Ute Bock: Giving Refuge

Up to 300 Refugees a Day Find Their Way to Her Doors

News | Alexandra Ruths | November 2006

Ute Bock with two friends at the Refugee Center “Getting involved is the only thing that helps.“ (Photo: Felicitas Kruse)

Even though it’s 17:00, Ute Bock hasn’t eaten anything except a slice of bread and butter all day. The big blue coffee cup on her desk is always refilled. Even at 64, that seems to keep her going through a day when she has already dealt with about 60 cases of refugees and asylum seekers who come to her for help. Not an exceptionally heavy day, as on average, 100 to 300 people come each day to the Ute Bock counseling service for refugees, on Karmelitergasse in Vienna’s 2nd District.

Most of those seeking help come at least once a week for consultations on legal issues and for assistance in contacting public authorities, kindergartens and schools. There is psychological and medical counseling, as well as free German and literacy classes offered in the rooms on the second floor. There are about 15 computers with free internet access in the waiting area, all of which are occupied at all times by people surfing the net for jobs and living opportunities. Some of the refugees spend hours writing emails to their loved ones abroad.

Still, the help Ute Bock and her small team of volunteers offer doesn’t stop at the office doors. The organisation also provides and maintains 70 flats around Vienna, hosting about 310 asylum seekers who, as Ute Bock sees it, have been let down by the government. Many of them are young Africans, but the housing communities are mixed with people from Georgia, Chechnya and Bangladesh.

A few years back, when Bock still worked as a director of an asylum for homeless minors and refugees in the 10 District, she was already taking in "the ones nobody wanted." In the 1990s, when the number of homeless, young asylum seekers and refugees was growing, she started to learn about their problems and their often hopeless situations.

In 1997 the government decided to introduce what she considers "more drastic measures."

"They wanted me to get rid of them," Ute Bock recalled, "to leave them on the street. But I couldn’t do it." So she kept those young people with her.

"I am for order out of nature," she said, "and I always liked having a boss and doing I was asked to do as long as it was nothing too crazy. But in 1997, I had had enough."

Almost two years later, in 1999, in the so-called ‘Operation Spring,’ 30 African adolescents of Bock’s asylum were arrested for dealing drugs. Bock herself was charged with drug trafficking and the aiding and abetting of gangs. She was acquitted of the charges, but ended up being suspended from her job. Bock still remembers her neighbours applauding when she was taken in handcuffs by the police. Many people in the neighbourhood had developed a very prejudiced attitude towards "the asylum and all the foreigners in it," she said.

"That shot was off target, because after Operation Spring, I became really angry," she said. "I never thought about giving up." It was not long after that that Bock started renting apartments around Vienna with her own money, to provide some shelter for "her people."

Today, six years later, this initiative has got a name – the "Ute Bock Flüchtlingsverein" – an office and some sponsors, but the situation hasn’t become any easier.

"We always have financial problems, now more than ever," she said. "Some years ago, I still went out to buy tickets for the public transport for the people coming here, today I even think twice before I buy a "Wurstsemmel" in between."

Irrespective of the troubled finances, the Institute continues to operate six days a week from morning until late at night. The telephone in Bock’s office is ringing constantly while she is already busy talking to people in her office, looking for help.

There is a young Gambian man, an asylum seeker who has just come out of protective custody. The man who now weighs only 50 kilo, had gone on a hunger strike in order to get out of prison.

He and his German girlfriend have been at Ute Bock’s before. She knows their case and is running around the office, looking through her files and explaining in simple words what needs to be done next.

While the couple is there, they talk about their difficulties with looking for a flat. Bock knows that story before they tell it:

"Nowadays, nobody likes to have Africans in their houses, because the police are always coming around to check up on them."  Police controls of Africans are getting worse and worse. Only the other day, one of her "guys" was stopped at the Underground station "Schwedenplatz" and ended up having the 70 Euros in his pocket confiscated by two police men. When he asked them why they took away his money, they replied, "You have no right to be here anyway!" Even for the Gambian man’s German girlfriend racism isn’t something new, having been called a "Negerhure," a negro’s whore, on the street while holding hands with her boyfriend.

Anecdotes like this are part of Bock’s average day. "Almost all foreigners experience prejudice of one kind or another," she says, "but with black people, it’s worse, because their being ‘different’ is much more obvious."

Bock has been awarded several prizes, including the prestigious UNHCR Refugee Prize. However, it is the Ute Bock Prize for Civic Courage that means most to her, an award she received from SOS Mitmensch in 2000 and that subsequently carries her name.

"If only more people stood up against acts of racism and opened their eyes to what is happening around them, such incidents could never happen," she insists. "Getting involved is the only thing that helps!"

The couple has hardly left the room when a young woman from Nigeria sneaks in before Bock can close the door in front of the line waiting outside. The girl has just come out of protective custody too, but with 3,961 Euro in debts.

While Bock examines the release documents, she gets more and more upset as she tells the lost girl not to worry and not to pay under any circumstances. In any case, there is no way she could come up with the money. Despite Bock’s reassurances, the girl is shaking, fearful that "the police comes again to get me."

One might imagine the atmosphere subdued and tense, but somehow it isn’t.  Bock jokes around, is loud, at times ribald.

"When it gets unbearably sad, I usually crack a stupid joke, we laugh together and for a minute, everything is fine again," Bock explained. Taking a positive attitude at all times is something "her people" taught her. "The people coming here smile and laugh and have such a wonderful, healthy sense of humour. I admire that."

Of course cracking jokes alone doesn’t help all the time.  That’s why each Saturday, Bock’s people can meet with local lawyers volunteering at the institute. Legal counselling is a crucial step on the way to improving the refugees’ situation. Bock knows that 90% of the asylum seekers are rejected because their "reasons are not relevant." It is then that they need urgent legal advice for appealing the government’s decision. In the time during the first application and an answer to their appeal, they are especially vulnerable. They can often fall through the cracks, for lack of financial support. Many resort to looking for illegal work, and others simply are put in protective custody at the city jail on Hernalsergürtel in the 17th District, while their case is being dealt with. Legally they are allowed to be imprisoned for up to ten months – a horror scenario for the refugees at Bock’s Institute.

At the moment, the first floor of the Hernalsergürtel facility is filled with refugees who are all on a hunger strike.

"They put them in cells next to each other so the wardens have less work distributing the food."  However most of the people at Bock’s center refuse to let worry dominate their lives. The language courses are always full with people some even sitting on the floor. Bock is convinced that education is the only way for them to improve their situation. She knows from experience how urgently most of the refugees want to learn, "Many of them are so talented, they already speak several languages."

There is an Armenian family living in one of her apartments, who have been fleeing from place to place for the past fifteen years. A horrible fate perhaps. But they have turned necessity into a virtue. "The children speak Armenian, Russian, Polish, Czech, German and English," she said in amazement.

What this what she expected from her life? Bock laughed.

"No, I always thought I would live the life of a respectable citizen." At the age of 64 Ute Bock has come too far to turn back. But she is looking forward to "giving the government a headache for a long time to come!

"They won’t get rid of me. If you deal with what we deal with here, you know that giving up is out of question," she insisted. Immigration problems can only be solved if "we start asking those coming to Austria, why they are here, and start understanding their stories."

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