MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE HOSTING REFUGEES IN AUSTRIA
Rusty, this week, I would like to share the insights of my friend living in Austria who has helped many refugees. Here is her story, which she wrote especially for the readers of the Northstar Journal. Olya
Hello, readers of the Northstar Journal. My name is Theodora Höger, I have been asked to write about my experience with refugees in Austria. I am a young woman and I share my home with refugees. It is my story and the story of two Afghan boys whose names I would rather not mention to protect their privacy.
It’s been about a year and a half since I first got involved with refugees. In 2015, when so many of them came, I first brought some clothes and shoes. Help was needed, so a friend of mine and I decided to stay to distribute the donations to incoming refugees. We handed out so many clothes, and people kept coming in, that I didn’t even realize that I had been working from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. without even so much as taking a break.
So many people were truly thankful for our help. I saw little children arriving without their parents and without knowing where they were. It was heart- breaking. I remember telling one baby’s mother that she should take more winter clothes – I really had to convince her to take them because she was so modest. The baby hadn’t even had shoes on its feet. At 3 degrees Celsius (37 °F) outside.
I also met two men in their twenties, well-educated, and less happy about my choice of clothes for them – they had obviously been wealthy where they came from. Repeatedly, they asked me in fluent Spanish to give them nicer clothes. I couldn’t and it annoyed me that they kept coming back, but then I thought about it for a while and I realized we all want to be well dressed. I do as well. And getting yourself something nice or experiencing something pleasant, whatever it is, can sometimes really get you through a hard day.
And they’ve had their share of hard days on their way to Europe, walking thousands of miles, leaving their loved ones behind and risking their lives to find a safer place to live here and get their families to safe Europe. I couldn’t possibly imagine what they had been going through. I’d been spending my whole life, 30 years, in quiet Austria where one of the biggest issues is who Austria’s oldest It Guy is taking to the famous Viennese Opera Ball. I couldn’t really blame them. Clothes are one thing, friendship another
I soon afterwards decided that just donating clothes or handing them out wasn’t enough, though. It was only logical: they weren’t just going to stay here for a few days or weeks. They were going to live here. There are wars going on where they come from. So I realized they would need a lot more than just some things to wear or a warm meal. They would have to learn German, which is said to be one of the most difficult languages, and they would need a lot of friends if they didn’t want to feel isolated and if they should ever really learn how our society here in Austria works.
So how was I going to do this? One night I was looking through my news feed on Facebook and I saw an ad by an NGO: They were offering free classes to become a (more or less) qualified support for a young refugee. I knew it was going to be tough at times and I had to be prepared for this. If that was possible at all. I wanted to know what exactly the challenges would be.
So they taught me and about 40 other people about legal issues and about the psychological challenges that refugees are facing. Also, they got us in touch with people who had already been supporting refugees at that time. One of the families had a refugee living with them too. I wasn’t quite sure if I would go as far as that, but found their attitude admirable. After the classes, I was more determined than ever to do what I had planned. A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail from an NGO that housed refugees asking me if I’d be the mentor of a boy from Afghanistan.
This would involve meeting at least twice a month. Their home was only a 10 minutes’ walk away from where I lived so I accepted immediately. A few days after that, I first met him: he was almost 17 years old, looked earnest and somehow old and young at the same time. He didn’t speak my language at all. And I didn’t speak his. We both were skeptical if this was going to work out. But we kept trying.
It took a lot of time for me to earn his trust. He had been going through terrible things with the Taliban. He’d had to look after himself for a long time, being better off not trusting anybody. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it: seeing how he gradually opened up was a wonderful experience. He soon met my family – my grandmother, who was in her early twenties when the Russian soldiers occupied Austria, and my father. We celebrated Easter together, looking for chocolate bunnies in the garden. The boy and his best friend, who lived in the same home for minors, had a lot of fun, although they probably thought that Austrians are crazy folk hiding chocolate in the grass. We had to decide quickly.
When his best friend turned 18, he was now legally an adult and couldn’t stay at the home for minors any longer. After being passed on from one shelter to another within the past half year or so, he had to leave his home again. He was doing his German course and had only just settled in my town when they forced him to leave. When he arrived in the new “organized accommodation” (a euphemism used for refugee shelters), he was scared of all the other people who lived there: he saw how they abused alcohol as a result of having no perspective whatsoever.
The shelter was in a small village in the middle of the forest with little connection to the outside world and no German language course or other possibilities to spend time in a useful way. He was, once again, afraid for his life and ran away. I heard of this, of course, as I also knew him so I made a few calls and soon after, it was clear that my family was going to offer him a place to sleep. We had to decide quickly, as he was going to sleep on the streets rather than going back, as he told us. I could hear the fear in his voice.
So he stayed with us. I could neither bear thinking about how “my” boy was suffering, nor that a young adult, who was actually still a more of a child, had to sleep on the streets because he was afraid for his life. And I realized that “my” boy had really become a part of my family so I offered him to move into my flat when he was going to turn 18 too. I certainly did not want to let anyone tear the two boys apart. Nor take them away from their new family, where they were slowly starting to feel safe. They hadn’t been able to trust anyone for a long time and I was definitely going to do everything that they would get back to normal lives as fast as possible. Going through tough times made us stronger.
My boy’s friend had returned from his interrogation. Only two weeks after (a relatively short time-span), the decision came: they didn’t want him to stay in Austria. The reasons were flimsy, to say the least. We made an appeal and the case is still not closed. The lawyer told us this would take another half year or maybe up to a year. A year without a status, in which he is not really allowed to get a job.
His German was already pretty decent at the time, he had some Austrian friends. The negative decision was completely unforeseen and came as a shock to all of us. Only two weeks after, one of my closest friends died in a terrible accident. He was only 28 years old. The boys were shocked as much as I was. They liked him a lot too and we all had to go through several weeks of pain and suffering. However, looking back at this now, my friend’s last good deed (he was always a very kind, helpful and warm-hearted person with a sensitive soul) was to bring me and the boys even closer together. If we hadn’t been a family before, we definitely were one now. We saw each other at our worst, yet we still managed to stick together and help each other go through hell and come back to life. Just when we had recovered, my boy was summoned to the interrogation for refugees. Every refugee here in Austria has to attend an interrogation, where he or she has to explain why and how they came here. They get a legal decision between two weeks and one year after the interview, telling them whether they can stay or have to leave the country. Now we had to face it too.
Needless to say, we both were nervous when the letter came. I was hoping that he would overcome the nervousness to not confuse facts. I thought a lot about how I sometimes forget to say things when I’m extremely nervous and then regret not saying them afterwards. He always seemed much more relaxed about it, but that’s just the way he is: he always appears very calm. So while I couldn’t sleep properly, he was taking German lessons and joking around with me. Then the day of the interrogation came. They made us wait, but they weren’t unfriendly at all. They were patient; almost kind. He told them his story calmly. I hadn’t fully understood his story up to then because he was still learning German (eagerly but slowly as he had never been to school before and sitting down to study was a whole new challenge for him). I was not allowed to say anything or touch him. I just sat there and listened to his story in Dari (his language, which I already understood a bit) and then in German in the interpreter’s voice. The words turned into a movie in front of my eyes – I saw the Taliban, the shootings, everything. After the interrogation was over, all I could do was hug him. Since we’re both not really the sentimental types, we decided to simply have a great rest of the day. A few months later, he was the first boy in the whole shelter who got a positive decision: he was allowed to stay in Austria for a year, with the possibility to prolong his “subsidiary protection”, as this system of making people go through a lot of paperwork regularly is called. It was still a great relief after this exceptionally weird summer.
THE STORY CONTINUES
Now, his German is improving daily. He already has plans for the future. In spring, he is going to move into my guest room. He has turned into a young man who enjoys good jokes, ice-skating, football (or soccer, as you would say in America), and Nintendo games (something I introduced him to). I know that I am particularly blessed with my boy. He is a good kid. And, yes, probability calculus tells me that not all refugees can be good people. But I have met many of them and none of them would have ever harmed me. Ever. They invited me to their flats, shared recipes, tea and good laughs with me, taught me their language, and I helped them learn mine. From my experience, I can only say that being open to others and moving out of my own comfort zone are the best decisions one can possibly make. Perhaps I’m only saying this because I’m a biologist, but we humans are ONE species. Homo sapiens. That’s “wise man” in Latin. Let’s all be a bit wise: let’s help each other and be patient with each other. Regardless of where we come from and who we are. Because all of us have got an interesting story to tell or a great joke to share, no matter where we are from. And because all of us need help every once in a while and we’re grateful, when somebody makes an effort to understand us and be there for us.
For those of you who don’t know Austria, here’s an introduction to my home country, a small piece of land in Central Europe about the size of South Carolina: Whenever I talk to people from abroad and I mention that I’m from Austria, the first things that are thrown at me are The Sound of Music, Mozart, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hitler. However, Austria is so much more than its stereotypes. In fact, we have a pretty decent Better Life Index; all of us have access to health insurance, free education (yes, you can become a PhD for free here in Austria), and most of us enjoy voluntary work in various fields – even most of our firefighters do their job in their free time! I could go on and on about Austria, but this is not what you want to read here (maybe some other time) – so, in a nutshell: I think everyone who can live here in this tiny country is fortunate, if not privileged, in comparison to most of the world’s population.
Austria is a multi-national, multi-religious place. In 2015, we’ve experienced a refugee “crisis” (at least that’s how the media dubbed the people from mainly Syria and Afghanistan who came to Austria to save their lives). There have been a lot of rumors that turned out to be totally fake news. So, it is probably about time that people like me, who actually spend time with refugees on a day-to-day basis and really see what’s happening on a grassroots level, make themselves heard”
Hopefully this will help us understand that Austria is definitely more than the country described in the viral video Austria Second Willkommen Österreich
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HI AGAIN, FOLKS FROM THE SHORES OF THE SALISH SEA.
Well, it’s been an interesting week on the national political scene. I learned a long time ago that if I follow it too closely, I get motion sick. Nope, not an image to frame and sit on the mantle.
I’m listening to a National Public Radio story about Democratic/Liberal Party activists going to town halls in New England and disrupting them using tactics they say they learned from the Tea Party. They said that while it is admittedly interfering with the free commerce of government, it is important ~ they insist ~ to get the word out that Trump’s Way is not “the” way.
I have my own mixed reaction to that and since this is commentary, I’m not going to even try to be objective about it. So, first of all, I am not a fan of loud noises, crowds or violence. I marched in Seattle during the Rodney King protests and attended a mass prayer meeting in a black Baptist church. That was cool. When the Mounted Police showed up, we moved to the sidewalk.
The WTO riots were entirely different. Outsiders came in with the express purpose of “getting the word out.” They were very good and they interfaced with local protests groups. As an aside, you can tell the difference quite easily.
The “outside agitator” and thank you J. Edgar Hoover for that quaint term, is better dressed and looks like REI’s image. They’re cleaner, more articulate and they smoke pot right out in public. They also have a distinctly academic manner about that that reminds me of those propaganda posters of Che Guevara with an AK-47 in one hand and the Communist Manifesto in the other.
Probably because marijuana has always been an omniscient as the weather in the shadow, our protestors tend to turn out in Birkenstocks or running shoes, sweat pants or Levis and, invariably, a hoodie. They are also the ones who dress in layers and look like garage sale manikins. We recycle clothes in Seattle until the thread itself dies and goes to Heaven.
They are also extremely fragrance conscious. To outside agitators, tear gas often acts as an aphrodisiac. Our local agitators, on the other hand, live in one of the most aromatic places in the world and the smell of teargas, mace, urine, sweat and blood does not ~ in anyway, shape or form ~ turn them on. So they tend to avoid behaviors which produce this witches’ brew.
They also tend not to smash the windows of major department stores, restaurants or other businesses they patronize. These, for the most part, endure regardless of what else is going on in human society. There’s an avian expression involving littering one’s own nest and our local activists tend to not do that either.
But I think perhaps the biggest thing that distinguishes our local activists from outside agitators is that when the marching, the speeches, the praying, when all that concludes, they go home to their friends and families, eat lots of pizza, watch themselves on the evening new and then, go back to just being them and carrying on.
Have a great week, gang, and thanks for the ear. Rusty Miller
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Rusty Miller and Olya Bereza, editors. I’m an author, editor, writer and photojournalist in Seattle, Washington. Olya, who was born in the Soviet Union, now lives in Ukraine and is fluent in English, Russian and Ukrainian. She is a degreed psychologist with a background in international marketing and personnel management.
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