The countries of Europe are faced with tidal waves of newcomers, bringing with them different values, unfamiliar cultures, and untried skills that must now be factored into daily life

Picture a room: Twenty-two young men, six chairs, four whiteboards, no desks. And a young woman. The men, aged 16 to 25, are from Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, Iran and Morocco. The woman, Charlotte, is Anglo-Austrian, 24, fair-haired and enthusiastic. What ensues over the next two hours is critical. Not for her, but for these young men and for our society.

Charlotte talks to the group in German (her second native tongue) swirling through the room, trailed by the young men in a lively game of “I spy with my little eye” with German vocabulary.

If anything can capture the contrast between the horrifying events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne and the reality on the ground with young refugees in Vienna, it is this little room on a Tuesday night in camp Erdberg. They are indeed nearly all Muslim, Arab and male, but at the same time, extraordinarily respectful and eager to learn.

A challenge neatly managed?

Since September, Charlotte has led the Kids Corner of the Train of Hope refugee center at the Viennese Hauptbahnhof, the Central Rail Station. On average, she has spent 35 hours a week there as a volunteer, alongside her part-time job as an English teacher. Now she is teaching German for Deutsch ohne Grenzen (German without borders).

“Working with refugees gave me a life purpose,” she says.  “Feeling that I was, quite literally, improving the lives of some of the youngest refugees gave me a level of self-confidence that I have never had before.”

The extraordinary commitment of the volunteers has been the backbone of Austria’s effort to manage last year’s influx of 90,000 refugees. Less certain is how the society at large – the media, the government and a population oscillating between generosity and fear – will cope with the challenges. Since the events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, this debate has become more difficult.

Crowds and Power

Since the shocking revelations of massive group violence against women – including sexual assault and robbery – a clearer picture has slowly emerged: Over 1000 migrant men including many refugees, more than 600 criminal complaints.  It is a story of crowds and power, cultural dysfunction mixed with alcohol and a police force reluctant to act forcefully on New Year’s Eve. Overwhelmed, they reported never having encountered hooliganism and aggression on this scale.

Awful as it was, many were relieved that at last, it was possible to talk about the dangers and risks of failed integration.  “Can Germany be Honest about its Refugee Problems?” asked Jochen Bittner, political editor of the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit in the title of his Editorial “It’s our values vs. their rights,” wrote Christian Rainer in the Austrian news magazine Profil.  In Austria, as in Germany, the discussion is complicated and difficult.

In December, a screening of some 30 out of 150 Islamic kindergartens in Vienna discovered many offering only Islamic religious education, often not in German. The survey, commissioned by the Austrian Foreign Ministry and carried out by Ednan Aslan of the University of Vienna, found most operators secretive and some with links with extremist groups.  In Germany, policewoman Tania Kambouri, herself of Greek extraction, hit a nerve with her book Deutschland im Blaulicht, where she recounted her experiences of extreme disrespect towards the police and women among pockets of society with a migration background.

In the aftermath of Cologne, local police have conceded long-standing crime problems with North African immigrants, questioning both police competence and commitment to transparency. It was these young men, most with no hope for asylum and outside any cultural framework of values and restraints they understood, who turned the New Year’s Eve celebrations into a nightmare.

Still, this seems far away from the experiences of the committed volunteers, up to 70% women, according to one study, helping refugees every day in Vienna.

“I have never felt ignored or looked down upon by any refugee I have worked with because of my sex. I have never once felt threatened,” affirms Charlotte.

Refugees and solidarity, the other way around

Nevertheless, the events of Cologne have turbocharged a debate already prone to extremes.  Cool-headed arguments for humanitarian aid find less traction now, even amid consistently low crime rates (Syrians 0,5 %; Iraqis 2 %) among most refugee groups.  In their own defense, refugees have tried to counter the negative narrative by demonstrating against sexual violence and handing out flowers to women.Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 22.03.15

Excesses by Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians with crime rates over40% however, sound alarm bells. Though relatively small as a percentage, their acts severely strain the public trust. In addition, the confirmation that major terrorist attacks in London, Amsterdam, and twice last year in Paris have been committed by second and third generation immigrants put Europe’s past integration strategies further in doubt. These fears should be taken seriously.

“We only want to fit in”

“There are good people and bad people among refugees, as among every other big population,” says Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who has lived in Vienna for two years. “We wanted freedom, and we got war. Now we only want to fit in here in Austria, get a chance. We don’t want to cause trouble.” Ahmad already speaks relatively good German, despite having had to wait an entire year for a language course at the AMS, the Austrian employment office.

Housing remains one of the biggest issues for refugees here, he says. In his flat, he also houses a good friend and two of his younger cousins who recently fled to Austria.

“They give you your asylum paper and then you are on the streets. Yes, you get money, but nobody is willing to rent to a refugee.” After a complicated haggle with his landlord who was actually subletting, Ahmad was nearly evicted in December. Now he has found another flat in the 23rd District.

Work & Support

Meanwhile, the Viennese AMS has ratcheted up its efforts to integrate refugees into the labor market. Beginning with the language. Some 30,000 places in German courses will be offered in 2016. Teachers are coached to look for integration problems – tied, said program director Petra Draxl, not so much to religion as to social attitudes – and to address them openly.

Justine Wolf, headmistress of an elementary school with six new pupils from refugee families, has had similar experiences. “The parents are polite and grateful, and the children learn very quickly. However, we received no additional hours for teaching German as a foreign language, nothing.”

A recently published “test of competencies” of nearly 1000 refugees in Vienna reports that over 50 percent of Syrians have completed secondary school, of whom half also have a university degree. In contrast, Afghans are poorly educated, with 30 percent having no schooling at all. But they are often keen to learn, teachers say.

“We have no problems to motivate young refugees for apprenticeships at all”, says Winfried Göschl, deputy director of AMS Vienna. “Also, we are confident of quickly integrating highly educated immigrants into the labor market. What is crucial is to reach out to them as early as possible.” The AMS, too, he said, is very understaffed.

Back to Erdberg

In Erdberg, Charlotte’s German lesson draws to an end. Next week there will be chairs and desks, promises Javid, a native Afghan, who fled to Austria 10 years ago and is now leading the organization “We Can”, which provides help for refugees.

As the room is emptying, 17-year-old Afridi from Pakistan proudly tells of how he always finishes first in his HTL (Polytechnic school) workshop. “I want to become an electrical engineer,” he asserts. Then he smirks and asks timidly, how to say “I love you” in French. The girl he likes and is texting with, he explains, lives in Paris. “Je t’aime,” he repeats, with a smile on his face as he walks out of the room and into his new life in Europe.

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Born 1991, studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as a free journalist in Vienna and finishing his Master's degree in Global History. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history.Photo: Visual Hub