Alice Johnson
The reminder of the wealth and span of the Hapsburg Empire surrounds you as you walk throughout Vienna. Buildings with intricate molding and gold details emerge from street to street, fulfilling the conventional view of Vienna as a grandiose capital city. Traces of posters showing Van der Bellen, an independent candidate, and Hofer, a member of the FPO, that once were posted on every public wall in Vienna, have left only a trace of the 2016 election around the city. With the grand city and rejection of the far-right candidate, problems with refugee integration are not conspicuous, and it appears as a typical European city. With the rhetoric surrounding the migration crisis, I had expected to see explicit differences among the people. The discussion of potential violence that could come with accepting refugees seems to be a recurring topic, but the crisis is not clearly evident in Vienna. As we began walking around, I realized how isolated we were from authentic Austrian culture. We were asked in the first few days about what an Austrian was, and I reflected on how I had not spoken to or interacted with Austrians. Yes, we had seen the culture through the atmosphere and buildings, but lives of Austrians remain separate. I looked back on my time in Brussels, and began to contrast what I had experienced in another European capital. The people in Brussels had shown genuine interest in discussing my experience of being an American, and often spoke about their lives as a Belgian. While vising sites and walking around Vienna, we have still remained on the outside of Austrian culture. The palaces and imposing buildings reflect this impenetrability of Viennese and Austrian culture, and are often closed from the general public, requiring an entrance fee or an inside connection. These thoughts were echoed by Jack, a young man originally from Syria who moved to Northern Iraq as a teenager. We attended a monthly event sponsored by Refugees Welcome, an organization with the goal to create an open atmosphere for refugees coming into Europe, and we were able to speak with refugees that had come to Vienna. Jack had learned English quite well while working for an American family in Northern Iraq, and could discuss his experiences as a refugee. He questioned us about the openness of people in Vienna, describing his frustration with the closed-off attitudes of many citizens. He told us that he has made many friends who are from Germany, an interesting point considering Germany’s incredibly welcoming attitudes towards refugees. He continued to voice his frustration towards Austria when discussing the prospects of attending university. The University did not trust his high school transcripts, and would require him to take a placement test spanning traditional subjects. He was given a textbook to study subjects from math to science, completely in German. Since arriving in Vienna, Jack has taken German in a course that meets five times a week. He has reached an intermediate level of the language, but remains some distance from fluency. The thought that this man in his early 20’s, who has experienced events in five years that most of us will never experience in our entire lives, would not be able to attend the university baffled me. He sat there as an articulate man with a high level of the English language who continued to have barriers put in front of him. Jack has done everything “right” since coming to Vienna: he has taken the cultural course offered by the government, has been an avid German student, and has a job. The negative rhetoric surrounding refugees in Europe seems worlds away from Jack’s reality. Despite this, he still struggles to enter university and penetrate Austrian culture. In our visit to the International Organization for Migration, our speaker discussed the problems of integration with refugees. What stood out most prominently to me was their inability to provide programs for asylum-seekers, but could only help those who had gained refugee status. Our speaker underlined how long this process can take, and most cases take over a year. Most asylum-seekers who then gain refugee status are already ostracized and remain on the outskirts of society. That year is vital to integrating refugees, and I was struck that there is nothing the organization can do until the status of refugee is granted. Our discussions thus far, surrounding what it means to be an Austrian, and what a migrant identity is, has altered my perceptions in an unexpected way. The ability of a refugee to integrate is inhibited by the closed-off Austrian culture and the process of becoming a refugee inhibits them from attending programs that could help them understand the culture. The difficulty for myself in meeting Austrians, as an American, has also influenced how I understand the crisis here. A refugee, with vast biases against him or her to begin with, would have an even more extreme experience with the Austrians. Jack and refugees like him will continue to face barriers as “migrants”, while Westerners are free to move around with a status of “ex-patriot”, despite the identical legal meaning of the two labels.