Syrians in Austria on a Journey to a Better Future

When you think of Syria today, rarely do you think of its history or its culture. You mostly think of the destruction of war and the refugee wave of 2015.

For Syrians, Syria is way more than just the country they left behind; it’s a forever-woven piece of their heart. Choosing to come here was not easy, and as this article will show, Syrians in Austria come from many different backgrounds; they came in different ways and have different lifestyles. And unlike any other expat community, these Syrians are stuck with the term “refugee” for political/humanitarian reasons; but in reality, they’re as diverse as any other migrant community in Austria.

Here these Syrians have a chance to tell us about their journey. Given the changes over the past decade, we will track three different milestones while weaving these stories together. At each milestone, we will see a glimpse of how life was for our six interviewees. Some felt their stories too personal to share under their real names, so their identities were masked, without undermining the authenticity of their stories.

The Comfortable Pre-War Years (2009-2010)

For the first milestone, we will travel back to the summer of 2009, when Syria was still safe, peaceful, and comfortable. Just like anyone in Austria in 2009, people in Syria were going about their lives. Those who worked, went to work, those who studied went to their classes. Just like Austrians, Syrians looked forward to the summer in the country or visiting grandparents, or vacationing on the pebbled beaches of the majestic Syrian coast.

Like Austrians, Syrians are very proud of their rich culture and history. The Damascus Citadel hosted regular live concerts just like the annual Sommernachtskonzert at Schönbrunn. The old city hosted an annual food and culture festival reminiscent of the Viennese Christmas markets. Every large Syrian city had these things in one form or another, and our life before the war wasn’t so different from yours. Damascus may not have been the “world’s most livable city,” but it was a place of culture and charm and Syria was certainly precious.

As late as 2009, many Syrians still flocked to nightly concerts at the Damascus Citadel (left) – not unlike Vienna’s very own annual Summer Night’s Concert at Schönbrunn (right).

But make no mistake, we are not claiming that life was free and fair or that our civil life was even remotely comparable to European standards. But outside of politics, Syrians come from a country with a wealth of natural resources, arid lands, mountains, rivers, coastline, and deserts. The country had good trade relations, a respectable GDP, decent public health care and education, very rich culture, ancient history, ethnic and religious diversity, many talents, and passions.

Our history matters particularly: All our interviewees were in agreement that their favorite places growing up were the older parts of town. There is a special vibe to an old city in Syria, diverse, lively, a feast of eateries and cafés.

Let’s start with Noha Shantous*, now 37. In 2009 she was working for a publishing house, while living in a rented flat with her husband. Her favorite activities: the various workshops she did with UNICEF and the Syrian Red Crescent. “We focused on psychological support of displaced kids, particularly the Iraqi refugee population.” Although her salary wasn’t high, it was livable, and she could afford to go to the coast for two weeks each August.

Soha Al Ali* 46, was living with her husband and 3 children in the Yarmouk Palestinian “Camp,” in the “ghetto” suburbs of Damascus. “I owned my house and paid for everything myself – not my husband, as he was unemployed at the time.” Born in Syria to Palestinian parents who died when she was 15, she and her sister went to live with her aunt who was a cleaning lady and taught her the trade.

At 17, she went to work as a housekeeper for a prominent Christian family where she stayed for 25 years. “They were my family,” she said, describing how they took her in after fights with her husband over money, “until he understood that I was the bread winner and I controlled the money, not him.” Soha worked six days a week for $300 per month. She was keen to teach her children English, she borrowed schoolbooks from the family. “I taught them myself.”

Zeina Khawam, 39, was born in Vienna to Syrian parents, and moved back to Damascus in 2008 to get married and settle there. “Damascus was beautiful,” she said. She had family and friends. “Everything seemed just perfect. I was having the best life; I wasn’t really thinking of ever going back to Vienna.

The Al-Hamidiyah Souq is the largest souk in Syria, located inside the old walled city of Damascus. The souq dates back to the Ottoman era, being built around 1780 during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid I./(C) Depositphotos

The Little Things

Syrians are very social, outgoing, and family oriented, so their lives revolved around friends and relatives. No week would go by without an extended family lunch on Saturday: your aunt brings a dish, your mom makes something else, your grandma brings the appetizers, your uncle brings the dessert. During the week, most Syrians spend their evenings in cafés playing cards and smoking shishas with their friends, different groups on different days.

Jamila Omran*, 35, recalls 2009 with great joy, “I met with my friends many times a week, often at one of our houses. We would meet and plan to go on a trip, go swimming, or to a restaurant and sometimes we met at home to play cards and laugh together. We loved to stay up late singing. My favorite spots were my house and the parks, where the most beautiful memories were.”

Omar Ahmadieh*, 36, fondly remembers the summer of 2009: “Travelling in summer to Hama, my city of origin to meet my cousins and other relatives, and in Damascus where most of the activities revolved around eating outside with friends or playing cards in some cafes”. It was the little things in life that Syrians miss most.

Adam Bakri*, 23, was 11 in 2009, so all he remembers is that he had nothing to worry about, he went to school, played with his friends, went on trips with his family.

The Decisive Years (2014-2016… )

The war years of 2014 to 2016 were hard, and the years when many decided to flee for their safety and the future of their children. In 2014, ISIS was rising; many people died, many were displaced. Some three million people had already fled the country, according to UNHCR, aside from the many whose homes were destroyed leaving them nomads within the country. Over the next couple of years, it only got worse. When war erupted, the differences between Syria and Austria couldn’t have become starker. And many here may not be able to relate.

It was almost impossible for many Syrians to come legally to Austria, even before the war, Throughout the developed world, Syrians had difficulties getting visas and residence permits because the consulates weren’t convinced that these Syrians would ever go back. People tried their best to persevere, but at a certain point, life becomes unbearable. Each of our interviewees had different reasons and ways of coming here. Some were lucky others not so much. Most had to leave family and loved ones behind, some temporarily until they can sort out family reunification, whereas others are entirely uprooted.

… And the Ensuing Journey

For Noha, her husband left for Europe in 2014 hoping to bring her and their son later. In 2015 she was alone, teaching English and taking care of her son. “Although I was really overworked, I loved teaching and we needed the money.” She did sports as an outlet and met often with friends and family. Time seemed precious. “At some point I would only be able to talk them via screens, or worse, from their graves.” It took three years for her husband’s family reunification request to be approved and finally in summer of 2018, she traveled with their son to Vienna.

Soha’s story is the most somber of our interviewees. In 2014, the house that she had poured 25 years of work into was destroyed, and in 2015 the whole area was taken over by ISIS. “My family and I went to live in another suburb that was regime-held,” she told us. “We lived in an unfinished building, and used plastic UNHCR tents as makeshift walls” – a situation she shared with countless other families.

Her husband finally found a job, a miserable one, as a grave digger. She still worked as a housekeeper, but less frequently. The family paid her the same. But they couldn’t put her up because they had taken in another family. “I am generally an optimist,” she said, “and even when everything is miserable, I try to have a glass-half-full perspective.” Her eldest daughter was studying for her Syrian Matura, so she decided to study and do the exam with her. “By some miracle and slick moves, I managed to pass,” she recalled. “Finally, I had a degree with my name on it.”

Early in 2015, Soha’s sister decided to leave Syria for Europe. If she could make it to Western Europe, she had heard, she could get support and start a better life. “So she convinced me to send my 16-year-old daughter with her; given the conditions we were living under, I agreed.”

They traveled first to Turkey then on an overcrowded dingy to Lesbos, where after three months, they managed to get smuggled to Athens, and then onto the infamous Balkan route to Austria. “A year and half later, our family reunification was approved and my husband, two younger children and I got on a plane for the first time, to Istanbul and then to the Vienna.”

In the late summer and fall of 2015, hundred thousands of Syrians made their way from overcrowded refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey to Europe via the Balkans and Hungary to Austria, Germany and Sweden./(C) Wikimedia Commons

Vienna-born Zeina’s time in Damascus lasted only four years; in 2012 as the war became more violent, she and her family moved to Beirut, where their two toddlers could grow up in a safe place, but not be too far from Syria. They didn’t think the war would last long and so weren’t yet ready to move back to Europe. In 2017, that would change.

In late 2015, Jamila was still living in her home in the suburbs of Damascus: “It was one of the worst days – mortar shells were falling on the streets and one of them fell on our house. My son and I were alone and very scared; the sound was deafening and the wall broke. We raced back into an interior room. There was no time to think about happiness; there was no comfort at all.”

Jamila was still working long hours with the Red Crescent, helping the needy – providing shelter, food, first aid and psychological support. In the midst of tragedy, she only saw her coworkers: Her son would stay with his grandparents when she was at work. “My father-in-law kept paying the rent to help us, and we were exposed daily to shells and explosions.” Most activities stopped – “I no longer met my friends” – so the joy and the smiles gradually disappeared. “In that year my husband and I lost a very precious friend to the war, and after that, our life changed irreparably.”

Jamila’s husband went to Turkey to find a way to go to Europe. “My husband arrived in Vienna in early 2016, then my son and I came by plane, via a family reunification visa.” It was still a long journey. The most difficult moments were the farewells, traveling alone with a child and all the luggage, staying up all night. The most beautiful moment was meeting her husband again after a year and a half. “Of course my son had grown up and changed, and in this moment, it was worth the effort. Simply a feeling of happiness.”

Omar’s reasons for leaving were indeed difficult ones and shared by many Syrian men. With another male sibling, he would have to serve in the army for 2 years. This was in 2012 and the war had just started becoming intense. “In Syria, they took me into the military, and I stayed for 6 months (the training phase), where I was shot at twice, although not injured. After that I fled to Turkey. I did not want to be in the military, the thought of confronting protesters was a nightmare.”

Omar’s route to Vienna was tortuous and difficult. “I had a very tough journey, from Syria to Turkey, then to Egypt, then back to Turkey and to Greece then to Macedonia to Serbian to Hungary to Austria. Then I was transferred to different camps, the last one in Carinthia.”

Did anything good happen on his journey? He shook his head. “Starting with the boat from Turkey to Greece, the journey was extremely dangerous; the weather was bad, and the sea stormy (January 2012).” From southern Serbia to the north, he was transported with three other people in the boot of a Renault Megan. “So I arrived unconscious from lack of oxygen.” Through Hungary they went with three masked people with weapons. He finally arrived in Austria on the February 27, 2012. Was the journey worth it? “Yes.”

Adam moved to Egypt in 2012 when he was 14 and stayed there till he was 17. He remembers struggling to adapt to “a new life, a new school. Everything was new and difficult.” At 16 he was working as a delivery driver under the scorching Egyptian sun. Was he happy? “No,” he said “The shock of leaving Syria left us unable to enjoy anything.” For months, they were unable to adapt to the new life. Although he, his brother and his father all had pick-up jobs, it still was difficult to live a decent life in their rented flat. “My father didn’t want to freeze his life savings into a small apartment; we though that the war would end in few months.”

As we know now, the war did not end in a few months, and with time, Adam and his brother found remaining in Egypt difficult. But their parents didn’t want to go to Europe; they didn’t speak any foreign languages and had grown comfortable in Cairo.

But the young brothers felt they had no prospects in either Egypt or Syria. Egypt was just recovering from its second regime change; things were unclear, especially for someone already fleeing a country at war. The smallest thing would trigger a wave of anxiety. The brothers left for Turkey and set their sights on coming to Austria via the Balkan route.

His worst experience on the journey? Not the risk of drowning, nor the walking and getting smuggled. It was feeling his dignity crushed. “I was kicked out of a restaurant in a city along the route because apparently, ‘This is not a refugee camp’ – although I was a paying customer.” Still, it wasn’t all bad: He remembers “people helping with sandwiches, hugs, and tears.” Eventually they arrived in late 2015, during the peak of the refugee wave.

Was the journey worth it? “In retrospect, I believe having the ability to evolve on a personal and an intellectual level is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Adam said. “So yes, the freedom I now have was worth the journey. The situation in Syria only got worse.”

A New Home (2019-2021)

Our final section will discuss how Syrians have been faring in the years since they settled in Austria. Given their diversity, it would be unrealistic to assume that they have a similar lifestyle. In fact, each of our interviewees has again a completely different story.

Most Syrians in Austria are doing their best to build a better life for themselves. They appreciate the safety and ease of life in Vienna, but it is bittersweet to be uprooted, unable to even visit your home or your family. All interviewees agreed that their lives today are far better than they were in 2014, but not everyone agrees that life here is better than it was back home before the war. It was not easy to come here, nor were the first few years effortless. Language and integration were big challenges, topics covered elsewhere in this issue.

Noha, the English teacher, says, life in Austria is beautiful and safe, although her heart aches for friends and family back home. But she immediately started learning German: “I really like languages, so it didn’t feel difficult.” Finally, this year she landed a job with the Covid testing centers, “which I have been doing happily ever since.”

Before the pandemic hit, Soha, the housekeeper, had just finished her B1 German course and started working in the kitchen of a restaurant in the capital while her husband became a public bus driver. Her eldest daughter finished her Matura at 19 and has just started studying pharmacy at the university. “Since the pandemic, in a funny reversal of fate, I became the unemployed one and my husband finally became the sole breadwinner. I have to admit, while it does feel strange not to work, I am enjoying some time off and as soon as things reopen, I will go look for a job.”

When Austrian-born Zeina and her family moved back to Vienna, they bought a house near her parents and she said: “I am so grateful to be able to give my kids the Austrian experience – in all its glory! – that I was lucky to get.”

Jamila and her husband settled in Klagenfurt with their two young children. They often spend sunny days by the shores of Wörthersee, swimming, playing games, eating and enjoying the sun. At the time she was on maternity leave: “We were happy despite the pandemic, but the happiness was incomplete, as we miss our parents and friends.” Her husband’s salary was enough to pay their rent, buy essentials, and go on short holidays. She has many “favorite” places, particularly at a lake or a mountain, that helps keep her sane.

Since his tortuous journey, Omar has found a job working for major tobacco company in Vienna, and gained some valuable experience in an international work environment. He said; “For me happiness is related to the places and people I grew up with. Of course being safe and living in one of the most beautiful cities is a privilege, but I still feel something is missing.” Omar lives with his wife and daughter not too far from his brother, but hasn’t seen the other members of his family since 2012. He is an avid jogger and enjoys swimming in the Danube. In 2019 he bought a small sail boat that he takes out on the river.

Our youngest interviewee, Adam is now at university in Vienna, and living in a WG with friends. He likes to cook and watch a movie or play cards in the park. Until 2019, he had not seen his parents and youngest sister since 2015, but just before the pandemic, they finally managed to visit. His favorite spot in Vienna? “At the top of the stairs of the Albertina museum, facing the Vienna state opera house.”

And Here We Are

Eventually, what seemed to matter most to Syrians is being an active part of the Austrian society. Those who depend on state aid aren’t necessarily happy to have to depend on this help; they want to get to work and become independent, and set a good example for their children. Many had to learn new trades, so that they can get employed faster.

Some had real difficulty learning the language so they switched to construction work and other types of businesses that don’t necessarily require a B1 level in German.

Overall, Syrians are getting by; they persevere regardless of the challenges they faced, or else they wouldn’t have made it here. What is clear is that there is a will to survive; but that isn’t what pushed them to come here. Surviving and living are two different things. Many can survive in camps within Syria or its neighboring country. But that is not really living.

Choosing to cross a sea in a crowded dingy and getting smuggled in the boot of a car isn’t a decision one makes exclusively to survive. Choosing to leave your entire family behind isn’t a choice that’s exclusively about survival. When Syrians risked their lives again to come here, they did it because they had given up on life in the places where they were; it was like being stuck at a bus station waiting for a bus that never comes. You can wait for an hour, maybe two, okay maximum three. But eventually you either walk back to your starting point or you walk on into your future.

Syrians in Austria chose to walk on and risk their lives for their destination and destinies. It was a courageous thing to do. And Austria will be a better and more diverse country because of it.

*Names in this story were changed, the reported experiences are real.