Europe

Stay Open-Minded: magdas HOTEL in Vienna Works to Empower Refugees

A hotel in Vienna has challenged themselves to empower refugees by opening a hotel staffed primarily by people fleeing war-torn countries.

A customer, mid-40s with brown-framed glasses, approaches the reception desk at the magdas HOTEL in Vienna with a question about checking out. Jumana looks up from her monitor and locks eyes with the man, her deep brown eyes emitting the kind of compassion for a customer hotel guests expect at the reception. She stands up, answers his question with her soft voice and a smile, offering to hold onto his bags in case he wants to walk around the city a bit more before he has to depart.

It’s a typical hotel interaction, but the lives of the people behind the desk, cleaning the rooms, and managing the hotel have been anything but ordinary. Two-thirds of magdas HOTEL employees are refugees.

There’s nothing about Jumana that would indicate that she’s had to flee, twice, a war-torn country. She looks like the young woman that she is. After all, nobody looks like a refugee because anyone can be a refugee. The simple fact is that she’s 20-years-old and working in the city with her own aspirations for life like anyone else. It’s not until you talk to her that you start to get the whole story.

"The Day I Left Syria"

Jumana Jeetaria is an Iraqi refugee, living in Vienna and working at the magdas HOTEL Her family first fled to Syria in 2006, and then to Austria when the war broke out in 2013.

“I didn’t actually spend that long there because of the war,” she tells me, referring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We’re chatting in the hotel’s private, outdoor green space where guests can eat lunch or take a coffee in the shade. It feels light years away from the chaos she’s had to endure.

“So when the war begins,” this time referring to the Syrian Civil War, “my family decided that we should move to Austria.” Her father had friends who suggested that Austria would take in people suffering because of the war. The family quickly decided they needed to flee.

“The day I left Syria was a bit hard, actually, because I lived there for a long time. It was my second home after Iraq. I had to leave everything, my friends, my home.”

Understandably, her tone and expression have changed noticeably from the reception as she walks me through her story. But her spirits lift when we meet again, sitting on the couches across from the hotel bar, flipping through polaroid photos of her childhood. Looking at an old photo from Iraq, her brother and parents slightly blurry in the age before ubiquitous iPhone cameras, she smiles and seems to forget for a moment everything that’s happened since. But when she looks up, breaking the spell between nostalgia and reality, her smile changes slightly, as if to say, “That was then. This is now.”

Behind The Name

What does "magdas" mean?

“magdas” is a play on the German, “Ich mag das” or “I like that.” Literally, you could read the name as, “I like that hotel.”

magdas HOTEL: A Place For Potential

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Jumana’s been in Vienna for five years now, but only with magdas for some months. magdas Hotel opened in February 2015 in direct response to the influx of refugees seeking asylum. Hotel Manager Gabriela Sonnleitner explains.

“We said, ‘what can we do about this?’ because these people are talented, are bringing lots of potential to Austria, so how can we help them get into the work market?” she says. “And in Austria, tourism is constantly lacking people, so we said ‘why don’t we open a hotel?'”

Nearly four years in, it’s safe to call the project a success. magdas HOTEL currently employs approximately 20 refugees and recently finished paying back their debts. They don’t expect a profit, but they’re no longer bracing for losses either.

More About The Hotel

magdas HOTEL is a no-frills property that wins points for affordability, location, and their story. Rooms are simple but comfortable. Nevertheless, you’ll more than likely be spending most of your time galavanting around the city. Speaking of galavanting, magdas HOTEL is conveniently-located within walking distance to the Praterstern subway station.

Up against the Prater amusement park and the surprisingly remote-feeling park trails, magdas is wonderfully off-the-beaten-path compared to the swarm of hotels smushed into the city’s old town. Nonetheless, it’s still an easy walk across the Danube and over to the city center. if you want to take it easy, plan a lunch or a dinner with the hotel’s bistro bar. Dine on the outdoor patio if the weather allows or sink into one of the many sprawling couches surrounded by local art.

magdas Hotel

Vienna, 1.4 miles to Albertina
8.3 Very good (1351 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 8.7 / 10
Hotel CTA

Stay Open-Minded

Significant credit for the hotel’s success goes to the individuals working at magdas, like Jumana. Gabriela recalls meeting her for the first time about a half a year ago.

“We saw that she is very clever, speaks good German, speaks very good English, is open-minded, and fits very well in our team.”

Indeed, staying open-minded is key at magdas HOTEL, so much so that you see the phrase plastered throughout the hotel. It’s on small black and white brochures telling the story about the hotel, it’s in bold, white letters on the black folders in every room with basic information, and it’s alluded to in the ‘Buy open-minded’ store across from reception where guests can purchase handmade products from designers either suffering from a disability or who find themselves in a different kind of difficult situation. But for Gabriela, it’s more than a nice marketing phrase. It’s the ethos of the hotel.

“We think with our hotel, we prove that we should be open-minded in Austria and not leave out our new colleagues who come [to] us as refugees,” she explains, adding that people coming into Austria have potential and should be given a fair chance to prove themselves.

"A Very Special Atmosphere"

magdas is living up to the challenge they’ve set for themselves. A woman from Nigeria runs the housekeeping staff and refugees from Kurdistan and Syria share reception responsibilities with Jumana. The bonus to all of this is that being surrounded by refugees, people who have shared similar experiences makes it easier for employees like Jumana.

“Working here is just amazing because all the people working here are just really nice to me and they understand where I come from,” she says, adding that her colleagues have been supportive of one another.

 

Those are the stories that Gabriela loves to hear. Stories that show how her staff is developing as workers, feeling safe and comfortable in Austria, integrating, and even sending off their own children to school. The support system that’s developed among the employees makes all the difference.

“We had a party for our worker here and it was really nice to get to know everyone more,” says Jumana. “We had some games, we talked, we laughed, we ate. It was cute.”

That growing camaraderie of shared experiences spills out into the experience guests have by staying at the hotel. Gabriela says that guests often get into a discussion with her staff, getting to know the individuals behind the hotel and their personal story.

“I think it creates a very special atmosphere. We don’t want to be a normal hotel. We want to be a special place where you feel you’re at home. And I think because so many different nationalities are here, you feel like everybody could be at home here at magdas HOTEL.”

Building Confidence

As for Jumana, with her family safe and sound in Vienna, it seems she’s found a new long-term home. She recognizes the tremendous progress she’s made, going from not speaking a word of German two years ago to working in both German and English.

“I knew I could speak, but I was just ashamed to speak. Once I started to speak, I was shocked! It was good and it made me feel good about myself.”

This boost in confidence has allowed Jumana to feel comfortable going even further outside of her box. Her smile sneaks back in as she talks about traveling to Holland, Paris, and Rome, and how much she relishes the opportunity to see different cultures and hear their language.

“I just want to keep making myself better every day. I love to be here. It just makes me happy to be here.”

This story was produced in collaboration with magdas HOTEL and Vienna Tourism.