Vienna, Austria— I joined Syrian artist Zinoun Hariri in his simple studio apartment where he has been living for the past decade. Personal paintings and untamed plants decorated the wall around us. For Zinoun, the nebulous label of refugee and economic migrant appears unclear (migrants carry burden, refugees carry empathy). Yet how does he fit under the category as an “other,” a non-European who migrated to Austria in pursuit of artistic passion? He assures me that he has had no problems as an immigrant in Vienna over the years. It was only when the refugee crisis happened and Austria began experiencing the influx of refugees from wars in the Greater Middle East, especially Syria and Afghanistan, that people began feeling like they had had enough and that more inhospitable attitudes towards non-European migrant populations fomented in society.

 

One of the largest barriers towards integration is perception of the immigrant. The more the immigrant looks and appears different than you, the more likely you are to perceive him or her not only as an out-group, but perhaps as a threat. Muslim women who choose to wear the veil or any of its iterations becomes the most visible symbol of otherness. Most often this perception manifests in virulent Islamophobia through the form of labor-market discrimination that leads to lower socio-economic levels at home.

 

Zinoun, however, is a classic example of how a one-time immigrant can blend into Viennese society. Long rectangular sideburns hang from the side of his face, he wears short-shorts and purple V-necks, and carries with him more of an artistic swagger than anything else. Not only does he appear ethnically ambiguous, but he has picked up fluent German while befriending many of the locals over the years through his artistic pursuits and his studies at the Film Academy. One evening, I followed him into an all-Austrian pub; I, not him, was the only one in the vicinity who felt like a stranger.

 

I met Zinoun as the first Syrian artist who had agreed to be interviewed for my research documenting Syrian artists in diaspora. I have spent the past six months networking with this diaspora community in hopes of sharing their stories of perseverance and hope, when the media, as the Editor-in-Chief of De Standard reiterated, appears to only show the opposite. Time and time again, I am amazed at the hospitality that these Syrians display in lending me a unique lens into their lives. The question of identity and how it intersects with the artists’ works and political struggles particularly intrigues me. When I spent four days last April shadowing renowned international writer and Syrian celebrity Khaled Khalifa, he spoke to me about his life in exile with a longing in his eyes to return to Syria, and he was able to do so. He later concluded that refugees “lose their identity but do not acquire a new one…To be a refugee is to live in a void – a life that painful however hard we try to embellish it.”

 

What happens to the identity of the large group of people who do not have the privilege to return to their homeland, or who purposefully choose not to? For Zinoun, identity has always been a story of confusion, so in leaving, he never felt like he lost something. Born in the Golan Heights in 1981, he was one the first wave of stateless citizens devoid of documentation. His limbo state, living in a Druze community at constant tug-of-war between the Arab-Israeli conflict, compelled him to leave the region entirely. When he studied in Damascus, he still could not escape the incessant tension of identity politics so he seized on a scholarship opportunity to continue in Europe. Later, his conception of identity motivated an art project where he trekked around Europe, Palestine, Israel and his home village asking people to write a word, phrase or symbol on a piece of special paper he carried. He named the project snowflakes; the idea being that, like a snowflake, identities are malleable, they float and evolve in the process of time. As Zinoun explained, he came to understand himself through understanding others, spending over three years on the project and interviewing over 800 people. His identity is not defined by geographical borders –he is neither Syrian, nor Austria, and he makes very clear that he is not a refugee but came to Austria to continue his art.

 

In a similar vein, this trip refocused the long questioning my own identity. I am American, surely, but I always felt more. My mother immigrated from Belgium where she met my father, a first-generation Lebanese-American. I grew up visiting my family in Brussels every year and speaking the French language, but I knew very little about my Lebanese roots. The desire to learn more about this unidentified aspect of my cultural heritage has been the main impetus behind my coursework in Arab Studies, and my decision to spend my junior year in Jordan further developing my Arabic language ability. My project documenting Syrian artists in diaspora has been a way for me to capture the nuances of identity conceptions (manifested through art, expression of self) while questioning my understanding of identity.

 

Despite the sharp differentiation between refugee and economic migrant that some asylum experts assert in constructing the identity of the other, I have concluded that these labels are useless. After all, anyone who migrates to another country is simply seeking a better life for themselves. I began to question my own family roots on my father’s side and their decision to come to America in search of a new life. My trip has reaffirmed the two-way process that integration implies; in order for immigrants to successfully integrate, the state must also provide equitable domestic policies that try to facilitate their migration. Naturally, over generations, some immigrant families may lose traces of their home society. Language and cultural practices may shed as families begin to adopt the customs and language of their new country (as what happened to my Lebanese family and myriad other families in America). I suspect that when immigrants do not identify with their home country to begin with, it makes it all the easier for them to integrate into their newly settled country, as is the case with Zinoun. Still I think that it is problematic when nations like France force a choice between home country and French loyalty, especially for people who firmly identify with their home countries. Perhaps because of the complexities of identifying with national sovereignty, geographical borders are a fruitless way to measure identity after all. I think a better question to ask when trying to identify oneself is what does one value the most in life?

 

I took these questions to Zinoun and then to ponder during long walks by myself along the Donau river. Despite the impressive stack of experts we heard from, the detailed and private tours of the UN and other important international organizations, and the close relationships I formed with peers and professors, these times of reflection were the most meaningful part of my trip. At Davidson, we spend an inordinate amount of time doing without truly processing or thinking. This is the nature of a rigorous academic school matched with the many extra-curricular activities and jobs I hold. After busy days in Vienna filled with intense learning and questioning my own assumptions, I was actually to reflect on what I had experienced and share some of these reflections with an intellectual who escaped to a simple Viennese life of art, nature, deep conversations and good literature as the panacea for the world’s injustices. This trip compelled me to confront some of the most philosophical and heavy questions one can pose: who am I and what are my (and the Wests’) moral obligations to the world? I have long been skeptical of America’s normative assumption that their values are the best for spreading. It was also interesting to watch how these questions were approached by each professor through their respective disciplinary lens, and then to confront these questions hands-on by speaking with many groups of immigrant populations and employers who dealt with these questions. Above all, I can not overemphasize how invaluable my Vienna study trip was. It should be taken as a pedagogical model to encourage more study trips that emphasize the perfect balance between experiential learning and necessary reflection.

  • Syrian artist’s name was changed for protection of his identity.