Integration has become something of a buzzword in Europe these days, but it’s most often used with the implicit undertone that fitting into “our” society is the sole responsibility of those seeking to assimilate – with scant discussion about how to actually make it work.
Austria’s Ute Bock, who sadly passed away last week at the age of 75, was a pioneer in facilitating and supporting this process for refugees and asylum seekers in Vienna. For nearly 20 years, Flüchtlingsprojekt Ute Bock, the organisation she founded, has sought to provide refugees and asylum seekers here with access to housing, counselling, and education. In Austria, Ute Bock came to symbolise a spirit of solidarity, and her tireless efforts earned her the nickname “Mama Bock” among those she helped.
Ground Truth Solutions has worked with her organisation and has been able to observe first-hand how Austria is faring in encouraging and supporting integration. According to Ground Truth Solutions’ recent interviews conducted with some 400 refugees and asylum seekers living in Vienna in 2017, 41% feel little or no social support in Austria. When asked what would help improve their situation, the most common responses were a better grasp of the language, more social interactions, and social acceptance by their Austrian hosts. There is definitely an interrelation between such barriers to integration. Language is perhaps the most important as it strengthens social interactions, opens the door to employment and educational opportunities, and in turn encourages social acceptance and integration.
Figure 1: ‘What would help you feel socially connected in Austria?’
In more in-depth focus group discussions held a few months later, refugees and asylum seekers noted a shortage of language courses available to them in Austria, as well as a general lack of opportunity to practice German with native speakers. This was said to then have a knock-on effect on their access to jobs and accommodation.
In an effort to dig a little deeper into these findings and hear some personal stories and experiences of integration and language acquisition in Vienna, I decided to conduct one-to-one interviews with refugees and asylum seekers living here.
My first interview was with Khamleen, a young Syrian woman who sought refuge in Vienna two years ago. Khamleen has, for the most part, had a best-case scenario experience in Austria. She lived with an Austrian family for her first month, has a high proficiency in German, and now is able to count Austrians as her friends. She describes herself as fortunate, explaining that her “German is good because I have had a lot of contact with Austrians, and I have been very lucky in Austria and I have gotten to know a lot of Austrians.” Her language skills allow her to integrate and make these social connections in Vienna. Language is, after all, one of the most visible and obvious indicators of integration.
Khamleen at a social event in Vienna
Some helpful social initiatives here in Vienna provide refugees with social activities and networks to facilitate integration. Vielmehr für Alle, for example, has a buddy programme that matches locals and refugees, either as a study buddy, a trust buddy, or a work buddy. Khamleen also mentions The Connection: “I had a buddy from ‘The Connection’ who I met up with each week for an hour, for six weeks. We are still in contact and if it wasn’t for this organisation then I would not have been able to learn how to converse in German.”
However, as our Ground Truth survey results seem to suggest, not all refugees and asylum seekers have access to such programmes or are aware of these non-governmental initiatives in Vienna.
When speaking of the general reception that refugees receive in Austria, Khamleen believes that “Austrians should understand that we have come to this country from war; we did not just come for the sake of it, just because we wanted to come to Europe…. We love Austrians and love being social, but they are against us completely, and because of this there is no integration – it is down to them and not to us.”
Khamleen’s observation that Austrians are not pulling their weight in terms of integration was telling. She has done her best to integrate. She dedicates every day to learning German, attends Austrian integration clubs, and socialises with Austrians on a regular basis.
At the same time, recent political campaigns in Austria have been clear in expecting assimilation as opposed to a two-way integration process for non-nationals. The idea being that foreigners, refugees in particular, are a threat to Austrian culture if they do not adopt Austrian customs, norms, and belief systems. This attitude was most obvious during the recent elections, where political posters with slogans such as “Islamisation needs to be stopped” were commonplace. Even Herbert Kickl, the new interior minister, went so far as to coin the controversial campaign slogan, “Home instead of Islam.”Khamleen responds to such attitudes saying: “I assimilate to Austria, Austria does not assimilate to me.”
But is full assimilation really possible? The concept of full assimilation essentially asks those who have fled war and their homes to then give up their beliefs and identity. It does not see a marriage of two identities and cultures as feasible, and demands an all-or-nothing approach. Khamleen’s reaction to such a take on identity was more nuanced as she suggested that “Syria will always remain like a mother, nothing can ever compare to it, and any other country, for example Austria, is like a lover. You do not choose your mother, but you choose your lover.”
Khamleen is, understandably, not willing to give up her attachment to her motherland, and tells me, “I interact with Austrians and Syrians…I need contact with Syrians too, I can’t be separated from them and be only with Austrians…If I don’t see Syrians, or in particular Kurds for a week, then I feel lonely, so I have to have contact with Syrians.”
Relationships of any sort are a two-way street that require effort and often compromises on both sides. It seems that refugees and asylum seekers living in Austria understand the importance of integrating through learning German, interacting with locals, and seeking employment and educational opportunities. At the same time, Austrians need to recognise they can facilitate integration. As Khamleen suggests, Austrians “should try to integrate with us and talk with us, so that there can be integration.”
Maybe not all Austrians are ready to dedicate their lives to this role fully, as Ute Bock did. But her words remind us that “we live such short lives and we should use our time in the best way possible. Part of that is taking care of those around you.”