Time Out: Thoughts on Austria’s Minority and Immigrant Population

Traveling on the road allows you to stay in touch or out of touch with the news. It wasn’t until my daughter informed me that there was a refugee crisis of monumental proportions happening right under my nose that I started checking the NY Times. While it has been in the German news on a daily basis, the effects of refugees haven’t been felt in the cities where I have been traveling…yet.

Ironically, I wrote the following piece below (on Day 31) when I first arrived in Vienna over two weeks ago. It got shelved because I thought there would be little interest in this topic. I decided to publish it now so I can share my thoughts about immigration in this part of the world with you. Please bear in mind that it was written prior to the events that have taken place and with little research.

It suddenly struck me when one of the students commented about his train from Vienna to Schwäbisch Hall being stopped for three hours at the border last week. He was allowed to continue travel but refugees were returned to the border of Hungary from where he had traveled. By then, I had already left Austria the week before and was in Switzerland when I first heard about the truck of refugees that were discovered.

Day 31: Thoughts on Austria’s Minority and Immigrant Population

Austrians speaking German. Turkish speaking German. Africans and Asians speaking German? I am finding a fascinating array of backgrounds and experiences among the resident population here and in Germany.

One of my first conversations with an immigrant living in Europe was back in China. Gee kin and I were on a train going from Shanghai to Huang Shan, a beautiful mountain with misty Chinese landscapes like the ones you see in paintings (except they really look like that).

We met a young college student who was going to Germany to learn German. It struck us as very odd. Coming here today clarifies for me this person’s intent from twenty years ago. The Chinese diaspora (which, let’s face it, must be by numbers relative to the population in China the biggest in the world) is an endless tale of the supply and demand chain. Chinese provide excellent skilled and unskilled labor to each country, and the Chinese immigrants can raise their children in relative peace and prosperity.

Once you arrive in Vienna, the capital of Austria, you can’t but notice the large minority population resident in this country. How did they come here? What is it like to live here as an immigrant? Do they see a future here?

The evidence of this is not by the tourists swarming these European cities, but by the stroller population. There are young African mothers, Middle Eastern mothers, Chinese and Asian mothers, with kids. They get on and off the underground and the buses that I am taking. They aren’t tourists; from their conversations they live here.

I am attaching a site that helps to put perspective on my questions: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/austria-country-immigration. I had also overlooked the Eastern European immigrants and their conflicts. Granted, this article is dated and didn’t seem to address the influx of Middle Eastern population that came subsequently, but it gives an overview of immigration in Austria at the time it was written.

I had a funny experience going to the Mozart concert the other night at the opera house. I purchased a ticket to an all-Mozart “variety show” so I could see a performance and the Vienna opera house. The musicians and attendants were all dressed up in Mozart-era costumes. Some employees touting tickets to tourists were Middle Easterners wearing white powdered wigs. It seemed silly, until you realized it was a job.

Austria has always had a fixation on wealth and the privileged class, just as the US has become (thanks to Austria’s namesake Arnold Schwarzneggar and others like him). And because of immigration in the past 50 years, Austria is now facing similar integration and assimilation issues that plagued the US since the Sixties.

In the mid-70’s, I came to Vienna on a tour with my mother and sister. Two young Indian sisters on the tour asked me to accompany them to visit their relatives in a refugee camp outside Vienna. Because I purportedly spoke German, they asked me to join them. While I wasn’t of much assistance, it was an eye opener for me. The camp consisted of people packed in tents and blanket plots, as densely placed as those at San Francisco’s Opera in the Park.

As Ugandan natives, their relatives were being purged from their own country during one of Idi Amin’s brutal campaigns. Although they were S. Asian by descent, they had never lived or been to India. Fifty years later, refugees like these are no longer refugees. Very few were ever repatriated to countries they claimed, such as the UK, US or other developed country. Although once “temporary” refugees, they are now second and third generation residents of Austria. They are no different from my history in America. Yet I wonder whether these new Austrians have the same benefits and respect in their country that I receive in the U.S.

For Middle Eastern immigrants, the recent influence is evident in Austrian hotels. Visitors who come here to visit relatives watch Aljizeera and a number other Middle East stations, which are represented on Cable TV. Their presence is noticeable in the hotel lobbies, where they visit with relatives. You realize how many more people are traveling back and forth between these parts of the world and Europe than in the US.

While these are all random impressions, they form a pattern. It raises questions about whether these once immigrants and now residents are integrated into society and being treated fairly. The US is no shining example, but perhaps it has had the advantage of dealing with immigration over a long time and many nationalities. Maybe there were a few good men to contribute to this cause.

As a small country of 8 million people, Austria’s proximity to the Middle East and Africa makes it a destination for immigrants. Germany, with 80 million residents, is in a similar situation. After I struck a conversation with a bus driver going to the monastery today in Linz where I was staying, I asked him whether he needed to speak English to many tourists. He remarked, “No. Turkish.” When I pursued why that answer, he said, “just a joke.”

Austria will have to tackle this problem now, as it unfolds.

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