Syrians arrive in Gabcikovo, Slovakia, this month. (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)

The next act of the European refugee crisis will unfold in little places like this one, where hundreds of Syrian war refugees are coming to live in a town that just voted by overwhelming numbers to oppose their stay.

Over the past few days, the first of 500 Syrian asylum seekers arrived to take up three-month residency at a state-run dormitory in the center of town.

Last month, as locals watched the news of streams of migrants winding their way through Europe, the town held a special referendum: 97 percent voted to oppose reopening the Slovak government’s refugee facility.

“We’re not haters,”said Zoltan Jakus, one of the organizers of the vote. “But I think this will end badly.”


With the refugee crisis escalating, European Union leaders last week approved a plan to spread 120,000 asylum seekers across 28 nations on the continent, over the objections of Central European countries. Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia voted against the measure, a rare note of discord.

The residents of Gabcikovo wonder why wars and unrest thousands of miles away, involving Muslims, should be their business.

Gabcikovo is a town of 5,000 residents, where pensioners ride bicycles along quiet lanes lined with sturdy houses, many with overflowing gardens and ceramic gnomes, where everybody knows not only your name, but also what football club you support and what beer you drink. Most of them speak Hungarian and are Catholic.

The people of Gabcikovo say they are not cold-hearted or racist, but they are clearly worried, and many of them are asking the same questions as other Europeans who feel uneasy about the rising numbers of war refugees and economic migrants.

“Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why are they here?” said Daniel Koczkas, 27, who works at a coffee distributor and has lived in Gabcikovo all his life.

He waved a greeting to his mother, who was passing by on her bicycle. “We have no problem with different colors,” Koczkas said, “but we don’t know them.”

A look at the numbers behind the stream of refugees flowing into Europe as political leaders struggle to ease the burden. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

One of his friends, Zoltan Zsemlye, 26, who works for Volkswagen, said, “If they’re all war refugees, why don’t they go to the Arab countries?”

The two friends asked how many refugees were being taken in by rich Arab states in the Persian Gulf.

They answered in unison, “None!”

A pair of young mothers pushing baby strollers, who declined to give their names, asked, “Would you want them in your home town?”

A vegetable vendor said she was worried that terrorists could slip in among the refugees.

Several local people expressed fears that on the nearby Danube, a massive dam and its hydroelectric plant would be a choice target.

“They flew airplanes into the twin towers. Why not blow up the dam?” the greengrocer said. She pointed to the church steeple. The water from the dam would be that high.

Other residents mentioned diseases — and the prospect of single young men walking the streets with no work and no money.

“They’re scared,” said Peter Borbely, a graphic artist from Hungary who works here. “It’s a small town, really a village. Very tight, maybe even closed to outsiders, even to me.”

He predicted that their fears would be allayed in time.

Gabcikovo has a long history of hosting outsiders, but this time it is different. During the early 1990s, the dormitories at the Slovak Technical University sheltered people fleeing the Balkan wars.

The dormitories were used again to house other refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

“We had Chechens, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Romanians, you name it,” said Zoltan Jaros, an administrator of the dorms.

Jaros said that between 1993 and 2008, more than 5,000 refugees and migrants spent time at the campus dorms. “We have not had a single serious crime,” he said. “Maybe somebody stole an apple from a tree. But no rapes, assaults, robberies. Nothing.”

He stressed that the refugees are to be housed in dorms for only three or four months — that all are Syrians applying for asylum in Austria and that none will remain in Slovakia. (The E.U. plan calls for 800 refugees to be settled eventually in Slovakia, though Slovak leaders are opposed).

“Austria has run out of room, so we are being good neighbors and helping them,” Jaros said.

Vienna is just an hour away. “They’ll do all their paperwork there. We have nothing to do with that. Here they will sleep, eat, meet with social workers and study German, and if they are accepted, they will move to Austria.”

Jaros said he has been impressed with the first arrivals at the dormitories. “Very calm. Very orderly. You can see they are educated people. They speak better English than me,” he said.

He has no patience for townspeople who fear the newcomers will bring terror or disease.

“Some people think refugees eat little children for breakfast,” Jaros said. He shrugged and suggested that the complaints were naive or worse.

Basil and Etidal Taroun, pharmacists from the Syrian capital, arrived last week and were strolling through town, relieved and maybe a bit stunned at where they ended up. They were applying for asylum in Austria.

“It is nice for us,” Basil said. “It is okay.”

His wife was smiling and said they would never complain. They would share a bathroom and toilet with another family.

Their 2-year-old son was sucking on a lollipop. They would learn German quickly, Etidal promised. They would be given asylum, they were sure. They had made it here after 24 days on the road.

They did not know that the town had voted to oppose their stay.

Zoltan Jakus, who led the referendum effort, said that volunteers collected 1,881 signatures in just three days to stage the vote and that the “no” campaign won 97 percent of the ballots with a turnout of 60 percent.

“So that says something,” Jakus said.

“The village people are ready to help. We would provide clothes, food and help them on their way, but we don’t want them to live here,” he said.

“The fact that they are another ethnicity, another religion, another language, this will cause conflict,” Jakus said, adding that it was his impression, from media reports, that the Arabs are quick to anger.

“They like to protest,” he said. “Maybe they will want to fight.”

He said villagers wondered where the Muslims would pray.

“We have no mosques here,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a single mosque in all Slovakia. You see? That is the problem.”

Gergo Saling contributed to this report.

Read more:

For desperate refugees, ‘the smuggler’s room is over there’

This extended Syrian family made it to Hungary: ‘What happens next?’

Read The Post’s coverage on the global surge in migration

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world