The story of a women-only space at a refugee camp

Patricia Gerger was born in 1991 and is an artist and educationalist. She finished her studies in pedagogy at the University of Vienna in 2015. She is currently studying Critical Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (since 2016).

She has cooperated with the Wiener Festwochen (2016, 2017) and Vienna Design Week (2016). In her own work she chiefly tackles issues of social change and empowerment of marginalised groups in transdisciplinary projects.

I am a dangerous woman. I only realized that when I opened the backdoor to Café VOZO for the first time. I chose to work in a field where I wouldn’t be earning any money and little to no reputation within the society. It was more likely that I would receive negative feedback and no support or understanding from my social environment.

VoZo (est. Oct 2015) is camp for refugees and asylum seekers in Vienna. It is a unique space with a café, kindergarten, music room, sewing and wood workshop, bicycle lending facilities and lots more. About a month after VoZo was set up I became the manager of the café space and began coordinating the program of the camp in collaboration with the Red Cross. Café VoZo was run by residents of VoZo and open Tuesday-Sunday, with Saturday being reserved for women.

I am standing in the courtyard of the former Financial Court House. Passing the big dustbins and the bright blue containers I enter through the back door, always taking two steps at once. I push the heavy door open and greet the security guard as I enter. Another big, heavy door, and I find myself in the reception hall of the camp. Some familiar faces cast a friendly glance in my direction, a little girl’s smile grows bigger as she sees me.



I tell her that I will be doing the Café today. I grab my keys at the office and head to the rooms where the Café is situated, opening the old white door and take a look around. Right now, everything is silent. For now I am the only person here, but soon the room will be filled with loud chatter, laughter and screams. All accompanied by the wildest mixture of Afghani, Syrian and random radio music.

The idea for Women’s Café emerged after a long day at the camp. Along with fellow volunteers and one of the Red Cross workers we decided to dedicate one day per week exclusively to women, since the only other place where women could have their own space was at the women’s living quarters. It took several weeks to establish the Saturday routine and there were a lot of Saturdays where I couldn’t find any female residents or volunteers to run Women’s Café (which is when I did the shifts).

Also, it took me – a woman – quite some time to get accepted as a “full” member of this special society. Eventually I was called “chief” and “boss” by the residents who worked at the Café and men not only respected my wishes or requests, I was treated equally. They saw me as one of the people who were in charge of the Café and programs in the house. Until the end, not all men and women respected my work and my presence at the camp. Since we did not share the same cultural and social background, along with the language barrier and the fact that I am a white woman who does not wear a hijab, it felt like some found my presence confronting. 

I wonder how many women will be joining me today. I go to the end of the room where another door leads to another corridor. In the back room, I collect some of the longer fabrics that we use as curtains. Then I go back to the Café and turn on the ceiling light and plug in the twinkle light chain that some people made out of light bulbs. I check the counter of the bar and decide to grab some more UHT milk. If I’m lucky, I will find some cake and biscuits in the storage room as well. Back in the Café I turn on the kettle and lay out the brown plastic cups.



I do it differently to the order Ahmad and Rahmani usually follow: always six in a row, and then four rows in total. If they were here, they’d tease me about my way of ordering the cups. I turn on the stereo, connect my phone with it and put Vampire Weekend on. I grab the “Women’s Café” sign that we made a few weeks ago and put it on the outward door. It says the words in German, English, Farsi and Arabic.

Then I head back to the main office and tell one of the Red Cross workers to let the team know that the Women’s Café is running today. I also check with the security guards and talk to their shift leader.

When we first started running Women’s Café, one of the security women or men used to sit in front of the Café door. This was the only way to secure that no men will enter the Café. Most of the residents know by now, and accept, that there’s no men allowed in during that day. But some still try to get in or ask the kids to bring them coffee or tea to the outside.

Three kids, a boy and two girls, come running down the stairs and I tell them to bring their mums and sisters downstairs.

After a while, women start to arrive in small groups. They bring their babies and older children along and grab a cup of coffee. I put out some biscuits and cut one of the cakes I found at the storage room into tiny bits. They ask for “Kakao” with a big grin on their faces. Cocoa or biscuits aren’t offered at the communal dining hall, neither is proper coffee. One of the girls, along with her sister, asks me for skateboards. I tell them to wait for a bit, at first I need to check for wool and knitting needles in the workshop.

The women love knitting and crocheting, I’ve seen whole scarves and beanies being knit during Women Café. Wool supply is low, so I make a mental note to ask the social media team to start a donation appeal on their Facebook page.



One of the older girls, she’s a teenager, plugs in her phone and turns on what sounds like Afghani Pop Music. Together with her friends, she pushes the stools and tables aside and creates a small dance floor. They start to dance in this gracious way, the movement of their delicate hands and feet astonishes me once more. They loosen their hijabs, slowly but determinedly taking them off their heads. In this moment and in this place they became dangerous women. They did not have to fear to be shamed, called a whore or hussy- by their husbands, men and other more conservative women. They were free to move in these rooms in whichever way the liked, barefoot, loose or no hijabs, dancing along to the tunes.

The kids drag me to our office, waiting outside to bring them the rental list along with the skateboards. There’s only 3 good ones left, so I ask them to be fair and take turns with the boards. They put their names and room numbers on the list and grab the boards, ready to skate in the small courtyard of the Café.

The dancing, knitting and talking goes on as the hours pass by. I keep going with my routine, making coffee, sharing biscuits and preparing more tea.

The younger women are more talkative and tell me about their day, they want to rent some bikes the coming week and ask me if I could hand them out to them. I tell them that they need to ask Benedikt for the bikes. He’s the one who runs the rental bike service in the house. I know that a lot of women are hesitant to go ask him themselves, but I try to encourage them at every opportunity I get.

The women who ask me for bikes only learned to cycle a few days ago. Back in their country, they were not allowed to ride a bike. Because they were women. But now they are in Vienna, a place where everyone is allowed to ride a bike. They learn fast and are eager go for a ride at any occasion. One of the women, she came with her father and brother, participated at the weekly bike repair workshop. She is obsessed with bikes and doesn’t mind the rain and snow. The younger girls love riding bikes (and skateboards)- they all are dangerous women, they all fight for their right to do what they love.



After all this time at the camp, I can remember countless talks where I get asked why I am not married, if I am not afraid of living alone, without my family, in this big city. Even though they can sometimes be uncomfortable, I think these talks are important, sharing my experiences and thoughts especially with kids and young women. My experience’s example is just one facet of what it’s like being a woman in Vienna’s society.

Some of the women I meet feel lost and unwanted. They are homesick for their old lives, their home, their language, their families they had to leave behind. With what I know are only small moments like these days at the Café, I try to make their lives in the camp more bearable and a bit more enjoyable.

The clock says it’s nearly seven, I tell the kids to find the others who are out with the skateboards and tell the teenagers that it’s time to play the last song for the day. They all want to stay longer, to keep dancing and playing. The older women are the first ones to leave, then the women with the younger children. A handful of them stay and help me with the clean-up while I collect the remaining plastic cups and put them in the bin bags. I clean the counter, wash the serving plates and turn off the stereo. The kids with the skateboards come in and I together we put them back in the back room of the office. I say goodbye, as they leave they say “see you next week” and thank you.

I have learned that having their own day, a day where the Café belongs to them, the women, means a lot to them. They showed it through small gestures like working with me at the bar, helping with the clean-up, asking for help with learning German. If it weren’t for this day that’s just for them, some women might never have come to this Café space. If it weren’t for these sheltered moments, women would not have asked me or other volunteers or workers, to help them find German courses, where to go out or how to learn to ride a bike.

I am most thankful for what I have learned here, which is not to think of these women as people who need my help, my guidance. I am in no position to patronize anyone, and I definitely do not know what’s best for these people.

I cherish these moments, I have gained a whole new outlook at our world and especially the society I’ve grown up in and live in. I have learned that I not only am a feminist, but that I want to support and share the idea of feminism through my work. Of course, there were and always will be moments where I doubt myself and my actions, I was accused of simply being a woman at the camp, of being independent, of standing up for my ideals and rights. But if this is what it takes to be called a dangerous woman, then I am more than proud to call myself one.


All photographs by Patricia Gerger, used with permission.