The town square in Obernberg am Inn, Austria, on Oct. 8. (Steve Hendrix/The Washington Post)

Haider al-Juburi faces the usual routine of an asylum seeker waiting to be granted haven in Austria: taking German-language classes, stretching a government stipend to feed his family and, mostly, enduring endless delays in an overwhelmed immigration system.

But there’s one part of his schedule that other asylum seekers might envy: soccer practice. The onetime computer programmer from Iraq, one of almost 60 refugees and migrants housed in the tiny town of Obernberg am Inn, has been prepping three times a week for a match between teams made up of both asylum seekers and local players.

“It just feels good to play,” Juburi said recently in his attic apartment overlooking the rooftops of the 13th-century town where he has been waiting months for a ruling on his application. “It’s hard to do so much nothing, but at least the people here are very nice to us.”

The soccer game — which would draw more than 200 curious Austrian spectators — wasn’t the first cross-cultural happening in this town of 1,500 on the border with Germany. In a country where many localities are resisting the influx of outsiders, this picturesque market town has become known for not just welcoming asylum seekers but getting involved in their lives.

The asylum seekers — living in a former hotel near the town church — have been treated to open houses, a bicycle-repair class, cooking demonstrations, and a garden party for the women and girls. One farmer invited them to pick apples, and a couple of migrant families have accepted plots in the community garden.


In August, a concert featuring both the Austrian alphorn and the Kurdish buzuk filled the medieval town square and gave many Austrians their first taste of Arabic home cooking.

“We are working now on a ­bicycle-safety workshop for the children,” said Petra Domas, a receptionist in the doctor’s office. “We gave them the bicycles, so we have to make sure they know the rules.”

Most of the asylum seekers fleeing chaos in the Middle East and Africa are hoping to pass on to Germany or Sweden. But housing the 85,000 expected to apply for asylum in Austria — more than four times the yearly norm — is proving controversial.

Many city officials, often reflecting local sentiment, have balked at the requirement that each province house asylum applicants equal to at least 1.5 percent of its population. The tension contributed to gains by far-right parties in recent elections in both the state of Upper Austria and even liberal Vienna.

This month, after a change to the law, the Interior Ministry began overruling local objections to set up housing for asylum seekers in three reluctant communities.

“We are striving to achieve an understanding [with the localities] for the necessity of the situation,” said ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck.

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Some communities have proved more welcoming than others. Volunteers around the country are teaching German and collecting clothing and food. In Perchtoldsdorf, in the wine region, they give swimming lessons and have a weekly cake-and-coffee mixer for asylum seekers and locals. Young asylum applicants in Gols volunteer in a seniors home several times a week.

Integration circle

But it would be hard to find a town that has embraced the asylum seekers more than Obernberg, where an “integration circle” has grown to almost 50 members.

The town’s doctor, pharmacist and priest, as well as a farmer, tour guide, paint store owner and traditional musician, have all taken part in the initiative, and many came to a recent meeting at the hotel where the migrants live.

Arabic pop music sounded from upper balconies, where men pushed the limits of the ban on smoking. In the communal kitchen crammed into a former guest room, a Syrian teenager pulled a smoking disk of pita bread from one of the five ovens. In a corner of the old dining room, a man from Afghanistan worked at a computer donated by the local bank.

“We decided we could do this in a humane way,” said Hermine Billinger, one of the two teachers who agreed to launch the support effort soon after the first asylum seekers arrived in January.

Not everyone in the area has reacted warmly. Domas sees it when migrants come into the doctor’s office; some residents will reach for their belongings and whisper to each other. And while the best soccer players among the asylum seekers are allowed to practice with the local club, they aren’t invited to play in actual games against other towns.

“There is still some hesitancy,” Domas said. “Not everyone is ready to accept them.”

Ranim Abu-Abed has had a better reception at the local middle school. The 14-year-old traveled from Daraa, Syria, with an older brother and sister. Their father is dead and their mother — in a Turkish refugee camp — is hoping to join them if and when their asylum applications are approved.

“Sometimes I have to translate what the teacher says, but she really understands a lot already,” said Miriam Reifeltshammer, 12, Ranim’s deskmate and guide to all things Austrian. She in turn marvels at Ranim’s flowing Arabic script. “They write right to left!” she exclaimed.

“You help me lot,” Ranim said with a smile. “In math, it’s good. It’s the same math in Syria.”

Welcome quiet

In spite of the warmth, life in the crowded hotel is hard.

Juburi said some of the men were rude when his wife didn’t cover her hair. So, local friends helped him find an apartment, and he now pays the 380-euro rent (about $430) from the 700 euros he gets from the Austrian government each month. The tiny space is furnished with a couch, table and microwave donated by Obernbergers. His wife recently baked her first apple strudel in the small kitchen. If they get asylum, they say they’d like to stay.

Some Obernberg asylum seekers recently did have their applications approved. They were given Austrian passports, were cleared to look for work and can move anywhere in Austria they like.

But Shahin Khalaf, a 37-year-old musician, and Omar Salem, 43, a warehouse manager, both from the Kurdish part of Syria, are settling into modest apartments in St. Georgen, an even smaller town near Obernberg. The two are applying for their families, now in Turkey, to come settle with them in a few small rooms adjacent to the village church.

Khalaf, who grew up next to a mosque and the daily calls to prayer, said he doesn’t mind the regular ringing of the church’s bell just a few feet from his living-room window. If that’s the closest thing to a racket in this village of 600 souls, he suggested that’s fine.

He’s ready for quiet, Khalaf said. He doesn’t mind that he will be far from the clamor of the Arabic neighborhoods in Vienna. “I’ve met enough Kurds and Syrians in my life,” he said. “It’s time to meet some new people.”

Nicole Lundeen contributed to this report.

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