Integration and Its Challenges

The Syrian community in Austria was relatively small up until a daunting number of refugees began arriving in 2015. According to the Austrian Interior Ministry, Austria received more than 24,547 asylum applications from Syrians in 2015 alone. Austria’s work in regard to refugees has been remarkable, accepting more than 131,400 asylum applications altogether since 2015, which puts the country only third in Europe per capita, behind Malta and Sweden, and 14th worldwide.

It is undeniable that along with opportunities, these numbers present many challenges to the host country. Syrian refugees, too, are confronted with huge challenges, rebuilding their lives from scratch, finding friends and jobs, and dealing with the mechanics and often excessive bureaucratic procedures in Austria. It’s a long list.

However, integration seems to be the issue that receives the most attention. Of course, this interest is mostly well-intentioned and, dare I say, necessary for a multicultural society. Nevertheless, the way the topic has been approached in regard to the Syrian community is filled  with harmful stereotypes and orientalist notions.

On August 18, 2016, then-Foreign and Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz proposed a new integration law negotiated between the coalition parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) under Chancellor Christian Kern, and the People’s Party (ÖVP). The new law, effective June 8, 2017, included a range of new requirements such as mandatory German courses, a compulsory year of integration, unpaid work, and a “declaration of integration,” which must be signed by all those entitled to asylum in Austria. According to the Wiener Zeitung, parts of the law were widely criticized for being “one-sided” “counterproductive”, and “unnecessary.”

The Values Debate

Edward Said, one of the founding fathers of postcolonial studies, defined Orientalism as an attitude that leads to “false cultural representations with which the western world perceives the Middle East.” Such false perceptions seem to define the integration courses provided by the Austrian Integration Fund – ÖIF. Many of the topics in the courses are important and necessary, such as the history and geography of Austria, guidance on how to live together, language courses, rules and regulations about the apartments rental system, and useful information about the Austrian education and healthcare systems.

However, in its “values and orientation course,” required under the new law, it is evident how orientalist notions and false assumptions influenced their design.

In the description of its Values course, the ÖIF lists “equality between men and women” and “human dignity” as the first two central components of these courses. These topics are of course fundamental, but not only for refugees: Women’s rights, the separation between religious institutions and the state, and anti-Semitism are serious issues still current in most societies, including to some degree in western ones.

However, these issues become central only when discussing the Middle East. Nawal El Saadawi, Egypt’s most famous feminist activist and writer said in her book The Naked Face of Arab Women: “The persecution of women does not belong to the East, the West, Islam or other religions, but rather it is mainly due to the patriarchal systems in the entire human society.” El Saadawi’s argument can be also applied to other issues such as anti-Semitism and the separation between religious institutions and states, for the reason that these issues are not exclusive to refugees or to the Middle East.

Real conversations, hard conversations, are what is needed, and “conversation” is the key word here, exchanging idea and sharing perceptions, asking questions and listening to answers.

For Syrians, the assumption that we have no experience of women’s equality, that we arrive imprisoned in patriarchal values of which we are unaware, feels insulting. Why can’t the trainers talk to us, get to know us a little bit and find out who we really are?

Integration – a Difficult Concept

Of course, there are important differences of degree in what one takes to be normal, which must always be taken into consideration, especially when taking into account that the integration courses were designed for a large group of refugees from different countries and cultures.

Syrian refugees are confronted with a hostile concept of integration the moment they arrive. Casual phrases and comments, which might not always be ill-intended, about the “values” and “standards” of the host culture taught me to precede introducing myself with saying: “and yes, I used to take my camel from my tent through the desert to go to school”, a joke that flew over some heads a few times.

The Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) thoroughly researched the processes of labor market integration of refugees in Austria. The survey and research results show that, as of 2019, 64% of Syrian refugees can speak “good” or “very good” German, 30% speak “quite well” while only 6% speak “rather poor” or “very poor” German. Regarding the job market, the ICMPD research states that in 2018, 37% of Syrian refugees were employed, 44% unemployed, and 19% are a non-labor force active.

It is fair to say these numbers are quite promising, especially when taken the short period of time that most of Syrians have lived in Austria into consideration.

The study further examines the types of jobs that refugees hold here, beginning with 27% in sales and service sector. An interesting result of this study relates to job mismatch: Comparing formal qualifications and jobs held back home, a full 39% of Syrians in Austria are overqualified for the jobs they currently hold. Still, Syrians had the highest percentage of academic jobs amongst the refugee communities researched, approximately 15% of the employed Syrian population in Austria work in academic jobs, almost half of the number of qualified Syrian academics which is 33% of the surveyed representative population.

Another study examined the quota of Syrian refugees in educational programs in Austria, the study states that 33% of Syrians are currently in school, university, or a training programme: 65% of the surveyed are young (15-24 years) and 24% of them are not so young Syrians (25-64). Minors who are in school are typically not in the sample, hence the share of Syrians in education might be underestimated.

Entering the job market, while significant, is only one step towards integration. Refugees can often feel pressured to aspire to come as close as possible to the “ideal citizen.” This pressure, while in part from the outside, also comes from within, induced by the endless possibilities for work, training programs, university studies, internships, etc. It is also aggravated by family pressure and the pressure we put on ourselves to make something out of a new situation that, at last, is not oppressing us. This pressure is only put in perspective when contacting friends and loved ones back home, which often makes us feel ashamed by our worries and troubles.

It is critical to understand that integration is a two-sided matter that refugees and Austrians should be concerned with. Refugees are more than just numbers: Like any other demographic, they are individuals with their unique points of view and personal beliefs, that will stay with them as they gain an understanding of Austria, a country with a long and rich history that has its ups and downs, a country that has concerns about its society and its future. Integration is about acceptance, understanding, learning, and respecting the laws of the land and its traditions as well as people’s individuality, without prejudice or expectations.

Fears over the perceived loss of one’s culture and tradition are understandable. However, societies are, and never have been static; they constantly evolve and change. Just look at how Austrian society changed over the course of the 20th century, at the lands and peoples lost, and with the waves of refugees from Central Europe, in some ways regained. Allowing refugees to be part of this culture by learning from it, contributing to it, and being in it will immensely benefit both sides, especially in the longer term.

Refugees are people who are just seeking a safer and better life; we are not invaders with hidden intentions. But we must approach each other with an open mind and without preconceptions. Talking to each other and having hard, honest conversations about serious matters is the democratic approach, and one that can eliminate most of our fears and preconceptions.

What do you say we meet up and get to know each other a little better? Zum Schwarzen Kamel?