Blue doors opens up and a relaxing atmosphere invites you to come right in. A fresh and exotic smell plays with your desires.
Mohamad Alfar caters behind the bar, naturally and masterfully working on his next order. In one moment he brings drinks to a company of gentlemen lunching at the restaurant, a few seconds later he prepares the mint for lemonade to the next cocktail, while blissfully moving to the lounge music. His elegant and confident moves makes you feel cozy, just like at home.
He picks up a phone and accepts reservations for the evening. It seems that on the other end of the line, the guests can actually feel how he is smiling to them. He doesn’t hold back; on the contrary he loves to give compliments and have a chit-chat with his customers to make them feel more comfortable.
“I like to talk to people and be a host for them here,“
he says about his work at the restaurant.
Mohamad Alfar is a 23-year-old refugee from Latakia, a town of around 400 000 people in Syria. Alfar works as head waiter at the Habibi&Hawara restaurant that caters oriental cuisine mixed with traditional Viennese food just in the center of Austrian capital.
Habibi&Hawara is one of a handful of social businesses that popped up in Vienna to help integrate refugees from the Middle East into Austrian society. It gives support to those who lost everything in their homelands. Among the sixteen workers at the restaurant, twelve of them come from Syria, Afghanistan and Congo.
After the refugee crisis started in 2015, around 15 Millions of people took a risky journey to Europe from Iraq and Syria, after suffering through many years of war. On the map of Balkanroute (route between the Middle East and Europe across the Balkans, the way of refugees to the countries of North-West Europe) Austria was one of the most desired countries to stay in. In 2015 Austria received around 90 000 asylum applications (one of the highest number of requests among EU-countries) and a year after, reduced their quota to 37 500.
Alfar became used to travelling in early years. Born in Syria, then living in Palestine and United Arab Emirates. In 2014 he came back to Syria and due to the local situation he decided to look for a better life in Europe. For the nine months he spent waiting for asylum in Enns city (Upper Austria) he describes as the most dull and unbearable days in his life. As soon as he got a positive decision, he went to Vienna and worked in the organisation “Train of hope” as a translator.
Between willingness to help and xenophobia
Refugee report 2015 conducted by Marketagent organization (with very eloquent name: Austria between willingness to help and xenophobia) shows that one out of four Austrians were personally involved in helping refugees. As a result of ongoing polarization in the society, right wing party FPÖ rose in popularity, almost winning the presidential elections in 2016. Even though the society is deeply split in opinion about hosting migrants, many people decided to help out the refugees.
„Every day people need to eat, - says Katha Schinkinger, former PR-Manager who was looking for something meaningful to do. – So we wanted to manage this bridge between Austrian society and refugees through kitchen.“ It started in July 2015 with her „Host instead of post“ initiative. The idea behind it was to host refugees by Austrians for as much time as possible. Another initiative gathered around 1300 refugees weekly for common eating. Very soon it was clear that some of them are very good cooks. In three months Schinkinger and her friends managed to open a restaurant.
Once you enter Habibi, portraits with smiles of people of different nationalities are welcoming you. The interior is designed with minimalistic upcycled chairs and tables supplemented with Habibi logo – two hands that make shape of a heart. There are patterned carpets on the floor giving it a little bit of oriental breeze.
But the pearl of restaurant is its buffet room. Everyday until 14:30 a big dark wooden table is served with different colourful dishes, whereas some of them are cooked according to the family receipts of restaurant workers. Top favorites include Tabouleh Salad (green salad with granat) and Shawarma (chopped meat in pita bread). The buffet table attracts attention by its assortiment of mismatched colorful plates donated from a Christian charity organization.
The history of Austria already includes examples of hosting refugees. After Yugoslavian War Austria with its 8 million population has become home for around 60 000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The media quoted UN Refugee Agency which called it the most comprehensive and costly action in the history of Austria.
Current situation is tougher because a lot of refugees have relatively lower level of education and professional qualification, thinks Karin Kneissl, Near East expert. „That is why it will be hard to quickly integrate them into Austrian labor market,“ says Kneissl. However, in her opinion, the main task is on refugees:
Schinkinger is sure that possibilities to start working will make integration effective and less painful: “Exactly here, at work, refugees learn the language, cultural values and ways of dealing with local society much faster.” Moreover she thinks that the workplace reminds them of their families. That is why Habibi takes care of German courses and vocational training for workers.
Alfar will be the first one who will finish the training and receive local education. He is excited about the upcoming year „I love cooking and I cook with my friends whenever it is possible. So my dream, of course, is to open my own restaurant.“
It is hard to believe that three years ago he couldn’t say a single word in German and even didn’t know if he would stay in this country. Alfar is sitting on the terrace of Habibi&Hawara and catching Viennese midday sunrays. “I am lucky one to get this job, - says Alfar and his face spills in satisfied smile. - I love Vienna, because people are so open. Everything is different here and there are many possibilities.“