard to find reasonable accommodations in the heart of Vienna.
Sebastiaan attributes the hotel’s popularity to the concept behind the Magdas: “We have come up with a solution to an existing problem and taken a unique approach – on an international level. The media hype is still overwhelming. We recently had a visit from the BBC and Al Jazeera. There seems to be very widespread need for new approaches and ways of dealing with the refugee crisis.”