On a chilly morning on an industrial estate in Vienna, Ali and Rozh are picking through boxes of donated vegetables. The two asylum-seekers, both from Iraq, are not homeless or hungry themselves. They are volunteering at a food bank that fights waste and distributes leftover food to the poor.
“We are happy to use our time for good,” says Ali Majid Abdul Razzaq Al Khalid, 32, a qualified vet from Diyala in eastern Iraq. “There are poor refugees but also poor Austrians who live on the street. This was a shock to us when we came here – to see poor people in Europe, in a supposedly rich land.”
While Ali and his friend, Rozh Ali, 39, a former marketing manager from Baghdad, wait for their asylum applications to be processed, they volunteer at Wiener Tafel (‘Vienna Table’), Austria’s oldest food bank. Here, a small group of staff and 400 volunteers collect food that would otherwise be thrown away and deliver it to nearly 20,000 people in shelters and homes run by 120 different charities.
“We are happy to use our time for good."
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” says Karl-Anton Goertz, who fundraises and collects food for Wiener Tafel. “Nature wins, the food industry economizes on waste disposal and the poor benefit.”
For the refugee volunteers, Karl-Anton says it is a “nice give and take”, as they improve their German, help out and take part in cooking workshops alongside Austrians.
For hygiene reasons, Wiener Tafel does not take cooked food from restaurants but only packaged or fresh food from supermarkets and markets. Today, some huge pumpkins have come in from the Großgrünmarkt (wholesale vegetable market), so the volunteers are slicing them up and covering the chunks in cling film.
“Nobody is starving in Austria,” says Karl-Anton. “But poverty is not being able to take part fully in life – to choose what you would like to eat. We are trying not only to promote better nutrition but also to give poor people more choice.”
The charities, which care for the homeless, single mothers and drug addicts, as well as some asylum-seekers, always want plenty of potatoes but are also grateful for luxuries like chocolate. Foil-wrapped Santa Clauses are still within their sell-by dates.
As the day progresses at the Wiener Tafel warehouse, Ali sorts cherry tomatoes while Rozh carries crates to a lorry parked outside. The friends arrived separately in Austria in 2015 and met in Vienna. Ali has a wife and four-month-old daughter, while divorcee Rozh is here alone. Back in Iraq, both men suffered sectarian violence.
“I come to work here every day,” says Rozh. “Wiener Tafel is like family to me.”
“Wiener Tafel is like family to me.”
Wiener Tafel is a lifeline for organizations like Ute Bock House, a private shelter for asylum-seekers in Vienna. “We’re hoping for some sweets for the children but we’ll take anything we can get,” says Natia Karkadze, a manager at the shelter. At the warehouse, she loads up a white van, helped by Maximilian Scheiblhofer, 19, who instead of doing military service is doing social service for a year.
Later, at Ute Bock House, most of the food is put away in a larder, to be shared when all of the residents are home. For lunch, some bread rolls, radishes, sweet peppers and mushrooms are laid out on a bench from which residents can help themselves.
Some of the residents are cooking in the shelter’s communal kitchens. Zura from Chechnya is frying onions to make a bean dish, while Lamin from Gambia is making soup. Fatima, a Palestinian from Jordan, has taken a green pepper to top a pizza for her family.
They may not know it but all are enjoying flavor and nourishment that has come from a bigger table – Wiener Tafel, proud to call itself “the food bank that makes good sense”.