This hotel 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Bernd Debusmann Jr. / Vienna ; Khaleej Times ; May 28, 2016