As Europe struggles with floods of refugees fleeing Syria and other hotspots, one award-winning village in Austria is showing that it is possible for locals and asylum-seekers to get along just fine.
Two years ago, when it was announced that the pretty, lakeside village of Altmünster, population 2,500, would house an asylum centre, there was uproar, said Almut Etz, member of a local collective created to help the newcomers.
“There were posters at the beginning that said ‘Yes to Altmuenster, no to the asylum centre’. As if it was mutually exclusive, that if you said yes to the centre, you were against Altmünster,” Etz told AFP.
The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), one of whose MPs this month called asylum-seekers “cavemen”, supported a petition that attracted 700 signatures against the centre. One Facebook post spoke of welcoming the refugees with machine guns.
But the church and the mayor managed to calm things down.
“We immediately organised two public meetings that included a lot of opponents who were able to express their opinions,” parish priest Franz Benezeder told AFP.
“I reminded people that welcoming strangers is one of the key tenets of the Bible.”
In just a few days, the hostile placards went and around 40 locals formed the new collective to help the refugees when the first ones arrived one snowy day in December 2012.
“We were quite literally drowning in donated clothes and bikes. In a few days we had collected €6,000 ($7,500),” says Almut Etz, a retired teacher.
Today 50 asylum-seekers are housed in a former hotel in the village near Salzburg, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran but also the Horn of Africa and even Ukraine.
And not only are they tolerated they are even valued members of this small, tightknit community.
Mohsen, for example, an Iranian who has been in Altmünster for two years, has become something of a star in the local football team. He even helps train youngsters.
“I now know hundreds of people … I didn’t think people would be so welcoming,” Mohsen, whose asylum application for him, his wife and baby has just been accepted, told AFP.
“At the club people told me that before they had a negative image of asylum-seekers, but that we have changed their opinions,” the 29-year-old mechanic told AFP in excellent German.
Under Austrian law asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed, but those of Altmünster are not sitting idly around while they wait.
They get €5.50 per day per adult and four euros per child, money they can spend at the local mini-market on food to cook themselves at the hotel.
Of course it helps that picture-postcard Altmünster is a small, wealthy place with an unemployment rate of one percent.
Conditions are not so favourable elsewhere in Austria or across Europe — where nearly half a million applied for asylum last year, up 30 percent from 2012.
But this alone doesn’t explain the success of Altmünster’s scheme, which has earned it the award “Ort des Respekts” (“Place of Respect”).
Another key factor is that the dialogue is constant.
Every month the asylum-seekers and locals get together for coffee and cake, and once a year there is a party, when the refugees cook specialties for the locals.
But more importantly, teachers give the refugees — some of whom never went to school — 30 hours a week of German lessons, and the children go the local school.
For mayor Hannes Schobesberger, the magic formula is “properly informing people, letting them express themselves and involving them,” the 57-year-old told AFP.
“These people are putting all their energy into integrating and obtaining refugee status. It is inconceivable that they would cause trouble,” he said.
“The only worry is that at the beginning some people aren’t familiar with the recycling system,” Benezeder, the priest, added with a smile.