“There is no war here. No devastation. No destruction. Just by crossing a border, it’s so strange how the situation can change.” In the documentary The White Helmets, Syria Civil Defense volunteer Khalid Farah speaks these words as he stares up at a clear blue sky in Southern Turkey. During a month-long training camp, Khalid is miles away from the airstrikes and war crimes of Aleppo city as he learns trauma care and crisis management with fellow white helmet volunteers. The film shows them arming themselves for further rescue work: pulling trapped bodies from under rubble, extinguishing fire, evacuating persons from buildings soon to be bombed or collapse.
As I reflect on our trip in Vienna, Khalid’s dazed words echo in my mind. There is no war here. No devastation. Vienna at the end of May—the ripest part of Spring—bloomed and bustled on our visit. At Schloss Schönbrunn, Maria Theresia’s exquisite summer palace, eager tourists shuffled through the rococo foyers and young couples reclined arm-in-arm on the expanse of green lawn. At open-door cafés around the city, old men sat reading newspapers and sipping coffees. Around the Stephanplatz shopping area, expensive dirndls and lederhosen glistened in shop windows. Long lines curved outside of gelato shops.
Refugees who live in Vienna are inconspicuous, unseen. I bet if you asked ten tourists on the street what they knew about the refugee crisis in Austria, they would be able to answer you very little. Here, there is no war. No destruction. No devastation, only upwards of 30,000-40,000 migrants who have fled from war-torn countries trying to settle in and start some kind of different life. The loudest shouts come from the Prater amusement park as people shoot upward on roller coasters.
Refugees are not readily apparent among the ravishing cultural attractions that have given the city its stereotypical reputation. Our Davidson group connected with them where we could learn their stories, at a Refugees Welcome Stammtisch, a night of games and conversation sponsored by a volunteer organization that pairs up refugees with local Austrians who can offer them a room in their apartment. We also heard Syrian refugees tell their stories of leaving their country at the performance of “Badluck Aleppo”.
Through meeting with refugees—people displaced from their native countries, who live, speak and think differently from us, who have been separated from all they call familiar, their families, jobs, and previous identities—we encountered the “other,” those of an out-group, one that is marginalized and excluded, whose identity is defined against that of an in-group. Through this encounter, we were able to empathize with these individuals. We realized our previous lack of awareness and understanding. One of my classmates, Sammy, summed this up in an interesting way as he reflected on meeting refugees in Vienna: “They are not just these people running from difficulties hundreds of thousands miles away; they are right in front of you. Proximity is important; the more immediate something is and becomes, the more likely you are to be concerned about it and it becomes more salient.”
Sammy’s characterization of this encounter calls to mind the philosopher Martin Buber’s description of the encounter between the I-You, in which two individuals, the “I” and the “You” are transformed by a relation between them. I learned about this in the religion class on Modern Jewish Thought that I took at Davidson. As a student learning about the refugee crisis in Europe, “I” encountered the, “You”—refugees living in Vienna—and was transformed by the face-to-face relation. I encountered the attendants at the Stammtisch and the actors in the theater performance in their entirety, not as a sum of statistics and facts that I had only read and heard about. I placed myself in their shoes. I sensed the pain and sorrow they felt when they left their hometowns, and their fear and uncertainty as they made new lives for themselves in Vienna. I was transformed by this. I cannot be certain if the refugees felt the same way upon encountering me at the Stammtisch or in the audience during the performance, but I like to think that they were transformed by sharing their stories and parts of their identities with us.
The importance of refugees speaking for themselves, and representing themselves, came up frequently throughout our discussions and lectures on this trip. In Dr. Heslin’s and Dr. Deckard’s seminar on what it means to have rights and citizenship, we discussed how the right to express oneself, to practice religion and to go to school are all rights provided to you and protected by the state. As a citizen in a state, you belong to that state, and you have a right to rights. If you possess a meaningful membership in a national community, then you have rights. But, when you leave that state, and enter a position of “statelessness,” you lose those rights. The refugees living in Europe today are stateless, and lack rights. The philosopher Hannah Arendt tried to shift this thinking, and argued that a person’s rights are not dependent on their citizenship in a state. Instead, their rights are tied to their person. As a person, your rights follow you wherever you go. Unfortunately, this is not the case for refugees in Austria. Achieving asylum status in an asylum country can take six months to a year to complete, and during this time before refugees can find employment or learn any German, they struggle to integrate and make a living.
Once refugees have been screened and approved to stay in a host country, they can struggle to find their own home outside of a camp. We learned that landlords and others renting flats in Austria often turn away lease applicants who identify themselves as refugees, or if they don’t clarify this in an application, but it is later discovered. The nonprofit volunteer organization Refugees Welcome seeks to assist refugees in the challenging apartment search process. They connect Austrians who have a spare room in their flatshare or house with refugees who need one. The organization appeals to Austrians who want to get to know another culture and help refugees out under their difficult circumstances. By living with Austrians, refugees gain a gateway into Austrian culture and learn German faster. Refugees Welcome helps refugees represent their wants and needs by assisting them as they fill-out their apartment applications. Anna Larcher, volunteer coordinator at Refugees Welcome in Vienna, and Raoul Kopacka, head of public relations for the organization, explained to us that too often, refugees don’t know how to fill out an app properly. They won’t write enough about who they are. Without enough information about who they are, their apps then get lost in a sea of other applications from students and young people searching for apartments. Refugees Welcome cares about refugees feeling like a part of a community and developing their identity in their host country. This growth can start by feeling welcomed in an Austrian home.
On our trip, we also visited the Vienna Museum and spoke with curators Vida Bakondy and Gerhard Milchram, who structured the exhibit “Gastarbajteri – 40 Jahre Arbeitsmigration” at the Museum in 2004. The importance of migrants representing themselves has not only been on the minds of volunteers like Larcher and Kopacka, but also on the minds of those curating the history of migrants in Vienna. This exhibit reflected the history of Turkish and Yugoslavian migrants who came to Austria in the 1960s during the worker’s movement.
Back in 2004, the curators wrote to 700 migrants in Vienna and asked them if they would like to share an object that was symbolic of their process of migration to Austria, or of their settlement/integration in the city. Less than ten people responded to their letter, but those who did shared objects with the curators to be put on display in the exhibit and were interviewed about their relation to the objects. The exhibit was relevant because it was the first exhibit on migration in which migrants spoke for themselves, offering up their personal belongings and testimonies as artifacts. Previously, exhibits curated by historians were all that the museum had introduced.
In our small breakout groups and discussions, we talked about how these encounters made us feel and the questions we were struggling with. In groups of four to five, professors asked us simple questions like, “So, what did you guys think of that?” and “How has this day been for you?” Experiential learning in an interdisciplinary group provided for more intimacy amongst students, and between students and professors, than any normal class at Davidson. We reflected on what we saw, heard, and felt as we were experiencing it.
As a student of German Studies, I connected with political science students who I wouldn’t normally talk to. Walking through parks or drinking a mélange at a café, we critiqued our lecturers, compared what they claimed to be true about migrant integration with what we had seen with our own eyes. We sought to compare migration in Europe with that of the United States, drawing similarities and differences between how our leaders have handled circumstances and how policy makers have followed. By sharing an Airbnb and cooking pasta with economics majors, I learned about the economy of migration and globalization. This trip may have taken place in Vienna over the course of only ten days, but I grappled with such a range of challenging ideas, opinions and emotions that I have returned home a changed observer and thinker; uncertain; questioning and curious about the political and cultural future of Europe. Our study trip may be over, but the learning has only just begun.