On our second day in Vienna, our group met with Dr. Bruce Leimsidor. The lecture was hosted in the professors’ apartment, where we clustered around Dr. Leimsidor in the living room. Students, professors, and Dr. Leimsidor sat in mismatched kitchen chairs, drinking water out of ceramic mugs – and the following lecture was, in some ways, as informal as the setting. As he traced the origins of mass migration in Europe from the Second World War, Dr. Leimsidor spoke frankly and confidently about the conclusions years of working as a resettlement and asylum expert had led him to form. I was struck, in particular, by one thing Dr. Leimsidor said. Despite his personal skepticism in the ability of the European Union to withstand the current number of migrants arriving, he was confidant that things could have been handled better at the start. “They (the countries of Europe) knew that people were coming, and they were unprepared,” Dr. Leimsidor said simply.
Another thing we have discussed time and time again on this trip is the language surrounding refugeeism. In the discussion Dr. Deckard hosted, for example, we talked about the difference (in actual definition and connotation) between a migrant, an asylum-seeker, a refugee, and ex-pat, and an immigrant. Dr. Leimsidor touched on this and the importance of the way we discuss migrants when he spoke about the initial influx of refugees, which the media described as “a flood” that “poured” into Europe. Early on, it wasn’t a flood, Dr. Leimsidor explained, and these words caused unnecessary panic that has bloomed into a fear of immigrants and islamophobia that we see today in Europe and Austria today.
In discussing this original depiction of migration by the media, Dr. Leimsidor reminded me of my own preconceived ideas of what Austria would be like. As half-formed as my bias had been, I remembered being mildly surprised by Vienna in the early days of the trip. Regardless of district, I found myself surrounded by lovely, pale buildings whose designs, although not identical, hint at some common, floating understanding of Baroque. In Austria’s capital, I found a culturally diverse group of (ironically) uniformly well-dressed people, and streets so clean the tram tracks shine. In this surprise, I recognized the way that the reporting of the refugee crisis has influenced me. What had I been looking for?
Perhaps my knowledge of overburdened countries in the EU left some part of me expecting to see refugees bulging out of buildings, or dragging suitcases through the streets. Maybe our class discussions on the rising power of far right parties such as the FPO had me imagining party members marching in the street with anti-immigration, anti-EU banners. Instead, I saw that every above ground tram is adorned with a small gay pride flag, and that white, native Austrians happily eat at the many Turkish food carts and restaurants that are scattered throughout the city – the Turks being a prior group of migrants that arrived as guest workers and also faced serious discrimination.
Shaken by the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, and having recently read A Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma, I suppose I must admit that there was also buried within me the expectation to see some visible indicator of refugees rejecting the Western culture of their new home. Attached below is a picture I took of the only graffiti regarding this issue that I saw. While my fears were not reaffirmed by what I saw on the surface of the city, the museums, lectures, and discussions I have attended throughout the course of this trip have left me with even more questions than I began with and an entirely new set of concerns.
Without even acknowledging the situation in Syria and elsewhere that has caused what is now a flood of asylum seekers, or even addressing the macro issues that the EU faces in balancing its countries that are both refusing immigrants or straining under the load of too many, this trip has enlightened me as to all of the technical and social issues that face refugees once they reach their destination.
Immediately upon arrival, the migrants are separated socially from their new countrymen by the language barrier, which will certainly prevent them from employment opportunities for the advanced, service positions they may have previously held, if not from finding a job at all. In a vicious cycle, the migrants do not have time to learn a new language because they desperately need to work to provide for themselves their families, but they cannot find work because they cannot speak the language. This is exacerbated by the technicalities of achieving legal asylum.
I learned of this intangible, tangled network of complications in particular through my conversations with Dr. Ceka and the presentation my group received when we visited the IOM. Until the immigrants become legal refugees, they cannot participate in integration programs, receive government benefits, attend school, or legally work. Even if a refugee obtains asylum, certain statuses are not indefinite, and refugees who enter illegally face – as Dr. Leimsidor described it – a government that is “constantly hunting them down.”
When I took the photo below, I was on my way to attend an event hosted by an organization called Refugees Welcome. At this meeting, I met a young man from Syria named Jack who had been living in Vienna for just under two years. Talking to Jack has been one of the most impactful experiences for me at this point in the trip. Jack, being the first refugee I have ever spoken to, provided a face to a group of people we have been discussing for months, and supplemented my surmounting understanding of the mountain of issues refugees face.