Sitting in Café Raimund – Charlotte, Alice, Claire and I’s favorite café that we’re now visiting for the second time – is a simple reminder of the café culture that seems to be essential to the “Austrian identity;” it is part of the answer to the question that we keep asking: “What defines an Austrian?” However, this culture of being able to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee while chatting for a couple of hours, also defines a boundary that many migrants and refugees cannot cross. This boundary determines the difference between “us” and “them,” between the wealthy community of Vienna and the migrants and refugees that struggle to integrate into Austrian society.
Jack, the Syrian refugee that we had the pleasure of meeting at Café Prosa on Saturday night, certainly hinted that at this divide between “them” and “him.” Jack can’t study at the University of Vienna because “they don’t trust” his high school certificate from Syria. This is just one of the many restraints put on refugees who come to Vienna in search of not only safety, but also better opportunities that will allow them to continue with their life. These restraints contribute to the integration and radicalization problems that are so prevalent in many European countries such as Austria.
When I asked Jack about his experience with integration into Viennese/Austrian society and whether or not he had received help as a refugee, he asked “what do you mean? Integration is up to the person; you know?” He continued to add, however, that his housing was set up originally by the organization “Refugees Welcome,” who we are meeting with tomorrow (Monday). Refugees Welcome pair up the refugees not only with a host to house them, but also provide them with resources and a community to connect with during their transition into Austrian society and afterwards.
Organizations such as Refugees Welcome are part of the larger conversation about integration, which is connected with the strong need to belong to the Austrian identity in Viennese society. This question and the subsequent conversation usually go as follows: is integration possible? How necessary is integration? Who does the “integrating” – is it up to the refugee, like Jack believes, or is up to the state? Who funds integration programs?
At our meeting with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Thursday, integration was the main focus of our conversation. One of IOM’s programs, “CulTrain,” stuck out to me. CulTrain is a program that works towards the integration of young refugees in Austria between the ages of 14 and 27. This program teaches in three modules: Austria and its People, Living Together, and Politics and Daily Life. The goal is to teach about regular life in Austrian society and its customs, as the biggest problem for young refugees is the relative lack of knowledge about Austria. According to IOM, this project has been largely successful since its inception in 2012. However, when the question was asked about who was eligible for the program, I got an answer that disappointed and worried me. Only those (refugees) with subsidiary asylum status or full asylum status are eligible to participate in the program, because of restrictions placed on the organization by the donor.
This restriction means that those who probably need the CulTrain program the most – young refugees who have only recently arrived in the country and who have not received asylum status (and therefore are not technically even considered refugees yet) – cannot receive help with daily functions that would allow them to integrate into society. And so the question is asked: why not? Why is there this restraint? When we asked Katharina, our host at IOM, she responded that essentially, the state tries to make it as difficult as possible for asylum-seekers to receive asylum in the hopes that they will leave the country. Again – why?
This brings me back to my original point, of the divide between “us” and “them” in Austrian society. This question belongs to the larger conversation surrounding the question “what is an Austrian?” Many refugees feel that they are not wanted in Austria, such as Jack, who said that Austrians are not generally welcoming and that they seem “closed off.” Refugees such as Jack have ground to stand on – in the recent presidential elections, the far-right party FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) campaigned on anti-refugee and anti-European sentiments that were blatant in their distrusting of refugees and their desire for them to stay out – largely the same sentiments heard in the United States. The FPÖ won 46% of the vote, and thus, represented a large portion of Austrian society. Ironically, there was an ad campaign right outside of Café Prosa where the monthly Refugees Welcome meeting takes place.
Migrants are not able to participate in Austrian “café culture” because many have to work all day. This brings me back to Jack, who is unable to attend the University of Vienna due to his high school credentials not being recognized. In order to attend, Jack would need to study for eight weeks for a university exam on math and physics in German – an exam that he doesn’t have the time or resources to study for.
Our meeting with Jack truly brought home the problem of integration for me. In Austria, it is clear that for refugees and migrants, there is a hurdle to jump at every turn. Both the Austrian society and government do not “want” refugees to live in Austria, and therefore have excluded them from the Austrian culture, such as the café culture that I, as a privileged white college student from the United States, am able to participate in on a ten-day trip. I am interested to hear more about integration methods and the discussion moving forward in our meetings with Refugees Welcome, the OSCE, and the UNHCR in the next few days.