VIENNA, Austria— Crisis is the ultimate test of character. And the Syrian refugee crisis that's wending its way across Europe is revealing the true character of the EU member states and the people they represent.
The EU nations are handling the situation differently, from fence-building Hungary to border-opening Germany. But all along the refugee trail, Europeans — shaken from complacency by last week's image of a drown 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach — are now showing how compassionate they can be, even if their well-intended efforts to help can sometimes bungle into unintended folly.
"We were traveling through Austria on holiday and saw what was happening on the news. We couldn't in good conscience do nothing. We had to help," said 21-year-old British backpacker Nicky Crozier, who was joined by friend Joanne Evans in handing out chocolate bars, bananas and water to thousands of Syrian refugees arriving at the Vienna train terminal this week.
The young Liverpudlians weren't alone in their charitable efforts. As news began to circulate early this week about the arrival of 5,000…make that 10,000…oh, wait 30,000 -50,000 refugees flooding across the Hungarian border into Austria, waves of volunteers rapidly and spontaneously appeared at the Vienna train station pushing shopping carts full of food, water, and clothing for the weary travelers.
Some handed out blankets, while others doled out loosies and a light.
Some volunteers arrived with their whole family in tow to teach their children the importance of helping those in need.
For Syrian refugees struggling to make their way northwest across Europe, Austria has became the first real respite on a road fraught with danger, violence, internment, deprivation, and peril.
Many people are traveling with friends, neighbors or family members. But the multitude around them — a mix of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds— is filled with strange faces and foreign tongues.
Left to their own devices, many of the refugees have had to rely on the kindness of strangers.
From Dutch and Danish volunteers who are trying to offer a touch of humanity to the cheerless Greek detention camps in Lesbos, to charitable Hungarian citizens who defied their own government's nastiness by handing out water and bread during last weekend's #MigrantMarch to Austria, the scope of the humanitarian crisis has become a catalyst for volunteerism and goodwill across Europe.
But nowhere is that human compassion shining as brightly as in Germany and Austria, the first real refugee safe havens after several weeks and thousands of miles on the road.
At the train station in Nickelsdorf, in southern Austria, volunteers are handing out food and water from the backs of trucks, and constantly replenishing the supply of donated clothing at tents where weary travelers can rummage for warmer wear and a much-needed change of socks and shoes.
An even larger group of volunteers greet the refugees in Vienna, where the sidewalk outside the main train station has been converted into what looks like a flea market filled with piles of clothing, bags of food, blankets and toys — all for the taking.
By the final train stop in Munich, the point of debarkation in Germany, the volunteers' welcoming buzz crescendoes to cheers, as well-wishers press against the police barricade to greet the new arrivals and foist bananas upon them.
After the long road, the weary travelers are clearly thankful for Germany's genuine hospitality. But honestly, I've never seen bananas pushed on people so aggressively. No one is questioning bananas are a great source of potassium, which is useful for people exhausted by travel. But as Cool Hand Luke might have said, no man can eat 50 bananas.
Some Europeans who came to cheer on the refugees' arrival in Munich were a touch uncomfortable with the growing spectacle of the situation. "They're acting like they're at the zoo," a British tourist standing next to me said of the line of German women eagerly shaking bananas at the Syrian children.
The Germans' enthusiasm also led to a few moments of embarrassed silence in the crowd when a blonde woman was yelling a hearty "Welcome to Germany!" at every darker-skinned person, only to find out they weren't all refugees.
"Ah, thanks, I live here," answered the volunteer, or words to that effect.
Another man in the crowd was given the same cheerful welcome, to which he replied, "Gracias, soy de El Salvador."
People were also handing out toys, some of which were in questionable taste. The most unintentionally ironic gift I saw tucked under a child's arm was the boardgame Krawall Vorm Stall, where the objective is to race your chickens across a farm and up a hill while trying to stop other chickens from reaching the same goal. Not exactly keeping in the spirit of the refugee march.
The refugees, however, took everything in stride and were grateful for the friendly and fruitful reception. Some even took delight in the spectacle by posing for their own photos with the German banana boosters.
It just goes to show the connective power of a smile, a smartphone, and bananas … lots and lots of bananas.