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Celebrating immigration with fashion

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Celebrating immigration with fashion
Iulia (left) and Andra, wearing one of their scarves. Photo: canajvisuals.com
12:13 CET+01:00
Iulia Mugescu is a young entrepreneur from Romania, who has lived in Vienna for over five years. Together with fellow Romanian Andra Slaats she founded Younited Cultures, a Vienna-based social enterprise that designs and produces fashion accessories to raise awareness about the value immigrants bring to Austrian society.
She spoke to The Local about why she believes cultural background should not be a barrier to success.
 
What inspired you to start this project?
 
When I first came to Austria I was so scared of being pigeon-holed as a Romanian, of being judged by the stereotypes, that I only socialised with other Romanians. But then I realised that 20 percent of Austrian society is made up of migrants. In Vienna, 49 percent - almost every second person - has a migrant background.
 
This is a global trend, which is growing, but unfortunately migrants are usually portrayed in a negative light in the media. There is a problem where many migrants are afraid to mix with Austrians, and vice versa. And then there is also prejudice. But our cultural background shouldn’t define our success. Almost one in three entrepreneurs in Austria has a migration background - and increasingly English is the language of business for new start-ups.
 
Why do you think so many migrants become entrepreneurs?
 
Many immigrants end up starting their own companies as they have trouble finding a job in Austria - and then of course they end up employing other people. Many Romanians who come here are skilled workers - IT specialists, architects, electricians, etc… but it can be hard to find a job. I noticed when I was applying for jobs that my Romanian name put prospective employers off - so as an experiment I sent in identical CVs - one with my real name and the other with a more Austrian sounding name. I got many more responses to the one with the fake name.
 
Now I work part-time from the Impact Hub, which was set up in Vienna in 2010 as a way of helping entrepreneurs and start-ups. It provides networking opportunities and affordable co-working office space and workshop rooms.
 
The majority of entrepreneurs in Austria with a migration background come from Poland, Romania and Hungary - but we want to look beyond Eastern Europe and discover other stories as well.
 
What are the challenges migrants face?
 
Leaving your friends and family, having to save up money, coming to a place where you perhaps can hardly afford to pay the rent, and you don’t know anybody - it’s even a challenge just getting a phone. Often the bureaucracy in Austria makes it difficult for migrants as their qualifications aren’t recognised. It would be great if migrants were actually celebrated for overcoming these obstacles and contributing to society, which many do!
 
Tell us more about your project.
 
We want to unite cultures, and for every culture we want to identify a migrant who has an inspiring story - and spread the word of that story through a beautiful, original scarf that they design together with an Austrian designer. The scarf tells the story of how they left their home and made a new life in Austria, contributing to society in some way.
 
We wanted to challenge the perception that people come here because there are so many jobs, or because of the good social services, or to make money on the black market - many people come to study or come with their partner, and end up making a home here. 
 
The scarves are all produced in Austria, using sustainable standards. Any profit made from the sale of the scarves is reinvested in events aimed at helping young people with an immigrant background. 
 
Could you give us an example of one of the stories you celebrate?
 
Our Polish success story came to Austria because she fell in love - and when that relationship ended she decided she wanted to stay and make her home here, even though she didn’t speak German or have friends. She worked as a cleaning lady and a waitress for ten years. But rather than being depressed that she wasn’t achieving her goals she saw it as an experience to see how migration works and learn about Austrian society. Eventually she started to work with a migration institution and she now organises a very big career fair, which helps more than 3,000 young migrants start their careers and aims to bring innovation to the Austrian labour market.
  
What do you like about living in Vienna?
 
It’s so ordered and cultured. Everything runs very well in Vienna, public transport and housing is great, and it feels very safe. I think it’s becoming more open and accepting and people here are generally very well educated. I feel like you really have the possibility to do anything here. I also love Austria’s traditions and customs, and if someone had told me that wearing a dirndl, learning German and learning to waltz would endear me to Austrians I would have done all of those things five years ago!
 
Anyone who wants to contribute to the project is invited to become part of Younited Culture’s online community.  
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